If you had told David Robinson when he entered the Naval Academy that he would become one of the all-time greats in professional basketball, he probably would have rolled his eyes at you and laughed. But, by the time Robinson’s NBA career was over, that’s exactly what happened. With his dominant 7’1 stature and unprecedented agility for a center, Robinson earned a sure-fire ticket to the Hall of Fame.
Robinson became a two-time NBA champion, NBA MVP, 10-time All-Star, and led the league in scoring, rebounds and blocks several times. He also was a three-time Olympian, winning the gold medal twice, most famously as a member of the 1992 USA Basketball team. The team would go down as the best basketball team of all time, forever remembered as the Dream Team.
But the future NBA legend didn’t start playing basketball until his senior year of high school. Born to a career Navy man, Robinson spent his childhood moving around until his father’s retirement. Finally, the family settled in Virginia. By this time, Robinson was a great athlete and pretty tall for his age. He excelled at many sports, but when he tried basketball in junior high, it didn’t go well despite his 5’9 frame at such a young age. By the time he was a senior in high school, he had blossomed to 6’6 and decided to try again.
It turned out he was pretty decent. He was the star player on the team and was named an all-district player. But that wasn’t enough to get much attention from college scouts, so while he was a late bloomer in basketball, it looked like it wouldn’t lead anywhere.
Robinson likely didn’t mind and had his sights set on a better prize. He had worked really hard on his academics and wanted to fulfill his dream of being a Naval Officer. He applied and was accepted into the United States Naval Academy in 1983 with hopes he would become a career officer. Robinson was recruited to play basketball there by Coach Paul Evans. Evans had seen Robinson and figured he would be a great back up to the team he had steadily built over the years.
After his acceptance, however, Robinson had a small growth spurt. He grew to 6’7 and that put him over the maximum height for the Academy. But the Navy quickly granted a waiver as he wasn’t even the biggest player on the team and figured he wouldn’t grow anymore.
They were wrong.
His freshman year, Robinson played as a backup but then had the mother of all growth spurts between his first and second year, taking him from 6’7 to 7’0. While growing, he kept his lithe athleticism, which turned him from a backup winger to a very versatile center. His sophomore year, he became one of the most dominant centers in college basketball and a true national star.
At the same time, he was drawing attention from the media and NBA scouts, and questions started to arise as to whether or not an NBA team would draft him in two years. He was a Midshipman and had a five-year commitment to the Navy after graduating. Robinson wanted to honor that commitment and had said he had no problem serving out his commitment as that is what he knowingly signed up for.
But it turned out that awesome growth spurt that gave birth to his basketball superstardom also was about to limit his Naval Career.
Robinson already had a waiver to get into the Navy at 6’7, but now being a seven-footer, he was not allowed to be an unrestricted line officer. He would never command a ship and would be relegated to shore duty because of his height.
In the meantime, the Academy was getting significant media attention and scouts were trying to get as much information about Robinson as possible. He would be eligible for the draft in two years, but would a team have to wait five more years to see him play? Would any team want to draft a player in 1987 and have the only uniform he would wear until 1992 be a military uniform?
The Navy itself looked at Robinson’s situation as well and realized the predicament. Yes, he signed up for a five-year commitment, but at the time, he was still eligible to be an unrestricted line officer. But now that that plan was scrapped, they also realized that Robinson could have another growth spurt and be disqualified from the Navy in general. Could they really benefit by having a Naval Academy Midshipman not be a first-round draft pick?
At the time this was happening, the Navy had some great PR. They had another graduate, Napoleon McCallum, who was drafted by a USFL team and would spend his weekend playing for the Raiders and then the Rams. They were also about to benefit from a movie that was about to come out about Naval Aviators that featured a young star named Tom Cruise, awesome action sequences and an amazing soundtrack.
Being in his sophomore year, Robinson could have selected to leave the Academy, transfer to another school, sit out a year and play a final year putting him in the league in 1988. Would he really wait until 1992? Would he want to pursue the Navy that would restrict him from advancing in rank while missing out on millions of dollars?
The Navy didn’t want to lose Robinson and decided to take steps to keep him at the Academy and have him serve while still protecting his future basketball career.
The discussion went all the way up to Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, who figured in the best interest of the Navy, Robinson would serve as a Naval Reserve Officer. After graduating, he would serve two years on active duty and then be allowed to go play basketball. During those two years, however, Robinson would be allowed to play in international competitions. (The Navy wanted Robinson on the 1988 Olympic team.)
Robinson agreed and played the next two years at the Academy, taking the Midshipmen to the Elite 8 one year. He became the dominant center in basketball his senior year and was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs. Robinson spent two years stationed at Naval Submarine Base, Kings Bay, in Georgia. He worked as an engineering officer, worked out relentlessly to keep his basketball skills honed and ended up making that Olympic team. (In an ironic twist, that U.S. team lost which partly spurned officials to create an Olympic team with NBA stars in 1992. This would become the legendary Dream Team Robinson was a part of). Robinson was also the de facto poster boy for Navy recruitment as they took the opportunity to plaster his image on every promotional asset they could.
Robinson joined the Spurs in 1989 and never looked back. He was a legend at center, won gold in Barcelona with the Dream Team and won two NBA titles. He also was a devoted philanthropist and man of faith; so much so that in 2003 the NBA gave recipients of its Community Assist award the David Robinson plaque.
Robinson started the Carver Academy in 2001, which helps inner-city kids reach new heights in education. In 2012, it became a public charter school with Robinson doing the lion share of donating and fundraising while taking an active day-to-day role in the school’s operations.
It’s amazing to think how a growth spurt could change someone’s life so much and impact millions of others as well.