Tales of the admirable Admiral
Pop, you must understand, used to have such a low threshold of tolerance for the media (he has softened considerably in that regard in the past few years) that he would take a fiendish delight in bullying, belittling and brushing off any and all queries that gave even the slightest hint that the questioner's IQ was in the lower triple digits.
So, that was the lay of the land on a brutally scorching morning more than six years ago in San Antonio when I drove out to the Spurs' practice facility during the 2003 Western Conference finals against Dallas to write an early story on David Robinson's impending retirement, a piece that would stand up for those news outlets planning to publish before that night's game would conclude.
For me, the 2002-03 season had been the Year of the Flashbulb, a seven-month stint of sojourns to various NBA outposts to chronicle the final year of Michael Jordan's career. I was at the All-Star Game in Atlanta that would have had an utterly Jordanesque fairy-tale finish after he hit what looked to be the game winner late in regulation (a last-second foul sent Kobe Bryant to the line, however, and he sank two of three free throws to send the game to overtime), and I was on the baseline in Philadelphia, right under the basket no more than 22 feet from Jordan in mid-April when he scored the final point of his career from the foul line.
The flashbulb factor cannot be overstated because, back in those days before everyone had a cell phone with a camera built in, the low-maintenance, popular method of recording a moment for posterity's sake was to purchase a disposable camera, snap the 16 shots and take them to the 1-hour photo developer.
It was not uncommon when covering Jordan that season to be blinded by all the flashbulbs going off simultaneously, but with Robinson -- who also was playing the final season of an illustrious career -- there was none of the same hoopla, none of the over-the-top, iconic adulation that fueled so much of the nationwide Jordan coverage that season.
This was a dynamic that made sense, given Jordan's stature in the game, his accomplishments, his superior talent level -- not to mention that everyone knew this retirement, his third, would truly be his final farewell.
But the end of that regular season was nearly six weeks in the rearview mirror by then, and it had struck me how Robinson's impending retirement was being treated with a comparative collective shrug six weeks into the postseason.
Why was that?
Figuring that inquiring minds would want to know, I went to the Spurs' shootaround at the team's practice facility 15 minutes down the interstate from the Alamo (and the Alamodome, where I first covered the Admiral) and bided my time while the local TV guys gathered their footage for that day's noon broadcasts, then pulled Popovich aside and asked him to comment on the lack of hoopla surrounding Robinson's impending exit in comparison with what had been seen that season with Jordan.
The question somehow caught him off guard, and Pop reacted as if I had kicked him in the groin, the veins in his forehead popping into full view as he tried to control and contain his temper. (I Googled the story to refresh my memory and discovered that the phraseology I had used that day was that Popovich "reacted like someone tried to jab him in the eye with an ice pick.")
"What the hell kind of question is that?" he asked, perplexed and seemingly offended by the premise. You could tell he wasn't even comfortable, to a degree, hearing those two names mentioned together in the same sentence.
"Look, Pop. It's just weird," I said, explaining my outsider's perspective on the contrast, how it was like being in an alternate universe witnessing the ho-hum national reaction to Robinson's final days compared with Jordan's.
That was when Pop composed himself, said he meant no disrespect to Jordan's career accomplishments, but then started speaking about class and character -- and how Robinson had exuded so much of it, so genuinely, for so many years, never being accused by anyone, anywhere of being anything even remotely resembling a phony -- something Jordan's enemies would whisper behind his back in those post-dynasty days.
"An absolute class act" was how Pop boiled it down, arguing that no other high-level player in NBA history had ever welcomed and tutored his own superstar replacement as willingly and as well as Robinson had with Tim Duncan the previous six years.
He made the point that Robinson's altruistic appeal had always been on a different level than that of Jordan, whose fame, fortune and ego grew exponentially during his career. Of how Robinson was more reserved, more religious and more focused on making a lasting difference in people's lives. And how the crowning accomplishment of Robinson's career, and his future legacy, had nothing to do with basketball. (Robinson donated $9 million to help create the Carver Academy, an all-scholarship school for underprivileged children from San Antonio's impoverished East Side.)
Assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo told me later that morning how the Spurs had passed the hat in the locker room for a retirement gift for Robinson and his teammates had come up with $100,000 for the school. In Washington, Jordan's teammates reportedly refused even to give him a gift.
"I'm going to most miss the kind person he is, his presence, the disposition he brings to practice and games and trips, the class that he exudes," Popovich said. "I'm going to miss that more than anything because I think he makes a statement for our club, and it's a standard everyone tries to meet that most of us can't."
Robinson hadn't said then what his future career plans would be, but Popovich nailed it when he predicted it would be out of the spotlight.
"He's got much more sense than to stay involved in basketball. He's got a lot of interests that actually have impact on the world and have some value, unlike the rest of us," Popovich said. "He's way too committed to real life to do something as silly as basketball the rest of his life."
A couple of weeks later, Robinson played his final game and won an NBA title as San Antonio finished off the New Jersey Nets in six games. And when the Spurs held their victory parade later that week, rest assured that among the thousands who thronged the streets that afternoon were a handful of youngsters whose lives had been changed at Carver Academy, purely as a result of Robinson's vision and generosity.
Those kids are teenagers and college students now, and there is one thing they should know when they watch or read about Robinson and Jordan going into the Hall of Fame together Friday night: At the end of their careers, only one had the unquestionably strong character to elicit the type of impassioned soliloquy Popovich launched into -- after he calmed down and stopped looking homicidal -- on that hot, late-May morning some six-plus years ago on the outskirts of the city where Robinson's most lasting legacy is built out of brick and mortar, chock full of textbooks and chalkboards, over on the gritty east side of town.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Sheridan, click here.
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