Monday, September 14, 2009

Shining a Spotlight on HOF Inductee David Robinson; Quick Note on Serena Williams

It isn't at all surprising that most of the attention following Friday's Hall of Fame Induction ceremony in Springfield would be on Michael Jordan. Most people agree he was the greatest basketball player of all time--and if you want to argue about Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Oscar Robertson, that's fine. If you put it to a vote, Jordan is almost certainly going to win.

Sadly though, the reason most of the attention was focused on Jordan was the tone of his speech. Most of it--and it went on for quite a while--was angry. Instead of being grateful to all those who helped him become MICHAEL JORDAN, he kept coming back to how he was motivated by slights and putdowns. He even moaned about Dean Smith not allowing him to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a freshman.

Jordan could be the subject of a psychological study that might take years to put together. What was too bad about the way he 'stole,' the show on Friday was that the other inductees were more or less lumped together. As in, "also inducted were David Robinson, John Stockton, Jerry Sloan and C. Vivian Stringer." All four were extremely deserving, but the one who truly deserved a special spotlight is Robinson.

I have to admit to a bias here. I first met Robinson when he was 6-foot-7 inch freshman at Navy who wasn't starting. His coach, Paul Evans, introduced me to him after Navy had lost a game at George Mason and said, "you need to watch this kid, he's gong to be a player for us."

Evans had no idea at the time that Robinson was going to grow six inches to 7-1 before the start of his sophomore season and lead Navy to three straight NCAA Tournaments--including a final eight appearance in 1986. He had no idea Robinson would become the national player of the year as a senior or the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft or that he would go on to a remarkable career in San Antonio that would include three NBA titles and a lock on the Hall of Fame induction that took place on Friday.

What always struck me about Robinson when I began to cover him and talk to him on a regular basis during his sophomore year was his sense of humor, his thoughtfulness and the fact that he was just as interested in engineering (his dad had been a Naval engineer) as basketball. He and his classmate, Doug Wojcik (now the coach at Tulsa) were as good off the court as they were on the court.

“Hey Doug," Robinson yelled at Wojcik in the locker room one day. "There's a reason you're the point guard, you know, and it isn't because of your shooting."

Wojcik never blinked, pointing a finger at Robinson and saying, "David, never bite the hand that feeds you."

During their four years at Navy, Robinson and Wojcik never lost to Army. But four of the five games were decided by four points or less largely because Army had a 5-11 guard named Kevin Houston who could hit shots from just about anywhere. Houston only got to play one season with the three point line. If he had played with it for four years he might have doubled his points since he almost never shot from inside 20 feet. The last time Army played Navy when Robinson, Wojcik and Houston were seniors, Houston scored 38 and Navy needed overtime--at home--to win the game. Wojcik still remembers the day vividly.

"He was just lighting me up," he said. "Every time down court, he'd take on dribble and release--from like 25 feet--swish. I was pleading with him, 'my whole family is here, (it was senior day) my friends, everyone in my company--please stop, you're humiliating me."

The three men remained in touch after graduation. All went into the service, although as everyone knows, Robinson got out after two years and went on to stardom. Wojcik got into coaching after getting out of the Navy, Houston into business, marrying his childhood sweetheart, Liz, having three children and settling down not far from West Point.

The year after they all graduated, I was working on my second book, "A Season Inside." I spent some time with Robinson and Houston, contrasting their lives--Robinson was in the Navy, Houston in the Army. Robinson was a lock to be on the '88 Olympic team; Houston was just hoping to get invited to try out. I went to visit Robinson at a submarine base in south Georgia where he was stationed. We went out to lunch and all we could find was a McDonald's. When we walked up to the counter, the manager recognized Robinson immediately--he probably didn't get too many 7-foot-1 inch African Americans in a Navy uniform coming through the place.

"I know who you are," he said. "You just signed a contract for $26 million to play in the NBA when you get out of the Navy."

Robinson kind of nodded, pretending to be confused about whether he wanted a Big Mac or a double hamburger.

"Tell you what," the manager said. "When you're rich and famous, you come back in here and I'll give you your food for free."

That got Robinson's attention. "Sir, when I'm rich and famous I won't need my food for free. Right now, I'm making $590 a month and I could really USE getting my food for free."

The guy, of course, missed the point.

Robinson not only became rich and famous but has used his money and his fame to build a school in San Antonio and has done as much important charity work as any ex-athlete alive. He is as comfortable in retirement as Jordan is clearly uncomfortable in retirement. He has also remained one of the warmest and most likeable people you are ever likely to meet.

Houston's life has not been as easy. Six years ago, his wife Liz was diagnosed with scleroderma, an extremely rare auto-immune disease mostly found in women between the ages of 30 and 50. In January, Liz Houston passed away at the age of 44. When Robinson heard that he was going into the Hall of Fame, he called his old rival and asked him to come to the induction ceremony as his guest. That says a lot about David Robinson and about the unique nature of the Army-Navy rivalry. Then again, David Robinson doesn't need to justify to anyone who he is or what he has accomplished in his life.

And he doesn't need any free food from McDonald's.


A quick note on the Serena Williams episode on Saturday night at the U.S. Open. The line judge was probably wrong to call the foot-fault: the only time you make a call like that, especially at a crucial moment is if it is absolutely blatant and it wasn't. Questionable perhaps, but not blatant. That being said, the officials had no choice but to call the point penalty that ended the match after the way Williams responded. You simply can't threaten officials and saying, "You're lucky if I don't shove this ----- ball down your throat," is threatening. Williams may have known she didn't mean it, but the line judge did not. The fact that Williams was un remorseful afterwards--talking about her passion for the game leading to her tantrum--and STILL didn't not apologize on Sunday in a prepared statement, makes it even worse. One more thing: for all the posturing by the International Tennis Federation about perhaps suspending her from next year's Open, you can forget about that happening. The USTA isn't going to let the biggest draw in the women's game sit out the Open. Here's what will happen: Williams will, at some point, perhaps as early as today after the women's doubles final, agree to apologize and the ITF will say, 'apology accepted,' but she better not do that again. Will Williams learn a lesson from the incident? Sure. Check the score before you lose your temper.


Guy said...

Mr. Feinstein, your comment regarding David Robinson were spot-on. Just a classy individual. As for Michael Jordan he reminded me of a washed up played who still years for the spotlight. He was a disgrace and he should be ashamed of himself but he's got his millions. So what does he care.

Anonymous said...

Just goes to show you that people can watch the exact same thing and draw two different conclusions. I saw most of the HOF speeches (unfortunately missed Robinson's), and thought they were all great in their own way. And pertaining to Jordan's, I didn't get caught up in what he was 'supposed' to say, but enjoyed it for what it was....a rare glimpse into an unfiltered Jordan. I can see how it was a speech that could bother folks, but I liked the candid nature, and it was delivered in a pretty unalarming manner.

Vince Spence said...

Serena was making sure she wasn't one-upped by any other human being for inappropriate behavior.

Unfortunately, she forgot Kanye West was still on the planet.

Anonymous said...


Wat I ave learned over the last week is that boorish behavior delivered by our icons is so cool in 2009... achieve a level of greatness - denegrate those who do not have the forum - and then offer up the BS apology when called out by the masses! Thank god for those true talents who offer up their smiles plus a class act for us to appreciate...

Anonymous said...

Sure, Jordan was the greatest scorer of all time, and he was a very good defender, but that doesn't automatically make you the greatest of all time. All these arguments about the greatest of all time seem to leave out an important stat: triple-doubles. A triple-double defines a complete, all-around player. Who has WAY more than any other player in NBA history? Magic Johnson. And Magic played almost every position, scoring over 40 points at center in the NBA finals as a rookie filling in for Kareem. If you want to discuss the greatest player of all time -- all-around player -- then Magic has to be at the top of that discussion.