DAVID ROBINSON ISN'T ASKING FOR much. He's famished after a grueling workout, and all he wants now is to dip his tostada into some salsa and savor his stewed-beef taco. But even as the San Antonio Spurs center crams his elegant, albeit aching, 7'1" frame into a booth at the Acapulco Mexican Restaurant near the team's Kerrville, Texas, training camp, a couple of kids, giggling shyly, approach their hero for an autograph. Graciously, Robinson obliges. A dip or two later, a man stops by. "Thank you for your Christian testimony," he tells the basketballer, who was "born again" in 1991. More such intrusions stretch Robinson's meal into an hour, but he never once turns sour or surly.

"I generally think people are special, you know. God created everybody in His image," he explains. "If it's at all possible, I need to give them the courtesy of being decent."

In fact, 32-year-old David Maurice Robinson has proffered his public far more than civility—more even than an exquisite court career, first at the U.S. Naval Academy and, since 1989, with the Spurs. "The Admiral," who earns from $9.5 to $12 million-plus annually, is also one of sport's leading philanthropists. Through their David Robinson Foundation, he and his wife, Valerie, 36, have given substantially over the past five years to schools, the homeless and children's charities. This fall they made their most generous donation yet: $5 million to build a prep school, scheduled to open in 1999 at The Carver Complex, an arts and educational facility in a blighted area of San Antonio's almost entirely black and Hispanic East Side.

"He is using his wealth to provide evidence that basketball is not the end product of black achievement," the Rev. Claude Black of the East Side's Mount Zion First Baptist Church says about Robinson. "Par for the course," adds Gregg Popovich, the Spurs coach and general manager, whose all-star offers not only dollars but countless hours, especially to youth groups. "He's so ready to give that sometimes it's scary."

It's certainly novel. In a game full of large egos, Robinson speaks of his benefaction as if he were reciting some self-evident natural law. "The Bible is very clear: Don't do your good works before men to be cheered by men," he says. "We do the right things because that's what God told us to do." And amid a sybaritic culture, Robinson is a G-rated anomaly. He doesn't take drugs or talk trash, and his favorite movie, according to a team yearbook, is The Little Mermaid. All this, despite two years (1993-95) playing alongside Dennis Rodman.

Indeed, Robinson is sometimes burdened by his reputation. "People don't understand that I'm just a normal person," he says. Most who know him don't buy into that. "If you see the phrase 'role model' in the dictionary, his picture's going to be there," says Spurs point guard Avery Johnson. "If you need a shoulder to cry on, he's there. If you need somebody to go into a war with you, he's there."

Both Robinsons were there last April when Carver Complex director Jo Long sought financial help. "I said I wanted to see a school with extremely high academic standards," says Long, "one that focuses on character, moral development and personal responsibility." She met with the Robinsons several times until finally "Valerie said, 'We need to get this show on the road. I'll work on David's numbers.' "

Gaudy figures they were—but why for this particular cause? "One reason was that we want that part of town to be sparked up," says Robinson of the depressed area, a short walk from the Alamodome, where he plays. Carver graduates, he adds, "will come back and be able to reinvest in the community." He and Valerie consult with the school's three other board members on everything from architectural design to academic curricula.

His own parents—Freda, 58, a retired nurse, and Ambrose, 55, an electrical engineer who spent 20 years as a Navy technician—also stressed academics. "I remember one semester in elementary school I brought home a C," Robinson says. "They were so upset they put me on restriction until my next report card came out." The second of three children, Robinson grew up in Virginia, first in Norfolk, and later in Woodbridge, near Washington. Fascinated with gadgetry, he was taking college-level computer courses at age 14. He also learned the piano by ear and can still play a credible Beethoven sonata. He excelled at tennis, golf, bowling and gymnastics but, oddly, was indifferent to basketball. It wasn't until his senior year at Osbourne Park High School that friends coaxed Robinson into trying out for the varsity. He made it—and was named to several local all-star teams.

By then he'd set his sights on a Navy career and easily won an appointment to Annapolis, where he majored in math. Hoops remained almost incidental. "I had to learn how to love this game," he says. "The passion, the mental toughness, all those things you have to learn." After playing part-time as a 6'7" freshman, Robinson sprouted, and by his junior year blossomed into an all-American. Named College Player of the Year as a senior, he was the NBA's top draft pick, joining the Spurs after two years in the Naval Reserve. He was the league's MVP for the 1994-95 season.

In 1991, Robinson wed Valerie Hoggatt, whom he'd met while in the Reserve. "She's incredibly shy," says Long of Valerie, who declines interviews but has no trouble speaking her mind in private. "She has opinions," Long adds, "she states them and she fights for them." When the couple started their foundation in 1992, Valerie, who has a business degree and had done community outreach work, served as president. But after bearing three sons (David Jr., now 4, Corey, 2, and Justin, 1), she said, "David, you're going to have to handle it," recalls Mary K. Havel, the foundation's executive director. The Admiral, Havel adds, is "hands-on," visiting the office at least once a month, keeping in constant phone contact and approving all major decisions.

"It's our ministry to the community," Robinson says. "What we wanted to do is just reach into people's lives and touch them." In Carver especially he sees a legacy more lasting than all his slam dunks, blocked shots and rebounds. "My career may be six more years, maybe eight, but it ain't going to be forever," says Robinson. "I wanted something that was going to be around for quite some time. You want to leave something for the kids, something for the future."

RICHARD JEROME
JOSEPH HARMES in San Antonio

  • Contributors:
  • Joseph Harmes.