Summer 2024

David Robinson retired from basketball in 2003 to preach and teach God's word

This story was originally published in the November/December 2002 issue of Sports Spectrum magazine. 

As his pro basketball career moves through its final year, David Robinson reflects on some lessons of his spectacular NBA journey—and he looks ahead.

By David Robinson (with Darryl Howerton)

The thing I’ll remember most about my career is how much I grew up as both an athlete and a man, not to mention how much I learned about what it takes trying to be the best.

I really started to learn that mentality and that attitude at the 1992 Olympics, being on the original Dream Team with guys like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird. I learned by seeing how intense they were about their sport, about their training, and about their commitment to what they do.

Up until that time, I always enjoyed basketball, but I always looked at it as a sport. You come out and you play basketball. You know, it’s fun, but that was it. But those guys took it to another whole level for me. It wasn’t just learning how to be intense and having commitment, it was also seeing the responsibility you have for your teammates. Seeing how the other guys look into your eyes, and how they feed off of what energy you have. And that’s what I think I learned from them more than anything else—how to pursue perfection. I don’t know how else to describe it to you. There’s a certain attitude that goes with excellence, and those guys had it. That was one of the things I had to learn.

David Robinson on the cover of Sports Spectrum in 1999.

I’ve always had a lot of love for my teammates, but I learned I needed to put them in a position where they could be successful. Not everyone is talented in the same way, and you can’t expect the same things from everyone. But you can expect consistency from everyone, and you can set that example of consistency for others to follow.

When guys came to my team, I tried to see every player’s strengths and weaknesses. I made it a point not to ever put a guy where he’s left out in the cold or embarrassed for whatever shortcomings he may have. For instance, Dennis Rodman had certain limitations, but he also excelled at certain things. Playing beside him, there were ways I could make his job easier and I think he enjoyed that. I don’t know what he says, but I think he enjoyed the experience because he got a lot of attention, which he loves, and he got to do what he did best. I scored 30 points a night so he could go get rebounds and not have to score for us. He could get two points a night and still be right in the middle in the mix. Our team was very good, and I think that was something he enjoyed.

Same thing happened with Tim Duncan. When he came here, I said, “Well, let’s see what Tim does well.” Obviously, putting the ball in the basket is something he does extremely well, so I wanted to put him in a position where he could succeed. I no longer had to score for us to win. I just needed to go out there and make things happen on the floor—play defense, rebound. I had to make our talents really mix as well as they possibly could. I wanted him to have the utmost of confidence and take the pressure off him, because a lot of times young guys come in the league and people put all of the pressure on them to succeed. But this was still my team and my responsibility, not his responsibility. For those first few years, it really took some of the pressure off him and allowed him to be himself. I think that was one of the keys to our winning the NBA championship in 1999.

I am most proud of that team because all of us got the most of our abilities and came to a place where we believed and trusted one another. That’s a think you’re always preaching to your teammates. I saw that team go from a little bit of turmoil early in the year where guys weren’t believing in one another to a place where we were one—one heart, one mind—and we got it done. That’s what I was most proud of. We didn’t win that championship because we were that much better than everyone. We won it because we were all on the same page. We believed in one another. That right there, to me, is one of our greatest accomplishments, being able to come together.

Avery Johnson is a perfect example of seeing someone get the most out of his abilities. He could go to a lot of teams, and guys would just look at him and say he can’t help us. But we believed in him, we loved him, and we encouraged him. He was my partner in leadership. I think that was important for his strength and his credibility. Guys needed to understand that I believed in him, and I think that kind of helped him along. I think it was just a blessing having a group of guys that really had one single purpose: to win games.

People talk about my sacrificing my game for the good of the team, but I never really saw it that way. For me, it’s always been about helping the team win. Back when I was scoring a lot of points and we weren’t winning, nobody really cared about my individual accomplishments. People may pat you on your back and say, “That was awesome. You’re averaging 30 points a game.” I just thought, “Big deal. We didn’t win it all.” Same thing goes on today. Look at a guy like Allen Iverson. Great player, but you’re not gonna get your props until you win. Once you keep your eyes focused on what’s important, then I think it all works out in the end.

My MVP season in 1995 doesn’t even compare to the championship season. It’s funny when I think back on that time. It’s funny because when God does stuff in your life, you really can’t enjoy it as much as you would’ve thought you would—because you realize it wasn’t you that did it. Going through that whole season, I just felt that I was doing what God gave me to do. I didn’t feel like I was so great. There wasn’t anything that was really happening that I made happen. I was just playing. I was just doing what I do. I was in the place God wanted me to be and that’s what I did. Afterwards, you don’t feel like saying, “I’m so great, and I did this-this-and-this and I was awesome.” No. Afterward, you look at it and you just say, “Lord, thank You. You are full of grace for allowing me to do this.” You realize it was out of your hands.

I thought I had played better in many seasons before 1995, and I always ended up second in the MVP voting to Michael Jordan. It just goes to show, you can’t control when you win championships or awards. You just go do what you doe best.

I kind of felt the Lord had spoken to me two years before the 1999 championship that we were going to win. I just felt it in my heart we were going to win one. It takes some of the glory out of it for you because you know it’s going to happen. It’s not like you’re the one who’s making it happen. You’re just doing what God gives you to do. So I was very relaxed going in. I enjoyed the season, I enjoyed the guys, I was faithful to what God asked me to do, and by the end of the season we had a team that was on one page praying together.

Even when we were celebrating the championship, we were about to run out on the court at the Alamodome, and all the guys stopped and looked at me and said, “Let’s pray one more time.” That, to me, was one of the highlights of the whole year because I knew the guys understood the source of our strength. In preseason, a lot of guys came to our team and were like, “You guys pray? Man, you guys are punks.” But by the end of the year, every one of them, to a man, felt that prayer and God was the strength of our team. To me, that was the glory of the Lord shining through. Like God was saying, “The championship was not something you did. I blessed you because you were faithful to me.” That was a great experience for me.

A lot of guys on that team weren’t there with me through 10 years of losing before we won. They didn’t really go through all the negative stuff, where I had to keep my faith and say, “Lord, why are we crashing?” At the end of some years, it felt like we were falling off a cliff. It was terrible. It was always my team, so I was always the first one to get criticized for our not winning.

I’m not sure if everyone understood how blessed we were, how the Lord blessed us because of our faithfulness. It’s not like a candy store where He is just handing stuff out. He blesses you because of his love for you and your faithfulness to Him. I think a lot of times my teammates may not have fully understood those concepts, but I think they still appreciate the strength and the character God gave us. And God has definitely given our team a certain personality. Like it or not, it’s stuck with us.

It’s like Jehovah Nisi (Exodus 17:15), which means “the Lord is your banner.” He goes before you. People see Him before they see you. And that’s kind of what it is with our team. Like it or not, when guys come here, that’s what they see. I think the guys who’ve spent any time here genuinely appreciate the character and quality of heart God has put into this team.

That is why I am really excited about this, my final season. I’ve been working out pretty hard and have put in a lot of extra work just to get strong and solid after coming off my back injury. But I see our team being at full strength. Tim [Duncan] is the league MVP. Tony Parker had a great rookie season. We re-signed Bruce Bowen, Malik Rose, and other key members of our team. And then we’re bringing in this kid, Manu Ginobili, who obviously has been the best player in Europe the last couple of years. We’re definitely excited about him, especially seeing him lead his Argentina team at the 2002 World Championships and giving Team USA its first loss ever in these games.

That is why it would be great to win a championship with these guys. And not just for us, but it would be great to win so that we could continue to represent the city in a good, positive way. I don’t know what God has in store for us this season. I really don’t. But I know I’m on my knees saying, “Lord, another championship sure would look good.” It would be great. And again, not just for us. I couldn’t care less about my own reputation.

I just want us to be in that place where we could just praise the Lord again. Be up on the center stage, praising God. Everybody else is drinking champagne, praising whatever they want to praise, so why can’t we get up there and praise the Lord? From my point of view, my little perspective down here, I think that would be great.

It’s up to Him. All we do is do what He calls us to do—be at the right place, do the right things, train hard, get ready, get my guys ready. I’m excited about it, especially since this is my last season.

AUSTIN, TX — APRIL 10, 2014: David Robinson, former NBA player, speaks about social justice in the 21st century at the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly)

Many people are wondering, “Why stop playing now?” Simply put, I have two reasons that led me to retire.

Reason One: I sat down with my family and said here are our options with this being the last year of my contract. We can decide we’re going to play for a few more years. I told them we might stay here in San Antonio or we might have to leave. I don’t know what will happen in the future. We have an opportunity here, our 14th year, to decide what we want to do.

Reason Two: I had to sit down and really talk to the Lord myself and say, “What do you want me to do?” Physically, I could play a few more years and I could do a good job, but I had to ask the Lord, “Is this what you want me to do? Spend the time here, stay here with this team and this community? Or are you ready to have me move on to something else?” I really felt the Lord was saying, “David, I’m preparing you for some other things. I’ll let you enjoy this basketball one more year, but really I have some other things I want you to get done.”

Obviously, one of them is working on Carver Academy here. All of us at Carver Academy realize how great an opportunity we have to help some of the San Antonio kids who do not have access to a lot of good things. We put together this really nice campus, nice school, and a great environment for these kids so they can get away from their world where they don’t necessarily get a lot of encouragement. And they can get in this campus setting and excel. Really excel. Learn languages in kindergarten and first grade. And to press on and reach for dreams they never thought would be possible. To me, this is exciting, to be around this community and these kids. I want to continue with that after my playing career.

And also, I feel it will be time for me to start teaching and preaching. That’s something the Lord has put deep in my heart. I don’t know when exactly it is going to come out, but I know when it does it’s going to explode. I’ve known for years it’s in there.

A lot of preachers don’t become preachers overnight, and teachers don’t become teachers overnight. It takes years of preparation of the Lord really investing some things in you. You can’t teach what you don’t have and what you don’t know. You don’t become a teacher until you live. I know the Lord’s trying to prepare me for whatever He has in store for me. I haven’t jumped into it already because, as God says, teachers have the greatest responsibility (James 3:1).

But to be honest with you, that’s where my heart is. I love teaching. I can sit all night and teach. I love it. It’s something that energizes me. I love to see people growing in grace and understanding, and I think that’s where my heart has always been.

It’s an exciting time for me. It’s funny too, because some people are treating this like an ending to my life story. But to me, to be honest, it feels like I’m just getting started.

David Robinson retired as an champion, winning the 2003 NBA title. He was enshrined at the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009. You can follow him on twitter @DavidtheAdmiral