SAN ANTONIO - The other day, David Robinson was asked about his willingness over the years to defer to Tim Duncan as leader of the San Antonio Spurs.
Given the track record of players his age, 37, who perhaps stayed too long at the party and were unwilling to get off the dance floor when it was time, the question wasn't all that far-fetched.
Yet, Robinson faced the questioner with a look that said, "Duh, isn't that what I'm supposed to do?"
"Right from the get-go, I knew his [Duncan's] talent was going to be on the offensive end of the basket," said Robinson, who will retire at the end of this season. "Everybody talks about me sacrificing my game. I didn't really think I was sacrificing my game. I just thought, if we want to win, this is the way we need to play.
"As the years have gone on, he's gotten better and better and our team has gotten better and better. So I think basically you have to put the team together and make it work the best way it can, and I think our team right now is working the best way it can."
As the Spurs head east for Game 3 of the NBA Finals against the New Jersey Nets tonight at Continental Airlines Arena, Robinson would really appreciate it if you would stop patting him on the back, especially since all he's ever done, in his own mind at least, is what he was supposed to do.
From his days in college, when he stayed at Navy rather than opt out when he grew too tall for submarine duty, to deferring his entry in the NBA to fulfill his two-year military commitment, to playing on three Olympic teams when many of his peers eschewed playing on one, Robinson has consistently been about doing what is right.
Earlier in his career, that meant Robinson being the fulcrum of the Spurs' attack on both ends of the floor. Robinson did that to the hilt, winning Rookie of the Year honors in 1990, the Defensive Player of the Year designation in 1992 and the Most Valuable Player trophy in 1995.
Robinson, named to the NBA's "50 Greatest Players" list in 1997, might very well have gone on as the unquestioned leader of the Spurs even when Duncan arrived from Wake Forest in the 1997-98 season as the first overall pick in that year's draft.
After all, it's not as if there weren't other aging and formerly dominant players who refused to pass the torch on to a rising newcomer. But right off the bat, Robinson realized that a new sheriff had come to San Antonio.
"I'm pretty much a realist," said Robinson, the first pick of the 1987 draft. "I've always been that way. I take things very, very literally all the time. The reality, the fact is, Tim Duncan is 10 years younger than me. You know there's going to be a transition at some point, so the thing is not to fight it.
"I kind of liken it to a marriage. You know, your wife can do things because she's different from you. She'll do things that will kind of wear on your nerves or you can take up an understanding that there are things to complement, things I'm not as strong at that she is. You know, you could say, `That helps me out; you know what, you complete me,' and that's how it is with Tim Duncan. You can say, `You know what, Tim, you complete me, you're the balance.' "
Robinson led the Spurs in scoring in Duncan's rookie year, but after that more of the offense began to run through Duncan, and Robinson's shot totals steadily decreased.
It was a natural progression that had to happen for the Spurs, who won the 1999 NBA title, to continue to be successful, but it wouldn't have been a smooth one if Robinson hadn't been so accommodating.
"I think it [reducing Robinson's role] would be very difficult, but knowing David and knowing his focus on what he wants to get done, he's always about winning," Duncan said. "He just wants to win. He wants to make the team better, and with that in mind, I don't think it was that difficult. I thought he transitioned very well, and he made it work to his advantage. We've been better because of it."
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich says he's never had to have a meeting to tell Robinson what was happening, because the center understood what was going on. Duncan, on the other hand, had to be pulled into the limelight.
"Tim was also smart," Popovich said. "He deferred to David consistently, constantly, and I had to do more work with Tim to get him to understand, `No, you're really good. No, we're throwing you the ball. No, we are going to throw it to you every time,' and he would be sort of embarrassed. I would have to tell him to do it again and he was a pain in the neck, and he was classy because he deferred, but it was a good problem to have."
In recent seasons, an ailing back has slowed Robinson considerably. This season's average of 8.5 points a game is easily the worst of his career, and his role has become so limited that most of his fourth-quarter minutes go to Malik Rose. And Robinson admits that it's too painful to look at box scores now, as the player listed in them as David Robinson no longer resembles the David Robinson he used to be.
But there are still moments where the old David Robinson gets to come out and play. In Wednesday's Game 1, Robinson, with six days' rest from the Western Conference finals, had his strongest performance of the playoffs with 14 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots.
It was a blast from the past, and it couldn't have come at a better time.
"If I'm able to move like that, get some things done like that, it makes us very, very difficult to beat," Robinson said. "I'm just going to continue to try to give them everything I have [with] seven games left, six games left. I'm going to have some fun."
A look at David Robinson's career totals in a few key categories, along with his all-time NBA rank where applicable:
Points 20,790 24th
Rebounds 10,497 25th
Blocks 2,954 4th
Assists 2,441 NR
Field goals 7,365 NR
Minutes 34,271 NR
Games 987 NR
FG % .518 NR