A few years ago when then-San Antonio Spurs coach Bob Hill wanted to give his players a day off, he began the scheduled practice by announcing: "Okay, there's no practice today if -- "
He paused for dramatic effect and looked toward center David Robinson.
"if David can walk from foul line to foul line -- "
"on his hands."
Hill knew what would happen next. Robinson flipped his 7-foot-1 frame over and became the world's tallest gymnast, striding down the court on his hands as teammates cheered.
End of practice.
Robinson smiled when he recalled that moment Tuesday afternoon as the Spurs prepared to play the New York Knicks Wednesday night in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Considering the impact he has had on the only major franchise in the NBA's smallest market, some believe he could just as easily have taken a stroll on the San Antonio River.
Players routinely get credit for rescuing franchises as easily as they win games or lead teams to championships. With Robinson, it's no exaggeration.
"He saved the franchise, period," former Spurs owner Red McCombs said.
McCombs is being modest. The Spurs are still playing in the nation's 37th-largest television market for a variety of reasons, and a primary one is McCombs himself, a 71-year-old Texas legend who escaped the hardscrabble land of west Texas to build one of the country's largest car dealerships.
McCombs, who bought the Minnesota Vikings last summer, helped obtain an American Basketball Association franchise for his adopted home town 26 years ago, then rescued the team when it seemed on the verge of collapse in 1988.
The Spurs also have gotten lucky -- twice -- by winning the NBA draft lottery to get Robinson in 1987 and Tim Duncan in 1997.
But if it weren't for Robinson, it's unlikely the Spurs would still call San Antonio home.
The Place to Be
Robinson, a graduate of Osbourn Park High School and the Naval Academy, was eligible for the 1987 draft, but couldn't play until 1989 because of a two-year commitment to serve on active duty.
San Antonio had the first pick in the 1987 draft, but NBA rules allow players who sit out their first two seasons to become unrestricted free agents, so Robinson could have waited two years and spent his career with the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics or any team he chose.
"You know there were people telling him to do just that," McCombs said.
Because Robinson found this laid-back city on the southern tip of the Texas hill country appealing, McCombs invested $47 million to keep the franchise in San Antonio in 1988. Because of Robinson, McCombs was able to give the franchise an immediate shot of credibility by hiring coach Larry Brown away from Kansas a few weeks after he led the Jayhawks to the 1988 national championship. Because of Robinson, attendance -- and revenue -- increased simply in anticipation of his arrival in 1989.
"I put up $47 million to buy this franchise," McCombs said. "But David was the key. He made this franchise viable."
Robinson made the Spurs instant winners, allowing McCombs to move the team from outdated Hemisfair Arena to the 38,000-seat Alamodome in 1993. He also instituted an aggressive marketing plan that increased revenue from $9 million in 1988 to $52 million in 1993 and the season ticket base from around 1,300 to 13,000.
It's possible none of it would have happened if the Spurs hadn't won the right to draft Robinson and then convinced him to sign.
Until winning the lottery, the Spurs were in deep trouble. Their home attendance had declined for eight straight seasons, to 8,009 per game for the 1986-87 season. Not only were they the NBA's smallest market, but they also were located in the country's 42nd-largest television market at the time. They were last in the NBA in revenue, season ticket sales and most other barometers for success.
McCombs recalled NBA Commissioner David Stern telling him in 1987 that the Spurs might not survive in San Antonio, and McCombs did not argue. Instead, he set out to prove Stern and others wrong. When he bought back into the Spurs, he hoped Robinson would find San Antonio as appealing and livable as McCombs had three decades earlier.
"What we had to do was convince him San Antonio was the place for him," McCombs said.
McCombs and former Spurs owner Angelo Drossos did that by flying Robinson to town for a weekend and giving him VIP treatment that included a parade along the San Antonio River and a pep rally in the parking lot of McCombs's car dealership.
Robinson was sold on San Antonio, and then the Spurs did something they historically hadn't done: They paid big bucks. They signed Robinson to a contract worth around $26 million over eight years, including $1 million per year for each of his two years in the Navy. The Spurs also agreed to a clause that guaranteed Robinson would never be lower than the second-highest paid player in the league after the fifth year of the contract.
"Let's be honest," McCombs said. "We had no leverage. The most significant thing was not the contract. It was David agreeing to come to San Antonio. It had been the same deal with Larry Brown. The highest-paid coach in the league at that time was making $450,000. I gave Larry $700,000. I ended up getting called into a meeting with the NBA's executive committee to get chewed out for what I'd done to the salary structure of coaches. But I had no leverage in the negotiations with Larry Brown. We needed him to give us credibility in the two seasons before David got here. And it worked."
Robinson laughs off suggestions that he saved the Spurs.
"I think I've probably been given more credit than I deserve for that," he said. "I feel I had some role, but I'm not sure what it was. I don't take that kind of talk seriously."
What's easier to document is what he has meant on the floor. In his nine healthy seasons, the Spurs have been to the playoffs nine times, won four division championships and averaged 55 victories per season. In this season cut short by the labor dispute, the Spurs tied Utah for the best record in the league at 37-13.
Because of Robinson -- and George "Iceman" Gervin before him -- the Spurs recently passed the Chicago Bulls for the third-best regular season winning percentage in NBA history. Only the Lakers and Celtics have won more often.
But until now, there hadn't been an appearance in the Finals.
Not that Robinson could have done much more. His resume includes eight all-star appearances, a rookie of the year trophy, an MVP award and a scoring title. He has been a model citizen off the court as well, contributing millions of dollars and hundreds of hours to a variety of charitable causes.
"We want to win this for David," Spurs point guard Avery Johnson said. "Would winning a championship validate David's career? I don't think so. To me, it has already been validated. But maybe in some other people's eyes it would. So let's win it."
In some ways, Robinson's 10th season has been one of his most difficult. With second-year center Tim Duncan having developed into the league's most unstoppable player around the basket, Robinson is no longer San Antonio's first offensive option. Early in the season, he twice was benched in the fourth quarter of close games, and his scoring average of 15.8 points per game was the lowest of his career. Some nights, he is simply the league's highest-paid rebounder and shot blocker.
"It was a little difficult for both Tim and I at times," Robinson said. "We both had to adjust. Where I'd run to the ball before, I was running away from it. I think once we got into it, it became a nice mix for the two of us. It's good for both of us."
A Little History
The Spurs were born because Dallas didn't want them. They had been the Dallas Chaparrals -- one of the ABA's charter franchises -- for six seasons, but after attendance topped out at 3,000 per game, the franchise's owners wanted out.
In fact, they wanted out so badly that they agreed to lease the franchise to San Antonio for two years. McCombs and Drossos agreed to that deal, and then they made the franchise one of the most popular in the ABA.
They acquired future Hall of Famer Gervin from the defunct Virginia Squires, then surrounded him with a cast of characters that included one of the best point guards in history (James Silas) and a host of others who would become legendary names in the colorful history of the ABA: Goo Kennedy, Skeeter Swift and a future NBA coach named George Karl.
Playing in Hemisfair Arena, they had an up-tempo offense and even more up-tempo fans, who sipped Lone Star beer and made life miserable for opposing players. When Brown coached the Denver Nuggets he made the mistake of insulting San Antonio: "All I like about that place is the guacamole."
When the Nuggets paid a return trip to Hemisfair Arena, Brown was pelted with avocados.
When the NBA and ABA merged in 1976, the Spurs joined the Nets, Pacers and Nuggets as the only ABA teams admitted to the new league. For the next seven seasons, the Spurs rode the Iceman, who won four NBA scoring championships, to the fifth-winningest record in the NBA.
"When I first got here, it was an Alamo town," Gervin said. "We put San Antonio on the map. We're the foundation. We're proud of that."
The Spurs seemed headed for the Finals in 1979 after building a 3-1 lead on the Washington Bullets in a best-of-seven series. But a phantom foul call against Spurs center Billy Paultz turned Game 5, and as it turned out, the series.
The franchise went into a period of decline when Gervin left after the 1984-85 season.
"The franchise was dead," McCombs said.
And had the Spurs not been lucky in winning the seven-team lottery in 1987, the franchise might have died. McCombs said he would still have purchased the franchise to try and save it for the city, but admits: "It would have been very questionable whether it could perform here."
When Robinson missed the 1996-97 season with a back injury, the Spurs won just 20 games and got back in the lottery again. They had a 21.6 percent chance of winning, or as San Antonio Express-News columnist Buck Harvey wrote, their chances were no better than Vernon Maxwell's odds of hitting an open jumper when he played point guard for the Spurs.
They did win again, and two years later, they are being celebrated with rallies along the river, banners hanging from buildings and fans offering hundreds of dollars to get inside the Alamodome for Game 1.
Even with their appearance in the Finals, the Spurs face an uncertain future. New Spurs owner Peter Holt says the team needs a new arena that includes more luxury suites and club seating to survive. So far, the public has not embraced the idea.
One arena plan was rejected by voters last year, and Holt is hoping for another referendum, perhaps as early as this fall.
Holt has not threatened to move the franchise, but confirms that several cities, including Baltimore and Anaheim, Calif., have expressed an interest in luring the Spurs to their city.
"I've told them we want to try and make this thing work in San Antonio," he said.
Duncan, who can become a free agent after next season, has declined to sign a contract extension until the franchise's future is solidified. "I love it here," he said, "but I want to know where I'm going to be playing."
And as for Robinson, he says that while he loves San Antonio, there are days when he has wondered what it would be like to have come into the league with the Lakers or Knicks.
"No question I've thought about it," he said. "You always hear about the dollar limits on the franchise. All the talk about the franchise possibly moving is a huge distraction. You get tired of it and wish you could just focus on basketball like guys on other teams. It's like we're trying to convince the city we're worth keeping. I guess it's kind of always been that way."
CAPTION: Former owner Red McCombs, right, with Coach Greg Popovich, sold David Robinson on the city.
CAPTION: David Robinson, left, Tim Duncan are being celebrated in San Antonio, but even with first trip to Finals, club faces uncertain future.
CAPTION: "All the talk about the franchise possibly moving is a huge distraction. You get tired of it . . ." says David Robinson, who also says he loves San Antonio.
CAPTION: Robinson had to work hard for his 15.8 points during regular season, his lowest scoring average of 10-year career.