From his playing days at Navy to his stellar NBA championship career with the San Antonio Spurs, Hall of Fame center and two-time Olympic gold medalist and Dream Team member David Robinson was one of those special athletes that only come around once in a generation. It was never just his court presence that caught our attention, however, but also his infectious smile and the way he unashamedly lived out his faith.
In this CSJ conversation with managing editor Chad Bonham, Robinson talks about his early days in the NBA, how his faith influenced his team leadership skills, and how George Washington Carver Academy (the school he founded in 1999) is changing lives:
Chad Bonham: You started your NBA career during one of the golden eras of basketball. How did you deal with the high expectations after your career at Navy?
David Robinson: When I came into the league, everybody wanted me to be like Patrick Ewing. They wanted me to be like Hakeem Olajuwon. As I went on, people wanted me to be like Michael Jordan and take my team to a title. Everybody always wants you to be something else.
Bonham: How did you manage to establish yourself so quickly as the leader of that locker room in San Antonio?
Robinson: When I first got to the Spurs, we just were not a great team. There were a lot of reasons why we weren’t a great team and I saw a lot of those reasons immediately. My thing was, even though I was a rookie going in there and I didn’t know the city very well and I didn’t know a lot of these players very well, it was my job to be a leader and say, “Hey look, we’re going to have to get rid of this unprofessionalism that I see.” I had to be willing to take the stand and do that. Our locker room needed to look a certain way. We weren’t going to have people come in there drinking. We’re going to be the players we need to be and we’re going to respect one another. And I had to take the stand.
Bonham: In what ways did your Christian faith influence your leadership style?
Robinson: When I was in the NBA, most of these guys weren’t interested in hearing anything about your faith. They wanted to know, “Am I going to get paid next week” and “Are we going to win.” I saw myself in a very similar situation where I was just going to have to win people over, over a long period of time. I didn’t have to convince anybody of anything. God gave me a gift to play basketball. I did that. But I was just going to try to love people along the way. You have to earn the right to speak into people’s lives and even then you don’t always have to say anything to influence them. When you do earn that right, you only have to say two words. You don’t have to try to convince anybody of anything. You just let the Holy Spirit speak for itself.
Bonham: What is the biblical context for your style of leadership?
Robinson: The most obvious scripture for me is the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12): “Do unto others.” That is an active command. Do. Don’t wait and react. Do. Reach out and encourage and strengthen. Care enough about someone else to not let them fall down. That’s what leadership is. It’s being a servant to others. That’s a rule to live by. Being a Christian is an active thing. Get off your tail and use the initiative to be the person you’re supposed to be
Bonham: What led you to start George Washington Carver Academy?
Robinson: I just saw a need. I was traveling all over the country and I saw these kids who were focused on the wrong things and didn’t understand the value of education and didn’t understand the value of character. I decided to change that. I decided to build a school where the kids could get a top-level education. But we were also going to have a top character building and top leadership program. That’s what this school is all about. It’s based on a great person like George Washington Carver. It gives these kids an example and a hero to really lean on. I want to be one of their heroes, but I’m standing on the shoulders of George Washington Carver and they can stand on my shoulders. It just builds this chain of responsibility and courage.
Bonham: You started the school while you were still playing. How difficult was that?
Robinson: Building a school is no joke. Anyone who runs a school will tell you that it is a non-stop, never-ending thing. There’s fundraising and dealing with all of the typical school issues. Having initiative is seeing the need and taking the step out there to go ahead and make it happen. That’s what I’ve learned by walking in my faith. If we are given gifts, we are going to utilize those gifts. We are not going to sit around and waste these gifts. Besides some material resources that God has given me, he’s also given me the gift to motivate and encourage and he’s given me a platform. There’s no way I’m going to waste those gifts.
Bonham: What are some of the principles you hope to instill in the kids that attend the school?
Robinson: You look at the statistics in every major city in the United States and you see that the dropout rate for African Americans is unreal. The number of African Americans going to prison is unfathomable. Over half the kids end up in prison. How is that sustainable? How can any race sustain that? It’s unimaginable. So if these kids don’t understand the peril that we’re in, if they don’t understand how important it is that they take advantage of this education and change this trend and be an example and be a light, then they’re missing a big part of the boat. I always tell these kids that they are leaders. All of them are leaders. They’re going to be the examples. They’re going to be the ones out there setting the new standards. Too many of us have forgotten what those standards should be. No longer can you be a victim and stand around and say, “Aww, it’s just not fair. These things are happening to me because of the system.” I don’t want to hear it. George Washington Carver was a slave. He had nothing. He said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Make something of it and never be satisfied.” That’s what these kids have to understand. God has given them everything they need right in front of their faces—whether it was plants for George Washington Carver or whatever it is for them. You use it and step forward.
(Photo: Marsha Miller via LBJ Library; Ken Hackman, R.D. Ward)