Spurs' nice guy to finish first

Up 3-1, Robinson finds vindication from tag of being gentle giant


NEW YORK -- His biceps are massive, making him a cover candidate for "Muscle and Fitness" magazine. And he's incredibly long. When he unfolded his 7-foot-1 frame and stood up yesterday, there was a noticeable gap between the bottom of his sweat pants and the top of his sneaker.

On sight alone, David Robinson would appear to be one of the most dominant players in the NBA. And over a 10-year career he has proven as much, although he hasn't been devoid of criticism. He's been called "too nice," not tough enough. And critics have harped on his inability to win big games, most noticeably the 1995 Western Conference finals when, as the league MVP, he was completely outplayed by Hakeem Olajuwon.

Yes, the gentle giant admitted yesterday, the criticism over the years has hurt.

"Definitely when people question your ability to get things done -- people would say something about me that I knew was not true," Robinson said. "I mean, I'm the most competitive person I know. When people question your desire to be out there on the floor, that bothers you. It bothered me."

Robinson is soon to have the last word for all his critics. In fact, complete vindication for the San Antonio Spurs center may come as soon as tonight if the team, leading three games to one, is able to wrap up the 1999 NBA title with a win over the New York Knicks.

In one sense Robinson doesn't want to discuss what the team is on the verge of, as the mission is still one game from completion. On the other hand, the Naval Academy graduate is so close to his professional goal that you can see the sense of excitement in his eyes, and hear it in his voice.

"It feels great, it's pretty exciting," Robinson said. "I try not to think about it too much because we still have a lot of work to do.

"But each game, I was thinking, `We're four games away, we're three games away, we're two games away, we're one game away,' " Robinson added. "You get a little bit more excited and more excited. It's nice."

And it has to be particularly satisfying for a guy who, as recently as this past season, many felt was close to being washed up.

Robinson, 33, failed to demonstrate his athleticism for much of the regular season. And put in a role as primarily a defensive player with the sudden development of Tim Duncan, it seemed Robinson was being phased out.

And he heard about it, especially when the team started with a 6-8 record.

"People, the only thing that satisfies people are results -- it's just always about the bottom line," Robinson said. "If you don't win, then they're going to have some criticism for you."

While the current Spurs could be considered Duncan's team, it's unlikely San Antonio would be on the verge of an NBA title without the play of Robinson.

Against the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round, Robinson sacrificed his offensive game to battle Shaquille O'Neal. In Wednesday's Game 4 win over New York that all but put the series out of reach, Robinson battled around the boards like a human pogo stick, with 14 points, four blocks and 17 rebounds.

Nine rebounds came on the offensive end, which is impressive considering he had just one offensive rebound in the first three games of the finals combined.

"David was just a monster," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "I'm so happy for him because he showed a lot of people what he could do. A lot of people counted him out this year for reasons I'm still trying to figure out."

There was a time two years ago when Robinson was experiencing a bit of self-doubt. A lower back strain forced him to miss the first 18 games of the 1996-97 season, and when he was finally activated he played limited minutes in just six games.

During that stretch Robinson broke a bone in his left foot, forcing him to miss the rest of the season.

"No question, that was a big concern," was Robinson's response, when asked whether the back injury brought thoughts of retirement. "You don't realize how much of a role your back plays in everything you do.

"Bending over to pick up my kids or brushing my teeth was difficult," he added. "When you think about going out there and bumping and grinding with big 270-pound guys, definitely some question marks arose in my head. I was wondering if I was going to ever reach the same level again."

In a way, missing most of that season led Robinson to his dream of a title.

Without Robinson the Spurs went from 59 wins to 20. Then the team got lucky in the draft, "winning" the draft lottery in the pick that later became Duncan, who is now considered the best player in the NBA.

"I remember where I was [during the draft lottery], I was in Hawaii when we found out we got the first pick," Robinson said. "I knew Tim was a great player, but I didn't really know how good his skills were."

The pairing of the two has reaped dividends. And even if Duncan were not in a San Antonio uniform, Robinson would still be considered one of the top centers in the league today -- although he might not be this close to a championship.

For Robinson, the countdown to a title might be concluded tonight. Asked yesterday if, by winning a championship, he could relate to the infamous line from the movie "Jerry Maguire" -- "You complete me" -- Robinson laughed.

"This is something, part of my career, that really balances it," he said. "And it gives justification to all the work, the time that you put in.

"But no, I think I'm pretty complete before the championship," he added. "I didn't feel incomplete last year, and I don't think I would feel incomplete without it."

NBA Finals

San Antonio vs. New York (San Ant. leads series 3-1)

Game 1: S.A. 89, N.Y. 77

Game 2: S.A. 80, N.Y. 67

Game 3: N.Y. 89, S.A. 81

Game 4: S.A. 96, N.Y. 89

Tonight: at New York, 9

Sunday: at San Ant., 7: 30*

Tuesday: at San Antonio, 9* *-If necessary

TV: Chs. 11, 4

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