HIS SHIP HAS COME IN On top of his game, Robinson grows accustomed to fame


None of it registered with David Robinson. Not the packs of kids who followed him through shopping malls asking for autographs, not the frantic security men who formed human wedges to pull him through crowds of fans that milled around hotel lobbies, not even the applause that rained down each time he was introduced in arenas from Atlanta to Washington.

Fame was the four-letter word he refused to consider. Fame is for players like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, guys who ooze charisma from every pore, performers who play the Stadium and the Forum like Sinatra once played the Paramount.

Then came the call. Robinson arrived home after a practice, flicked on his telephone answering machine, and heard the voice of a personal hero, jazz musician Grover Washington Jr.

Grover for David. Fame.

"He's like my favorite," Robinson said. "I sit there listening to his tapes all the time trying to play him on my horn. I called him back and talked to him. I was just shocked that he knew who I was. He said, 'I love your work,' and all this stuff. It just never ceases to amaze me. I don't really think that what I do is all that great. I have fun doing it and everything, but it's so wild when other people know who I am."

Robinson is growing accustomed to his status as a celebrity. He is three years removed from the Naval Academy and 1 1/2 seasons into a National Basketball Association career with the -- San Antonio Spurs. He is not yet a Michael or a Magic, but he is fast closing the popularity gap. His image, made up of equal parts brains and brawn, is being parlayed into millions of dollars in off-court endorsements.

What makes Robinson's popularity remarkable is this: he is a 7-foot-1 center. He is Goliath. Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the great centers of the NBA's past, were athletes to be feared and loathed. They were winners and villains. People paid to see them lose. Abdul-Jabbar broke out of that mold in the final years of his career, when he was viewed as an elder statesman.

But Robinson is different. He is the center as hero, a new phenomenon in the NBA. His play is captivating. He is a big man with the quickness of a guard and the touch of a violinist, an enforcer who protects his turf cooly, politely, effectively. He already has won the league's Rookie of the Year award, and is an MVP in waiting, the center of the '90s, say no less than three authorities named Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and Pat Riley.

Robinson's image is Teflon-coated, certified by his four years at the Naval Academy and two years of active military service. He is a thinking man's star, a student who scored 1,300 on his SATs, a would-be scientist temporarily sidetracked by slam dunks, a budding musician exploring the intricacies of the electric keyboard and the saxophone.

"I've always said that David is a better person than a player," Navy coach Pete Herrmann said. "NBA people said the money would change him. It hasn't. For the past month, he has been the best player in basketball."

That Robinson, a lieutenant in the Naval reserves, could be called back to active military duty at any time during the war in the Persian Gulf provides a terrifying edge to his play world. Robinson's stoic, patriotic stance -- "I'll go and serve gladly" -- broadens his appeal while reinforcing his heroic qualities of duty and honor.

"David is Mister Robinson," Orlando Magic general manager Pa Williams said. "He is the naval officer, helping to defend our country. David is an educator and a motivator. He stands for goodliness. How can you attack that? He may be helping defend us against the Iraqis. Mister Robinson is who every family wants their son to become."

The image sells.

The Spurs, once one of the NBA's third-world franchises, have become a league superpower on and off the court. They waited two years for Robinson to fulfill his active military obligation, and now they're reaping the rewards of patience. Robinson ignited a 35-game turnaround in his rookie season last year, and average attendance climbed from 11,207 to 14,723 at the HemisFair. This season, the Spurs are averaging 15,896 fans a game.

Sales of officially licensed Spurs' merchandise also climbed last year, from 22nd to 13th out of 27 NBA teams.

In fan balloting for today's NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte, N.C., Robinson led all Western Conference players with 695,519 votes, 30,000 ahead of runner-up Magic Johnson.

Even Robinson's "Q rating" deserves a bullet. In the advertising world's rankings of recognition and likability, Robinson is fifth among active NBA players, behind Jordan, Johnson, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas.

"David Robinson is at the cutting edge of a new generation of endorsers," said Matthew Grim, sports marketing columnist for Adweek's Marketing Week. "He can act. He can play music. He is smart. He is an officer and a gentleman."

Robinson chooses his endorsement opportunities carefully. He places his name on only three products: Nike basketball shoes, Casio watches and Franklin athletic equipment. Industry analysts peg his yearly take in endorsements at $1.5 million. His contract with the Spurs is for 10 years and $26 million.

But there is no recession in Mister Robinson's neighborhood. A clause in Robinson's contract with the Spurs kicks in before the 1992-93 season, guaranteeing him the average salary of the NBA's two highest-paid players.

Robinson's fame stands on a tripod -- his ability, his military education and his television ads for Nike. In the past five years, the Oregon-based athletic footwear and apparel company has transformed the celebrity endorsement business, catapulting stars into superstars with MTV-style imagery. Jordan, Bo Jackson, Andre Agassi and Robinson, Nike's bread-and-butter spokesmen, aren't just selling sneakers, they're selling themselves in finely crafted advertisements that combine elements of sports, schmaltz and rock-and-roll.

Robinson's Nike spots are set in "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood," a parody of Mr. Rogers. The ads subtlely display Robinson's intelligence, gentleness and acting ability. He makes fun of NBA cliches like "transition game," and "contract renegotiation," looks squarely in the camera and says cooly, "Can you say 'kick some butt?' " That ad has been pulled from prime time and is only shown late at night.

"This campaign shows Robinson's uniqueness -- and breaks it down with a sophisticated knowingness," Barbara Lippert wrote in a May 1990 Adweek column.

"When I looked David over, I saw a wonderful opportunity to help the game of basketball," said Scott Bedbury, Nike's advertising chief. "He'll help maintain a high image for basketball through the next decade. If we continue to handle David the way we've done to date, and he continues to perform, he'll be among the top two or three professional athletes in the world of professional sports."

But clearly, Robinson is more than just a slick ad campaign. He connects to his audience unlike the NBA's two other magnificent centers, Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks and Akeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets.

"The reaction that people have to David is unbelievable," San Antonio coach Larry Brown said. "It goes back to what he stands for, his years at the Naval Academy, the way he carries himself. He does the right things naturally."

Without fanfare, Robinson contributed $180,000 to an elementary school in San Antonio last fall. He freely signs autographs and refuses to become involved in the sports memorabilia business. He also routinely speaks to children's groups.

"If I let them, the fans would bother me," he said. "They're everywhere. They always want autographs and sometimes they

tend to be a little selfish as far as my time, while I'm eating or while I'm busy. But I enjoy it because it's a part of what I do and I don't let it bother me. I just think that everyone meeting me, it's their first time meeting me and I want to be as pleasant as I can."

The only whiff of controversy in Robinson's career occurred in the past two weeks. In a profile appearing in the February edition of Gentlemen's Quarterly, Robinson ripped into Georgetown's John Thompson, coach of the 1988 U.S. Olympic basketball team that finished with a bronze medal. Robinson, who played poorly during the Olympics, said "Thompson was a dictator."

Robinson since has backed away from the quotes, saying they were fragments that were taken out of context. It is unlikely that the flap will do any long-term damage to Robinson's image. After all, the U.S. didn't lose to the Soviet Union because Robinson played poorly, it lost because, among other things, Thompson selected an international team with only one bona fide outside shooter.

Whatever questions NBA executives had about Robinson's abilities based on his Olympic performance have since been answered. In a span of months, he has been transformed from a franchise player into a marketable hero.

"Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan are the only rock stars to play basketball," said Riley, the former Los Angeles Lakers coach who is a commentator for NBC-TV. "Those guys are part of a cult that has a following that is international. I think David can command that. Whether or not he wants to will be determined on how he embraces that lifestyle. I don't know David's personality, whether he'll embrace that whole notion of wanting that kind of attention and demanding the spotlight. Michael and Magic are very easy in that spotlight. They like it and they're good at it."

There are times when the spotlight makes Robinson uncomfortable. He values his privacy and is shielded by his parents, Ambrose and Freda. They have set up The Robinson Group to field the thousands of letters and requests their son receives each month. Negotiations for the multimillion-dollar 0' endorsements are handled by a Washington-based sports marketing firm, Advantage International.

But the final decisions, whether on the boards or in a boardroom, rest with David.

"Sometimes I think too much about how I have to be or how I have to conduct myself in public, which is ridiculous," Robinson said. "I should just go out and if I make mistakes, I make mistakes. People realize, hey, he's just like everyone else. There is a lot of pressure, but sometimes you've got to remember where you're going."

Mister Robinson is headed for an exclusive neighborhood, reserved for the Joe Montanas, Bo Jacksons and Michael Jordans of this planet.

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