Some people seem to have been born knowing just what they want to be when they grow up.
David Robinson isn’t one of them.
The possibility of a career in professional basketball didn’t even occur to Robinson until he was nearly through the Naval Academy.
It’s hard to believe that Robinson—one of the 50 greatest NBA players ever—never played on a school basketball team until his senior year in high school. Unlike many of his peers in the NBA, he didn’t spend countless hours of his childhood playing pick-up games at the playground or signing autographs for imaginary fans. The thoughts of being a basketball superstar never entered his mind.
Perhaps he was too busy.
In elementary school David was enrolled in programs for the gifted. He not only excelled in academics, but he also proved to have a musician’s ear. He learned to play classical piano, as well as jazz saxophone. In junior high, he was taking college computer classes. While he was still a teenager, he built his own big-screen TV from a kit.
It’s not that he wasn’t athletic. He was a natural. Baseball was his favorite, and he played almost every other sport, too. Every sport but basketball.
David Robinson had so many possibilities to choose from, so many talents to explore.
Once he finally started playing hoops, his interest in the game grew gradually. When he first took the court of his high school in Manassas, Virginia, he played well enough for a newcomer to the sport—but he wasn’t anything spectacular.
Neither was his freshman year at Navy.
Uncomfortable on the court, he didn’t seem cut out for basketball. He averaged 7 points and 4 rebounds a game in his first year as a Midshipman.
Then he started to grow. Seven inches in four years. Which made him 7’1″.
As David once told a reporter, “You get past 6 foot 7, you just have to start playing basketball! You don’t really have a choice.”
Amazingly, he lost none of his coordination or agility as he grew taller; instead, he learned to use his height to his advantage. And he quickly grew comfortable on the court.
By the time he graduated (with a B.A. in mathematics), Robinson was widely recognized as the best college player in the nation, and the San Antonio Spurs drafted him with the first pick of the 1987 NBA Draft. But he was a young man of principle, and he insisted on completing his two-year service commitment to the Navy before testing the waters of the NBA.
Just as it took years for David to realize he was meant to play basketball, it would also take him years to realize that fulfillment isn’t found in athletic success. He made this discovery through a series of experiences—all of which pointed him in the same direction.
“My mother was a Christian, and she always insisted that my brothers and sisters and I go to church,” he recalls. “I understood a little about what the Bible said, but I didn’t get the whole gist of it. I stopped going to church when I got older.”
In 1986, while in college, Robinson represented the United States in the World Basketball Championships, which the US team won. Flying home from Europe, he had a lot on his mind.
“I knew something was missing—I just didn’t know what it was,” he explains. “I kept thinking about how up and down my life was. It seemed that every time I did something, I had to do it again—or do something even better. We’d start a new season, and I’d have to re-prove myself over and over again. It was never enough.”
A man on the plane talked to him about giving his heart to Jesus Christ. He quoted John 3:16, which says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
He asked David if he would like to receive Jesus as his Savior.
“I liked what he said, so I said, ‘Sure!’ and I prayed with him. But something still hadn’t clicked in my head. Nothing in my life changed. I never really read the Bible or tried to understand how my life was supposed to be. But deep down I kept thinking, ‘There’s got to be more to this; there’s just got to be more to this.'”
It was several years later that David discovered what it was.
An Empty Dream
By that time, he had made it big—he was a member of basketball’s elite. Robinson had represented the United States in the Olympics in 1988, and then started his pro career by being named Rookie of the Month every month for the entire 1989-90 season—which made him the unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year. He played in the All-Star Game, and won the NBA rebounding title. As one of the highest paid players in the NBA, he had everything money could buy—luxury homes, classic automobiles—he was living a dream life.
Yet he still felt an emptiness inside that nothing would fill.
Then in 1991 a pastor visited David in the Spurs’ locker room. He told David he wanted to talk to him about Jesus. “I had some questions. I knew I needed to find out more about this Christian stuff,” David recalls. He agreed to meet with him. But when they got together, it was the pastor who had some tough questions for David.
He began by asking, “David, do you love God?”
“Yeah, sure,” David replied. “Who doesn’t?”
“Well,” said the pastor, “God gave us His Word, the Bible, to show us about Himself, to teach us about who He is. Do you read it?”
“Well, not often,” David admitted.
The pastor asked another question: “How much time to you spend praying—you know, talking to God? You say you love Him. Don’t you enjoy talking with Him, spending time with Him?”
David had to confess he didn’t pray very much.
The pastor had one more question. “In the Old Testament, God asked the nation of Israel to honor Him one day a week. When was the last time you took one day—not one day a week—just one day to praise and honor God?”
“Man, I don’t think I’ve ever done that!” said David.
The pastor’s words challenged him. “It made me realize that I really didn’t love God. You can say all you want to say, but if your actions don’t back it up, then it means nothing. I realized that day that God had given me so much, and I had never so much as thanked Him. I could see His love for me, what He had done for me, how He had stood by me, and how He had been calling out to me. My heart just broke. I started crying and I said, ‘God, I’m so sorry. I’ve been living like You aren’t real. I know You are. I can’t ignore You anymore. I don’t want to run from You. I want to walk with You, I want to learn about You, I want to know You, I want to Love You.’ I started reading my Bible and praying and spending time with Him and my whole world just opened up.”
A Battle is Waged
It’s been eight years since Robinson began seriously studying the Bible, seriously living what he said he believed. He’s come a long way in his journey of faith.
That journey has led Robinson to be one of the most respected Christian athletes. His name is mentioned in the same sentence with Reggie White and Michael Chang when people talk about well-known Christians in athletics.
But for Robinson, that’s not enough. He feels he still has a long way to go. There’s always something more to learn.
“God has really been dealing with me about being totally focused on Him,” Robinson says. “God wants us to realize that He is our everything. He is our sufficiency. We need to come to Him and trust Him in every situation.”
That can be a challenge for anyone, but especially for someone who faces the distractions and temptations of life as a professional athlete.
“People look at me and think, ‘Man, your life is so easy—you have it so good.’ But I think there’s a lot to be said for simplicity. When you don’t have a lot of things, they can’t get in the way. When you do have a lot, you have a tendency to think, ‘Hey, I got it under control today, Lord. Don’t worry about it.’ That’s not what He wants. For me it’s a constant battle, fighting my flesh and trying to keep my priorities straight.”
David receives a lot of love and support from his wife Valerie. And he makes a point of attending church as often as he can. It’s a part of keeping his focus.
“That fellowship is really important. My pastor and I have a good relationship where we can talk and share and study the Word together. I know a few of the guys at church on a really good personal level. Being on the road a lot, I don’t have as much time to invest in those relationships, so it’s a little bit more difficult for me to establish them, but it’s important to me.”
David also draws strength from his relationship with other Christians on his team, especially Avery Johnson.
“We spend a lot of time praying together and in the Word,” says Robinson. “It’s great, because I have a good fellowship there every day.”
Avery Johnson agrees. “Over the years, our friendship has really grown. I’m a fiery type of guy, and he’s more of a quiet leader—we each have our individual strengths. We encourage each other and hold each other accountable. Sometimes he will correct me and vice versa. It may not be in front of everybody, but privately we’ll take each other aside.”
David says correction is a necessary part of growth—another step in the process—but it isn’t always easy to take.
“I think it’s twice as hard when you’re in the limelight. You know there are times when God is going to deal with you about something. You’re going to be hurt and embarrassed, and you’re exposed to the whole world. You know that everything you do will be part of other people’s conversations. You not only have to deal with your own weakness, but everybody else’s attitude toward your weakness. Sometimes you want to say, ‘God can we do this in private?’ But I guess it’s all a part of the breaking process.”
Robinson talks a lot about being broken, about being humbled. He sees himself as a work in progress.
“I’m learning about preparation and patience, going through trials and developing character,” he says.
Lately, Robinson’s been reading the book of Exodus and looking at the life of Moses. He notes that in his prime, Moses had wealth and privilege and power—and an awful lot of pride. Moses tried to deliver Israel from slavery on his own, but his efforts were a miserable failure. It wasn’t until he’d spent 40 years in the wilderness learning to rely completely on God that he became a man that God could use.
David sees some parallels in his own life.
“In many ways, I’m doing really well. So many things are in my favor—it seems like now is the time to do something just awesome. People are coming to me telling me what they think I should do. But God seems to say to me, ‘You’re not ready yet. I haven’t put into you what I want to put in yet. Look at how I’ve challenged My people in My Word. Look at the things I’ve put them through. They had to have such a deep strength and faith in Me. Your character hasn’t even begun to be tested yet. If you can’t do the little things, how do you expect to be able to give your life for Me? You just be faithful in the little things, day by day, year in and year out. Learn how to be focused on Me, learn how to trust Me.’
“Sometimes it’s frustrating—there’s so much I want to be able to do, “David adds. “I haven’t gotten to the point yet where I know exactly where God wants me to go or what he wants me to do in the future, but I know for now the priorities He’s given me. I know God wants me to be a good husband. I know He wants me to take care of my kids, and I know He wants me to be a good basketball player. Right now, that’s all I know. So I’m going to stick to those things until He shows me the next phase.”
For Moses, it took 40 years. For David, it’ll undoubtedly take a lot less time. But whatever the future holds, this big man is growing to be the man God wants him to be.
By Christin Ditchfield
David Robinson was featured in several Sports Spectrum issues. This particular story is from March of 1999 when he was feature on the cover. To order this issue from our vault, call 704-821-2971. There are only a few remaining!