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From the Archives: Friends In Deed

Former managing editor of Sports Spectrum, Dave Branon, wrote “Friends In Deed” for SS’s November 1999 issue about David Robinson and Avery Johnson’s unique friendship.

Imagine having a nice leisurely breakfast at your local International House of Pancakes when the glass doors swing open and in walk two of the most famous basketball players in Texas.

It happens once in a while in Stafford, Texas, outside of Houston, when the urge hits David Robinson and Avery Johnson to go out for real food among the real people.

“That’s one of our favorite spots,” says Robinson, who lives outside of San Antonio. “When I go down to Houston to visit Avery, we go to IHOP and get breakfast. We go when Avery treats me.”

It sounds like just a couple of buddies out for some coffee and conversation. But a little thing called the NBA championship has made it a bit more special for the other patrons.

“Not too many people bother us,” says the big guy.

According to the manager of the restaurant, it’s not quite that calm.

“The people go crazy,” he says about the visits. “Everyone wants autographs. They don’t let them eat. But they are very nice people.”

The man is right about that. And now that Robinson, Johnson, and their San Antonio teammates have captured the NBA championship, the “very nice people” description no longer comes attached with the statement—either implied or stated—that this is the reason they can’t win.

If any more proof was needed that Leo Durocher’s famous bromide “Nice guys finish last” is wrong, then the Spurs championship provided that proof. These nice guys stand atop the basketball world.

Even the NBA thinks they are pretty special people.

After the 1997-98 basketball season, Avery was named to the NBA All-Interview first team, while David made the second team. That same year, AJ was given the NBA Sportsmanship Award. At the close of the 1999 season, Robinson was named to the All-Interview first team.

Finding somebody with anything nasty to say about these two is like finding a problem with Tim Duncan’s game.

So, yes, as the man from IHOP says, David and Avery are “very nice people” indeed.

And very good friends.

It’s not especially easy to keep a good friendship going in the NBA. Once you establish a kinship with a teammate, for instance, a cold-hearted deal could come along and put thousands of miles between you and your best friend.

That happened to the fledgling Johnson-Robinson relationship in the early 90s. Avery joined the Spurs in January 1991, which was the middle of Robinson’s second season in San Antonio.

At the time, both players were relatively new in their journeys of faith. Johnson had trusted Jesus Christ as Savior on July 16, 1989 after hearing a sermon about Jesus’ second coming. Robinson, on the other hand, was still riding the fence about a total commitment to Christ. It wouldn’t be until June of 1991 that David would accept the challenge given to him by Greg Ball of Champions for Christ to turn his life over completely to Jesus.

“When I first got to the team,” Avery recalls, “I had already been with Seattle and Denver, and I had gotten cut on Christmas Eve [1990]. I joined the Spurs two weeks later. David didn’t really know me, and I knew a little bit about him. I was just trying to find myself and get in with the organization. I really wasn’t trying to develop any friendships.”

Yet they had developed enough of a friendship that in July David went to New Orleans to be on hand when Avery married Cassandra Merricks. The following winter, Avery returned the favor as David married Valerie Hoggatt in San Antonio.

Amid all these major changes going on in their lives, there was still basketball. Robinson was establishing himself as a dominant force in the NBA. During the 1991-92 seasons, the Admiral played in his third straight All-Star Game, was named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and won the NBA Blocked Shots Title.

His new friend Avery, on the other hand, was still trying to convince people that he belonged in the Association. On December 17, 1991, he was waived by the Spurs, where—after a month in exile on the bench as Jerry Tarkanian coached the Spurs—he excelled under the leadership of the Shark’s replacement, John Lucas. After the season, though, Avery took his show on the road again, signing with Golden State and heading off to the San Francisco Bay Area.

In July 1994, Johnson rejoined San Antonio, and he’s been sporting the Spurs’ logo ever since.

Robinson and Johnson, then, know what they’re talking about when they explain how tough it can be to maintain a friendship in the sometimes unstable world of the NBA.

‘It’s a great place to test your friendship,” says Robinson. “If you’re going to develop one, it’s got to be a true one. One day you can be there, and the next day you may not be there. Your friendship has to stand the test of trials and the test of time.”

Johnson understands the tests. “We’ve had some turbulence—not in our friendship but in our professional careers—that have tested the bond we developed outside of basketball. I’ve traveled [from team to team] more than he has, but he’s experienced a lot of turbulence in his stay here with the Spurs. Through it all, we’ve persevered, and our relationship has grown. David and I are friends for all the right reasons.”

Robinson explains, “Our faith is the foundation of our friendship. That’s why our friendship has stood the test of time. Our goals are exactly the same. Our hearts are exactly the same. He knew the Lord before I did, but when I got saved, it was the hook, line, and sinker. God pulled me in. There was no turning back. We had each other for the encouragement. We knew that fellowship was a critical part of our growth as Christians.”

Johnson’s excursions to other teams in the NBA have given him insight into friendship and their fickle nature among pro athletes. That’s why he can appreciate the bond he shares with Robinson. “I’ve been friends with guys around the league, but when they would leave the team, the friendship suffered. Our friendship is not based on this earth. Even when I was with Golden State, we still had a great relationship. We still talked. We still encouraged each other. Our relationship is not based on being teammates or the Spurs or money.”

At one time early in their friendship, they would talk almost every night of the week. “There were times when I would call David four or five nights a week.”

So, what do a couple of wealthy basketball players talk about when they go to IHOP or when they are flying to the next road game or when they get on the phone? Generally, the conversations come down to one of the three things: family, faith, or basketball.

Because their children are approximately the same ages, much of the conversation revolves around being parents. Avery and Cassandra’s daughter is Christianne, who at age 7 is about five weeks older than David and Valerie’s firstborn, David Jr. Next, Corey Robinson is about two months older than Avery Johnson Jr. And then there’s Justin Robinson, who is 3-years-old and has no counterpart in the Johnson household.

“We compare notes,” says Avery. “We really like to talk about the difference in our kids. How three kids in David’s case and two kids in my case can come from the same two people and be so different. We both read a book about how to raise your kids and discipline them, and it helped us tremendously. We compare notes about our kids. Besides the Lord, we find ourselves talking about our families, our lives, and our kids.”

Speaking of differences in children, one indication of that with the Robinson-Johnson kids is their taste in favorite basketball players.

Christianne likes Tim Duncan, as does Corey Robinson.

Avery Jr. likes his dad’s best friend, David.

David Jr. likes Antonio Daniels.

Then there’s Justin, the youngest of the bunch. “He’s a real basketball player,” says his dad. “He’s the only one who really understands the game.”

And his main man? “He says I’m his favorite player,” says David, proudly.

The two dads also spend a lot of their conversation time talking about basketball.

“We’re always trying to figure out how to position ourselves for the next challenge,” Robinson says. “We talk about our team, about how to set an example, how to encourage people, how to bond the team together.”

“We’re committed to being the type of players God wants us to be,” Avery adds. “Everybody’s watching us. We talk about basketball because playing basketball is what we are called to do.”

On the court, the two have roles that are as different as their greatly varying physical characteristics. The 5’11″ Johnson is called on to run the team on the floor. He’s the General while his 7’1″ friend, the Admiral, patrols the paint with his sidekick Duncan. In those roles, sometimes the General has to get after the Admiral.

Understandably, Avery isn’t comfortable making a big deal about that role. “I don’t want to talk too much about that,” he says. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t take it seriously. “Everybody has a role,” he says. “Just like on a football team, not everybody can be a quarterback or a wide receiver. I think Dave seems to think I’ve earned my way into this particular role. When I’m not in that role, I can’t really discriminate about who I need to pump up at a certain time. I expect a lot from Dave. We are in certain roles on this team, and we have to fulfill those roles.”

Robinson concurs and gives a biblical illustration. “Jesus rebuked a lot of people, but He rebuked the people that were closest to Him probably the hardest. You can’t do that unless you have the love foundation to do it. You can’t get up in Peter’s face and say, ‘Get behind me, Satan,’ if you don’t have a foundation. Because Avery and I have the same heart, because we have wanted the same things for so long, we understand one another.”

Friends like Avery and David don’t just work together at the Alamodome then run over to the IHOP for a meal. Sometimes they do other stuff together. Fun stuff.

But not golf.

“I quit golf,” Avery says with authority. And David admits that his own golf time has been “severely limited lately.”

Their passions for off-the-court, away-from-the-family activities are not very similar. While Avery is a self-described gym rat who can spend five hours a day working out and perfecting his shot, David prefers to be outdoors.

“I like to go out and ride my bike,” says No. 50. “I’m an outdoors kind of guy. I go hiking. I do a lot of things to stay in shape. I enjoy running up and down the mountain. I do sprints on the mountain.”

Recognizing the difference, they’ve tried to compromise.

“I try to split it up some,” David says. “I try to work out with him a little bit, and I try to get him out in the environment to do some stuff.”

“Yes, I have a bike,” Avery admits, although he likes to limit his bike riding to tooling around their neighborhood with Christianne and AJ, not climbing the mountain on it.

When Robinson was 14 years old, he was taking advanced college computer courses, so it’s clear that a love for the computer is a natural with him. David’s point-guard friend didn’t share that interest until the big man came along to push Avery into the computer age.

“He has really helped me with computers,” Avery says. “I was never really interested in them. Well, we were working out in Houston last year, and we started talking about computers. I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a little computer at home in my office.’”

When Robinson, who is listening to his friend tell this story, is reminded of the incident, he breaks into laughter and interrupts Avery’s monologue.

“It was a dinosaur!” he says. “I said to him, ‘When was the last time you turned this thing on?’ I pushed the button, and it took about 10 minutes for it to come on. We went to the store immediately and made a substitution. I think he realized that computers can be useful.”

This year, Cassandra pushed Avery even further into the computer age. She bought Avery a laptop for Father’s Day. Problem was, Avery didn’t know how to set the thing up. So he took it with him to New York when the Spurs were in the Big Apple to play the Knicks in the finals—figuring he’d find some free time to get the machine up and running.

He picked the day of Game 6 of the finals to try to figure it out. “I called Dave and asked him if he would set up my computer,” Avery says. “I went up to his room, and we began working on it. I was so nervous I couldn’t sit down.”

Apparently, two missions were accomplished that day.

Oh, yes, the championship. It’s another thing these two friends now share.

Even in that, their bond showed through. Before the finals began, Avery, who has been fighting throughout his basketball career to prove himself, wanted the NBA title as much for David as he did for himself.

“I wanted this championship to be really special for the Spurs and all of that, but really for him,” Avery says. “He really doesn’t like people to talk about him, but he really deserved that title. He’s taken every kind of verbal and physical abuse from people, and I wanted to see him up there on that podium being No. 1 more than I wanted to see myself up there.

“More than anybody in the NBA, he’s gone through stuff physically and mentally with his body, his back, his knees, his hand, and all the things people have said about him. I just wanted him up there, standing on top of the mountain.”

David Robinson, in a sense, can finally relax. After 10 years of relentless pursuit of vindication, he now has the NBA title. That trophy alone could at last silence the howling of the wolves who were out to tear down this man of character. Yet as satisfied as Robinson is that no one can ever again question whether he can win the big one, he’s not about to criticize his critics. He’s content, instead to quietly analyze his victory in the light of his faith.

“You hear people say a lot of stuff,” he begins, “but those people don’t know me. They don’t know me at all.

“God gave me a good example in Christ. When they led Him to the cross, He did not say a word to defend Himself. God said, ‘I will defend You.’ That’s what the Lord spoke to me about.

“I felt him saying, ‘Don’t get up there and try to defend yourself. You sound stupid anyway trying to brag about how many trophies you have on your shelf. Let Me defend you.’

“It wasn’t being vindictive or anything. It was about God delivering as He said He would. That trophy is going to sit on a shelf and gather dust. But the important thing is that we learned to trust God day in and day out.”

The championship was also the culmination of Avery’s long search for respect in the NBA. Undrafted in 1988 after breaking two NCAA assists records, Johnson has had to scratch and claw first for the chance to stick in the league and then to get the respect he deserves. Someone even went so far as to say that no team with Avery at point could win the NBA title.

But they did, and Johnson punctuated his arrival at the top of the NBA ladder by hitting the game-winning shot in the final game against New York. After climbing that ladder for so long and finally achieving what many said he couldn’t achieve, could the rest of his career be anti-climactic?

To think that is to underestimate this remarkable man. “I think when you serve Jesus,” Johnson says, “There is no limit. Jesus is about everlasting life. He’s about eternity. He’s not about a year. In serving the Lord, you’ve got to keep serving.

“You don’t stop treating your wife right because you treated her right today. What about the next day and the next month? Maybe you pat yourself on the head because you were a pretty good father today. But what about tomorrow? There’s always more work to be done.”

For Johnson and Robinson, the work ahead isn’t particularly easy. They have an NBA championship to defend. They each have growing families to help rear. They each have a wife to cherish and partner with. They each have a foundation to run. They are each involved with outreach. And they each live under the continual spotlight of fame and the expectation of those who love and respect them as athletes.

Despite all that, they both seem to be at east with who they are. They joke with each other easily, as good friends do. They call each other often. Their families get together for occasional cookouts at David’s house. Their wives are friends with each other. All of these factors make their friendship something that can help them endure lives that can easily get overloaded.

“I think we draw things out from each other,” Robinson says. “That has been real positive. We’ve learned a lot from each other. We really stretch each other out. I think working together has been a real blessing.”

You don’t have to eat breakfast with these guys at an IHOP restaurant to figure that out.

By Dave Branon

This story was published in the November 1999 issue of Sports Spectrum magazine.