David Robinson: Parenting in the Fourth Quarter

basketball swishing through a hoop
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Make no mistake: The Admiral runs a tight ship. David Robinson, the NBA Hall of Famer who picked up his maritime nickname at the U.S. Naval Academy, keeps strict rules when it comes to his three sons and money.

"I remember a family meeting," he recalls. "I told the boys, 'Don't expect an inheritance. I'll pay for college, but once you're out there, that's it. If you can't do it on your own, maybe that's not your path.'" 

Even his wife, Valerie, shakes her head at such talk. This, after all, comes from a man who earned an estimated $116 million in 14 remarkable years with the San Antonio Spurs. 

"Hopefully they understand it's not me being a jerk," David says. "It's just me seeing potential in them. They have to figure out what they're good at, what God has placed in them. When they figure that out, they'll know what to do and have a blast doing it."

David is committed to helping his three boys — David Jr., age 20, Corey, 17, and Justin, 16 — figure out God's path for their lives. 

These days, the Admiral is plenty busy with his charitable foundations, business ventures and church activities, but he focuses most of his energy on guiding his sons through early adulthood as they mature into Christlike leaders.

"My whole schedule is built around that," he says.

David finds that the best training opportunities for his sons come at random moments. So he spends much of his free time with them, engaging in their favorite activities. For Justin, it's bowling and golfing. For Corey, a senior wide receiver who has committed to Notre Dame, it's throwing the football. David also enjoys bringing them to church when he teaches large groups there, and he tries to maintain family Bible study and prayer times even as the boys grow older.

It's all part of investing in his kids. The payoff? Trust — especially during difficult life conversations. Young men, he knows, aren't going to confide in someone they don't trust. 

But that's only part of it. Ultimately, he's trying to model the Savior  —  the One who gave him meaning beyond basketball two-plus decades ago.

A spiritual awakening

After graduating from Navy as the nation's top college player, David was picked No. 1 overall by San Antonio in the 1987 NBA draft, but he spent the next two years finishing his military commitment. Once in the league, the 24-year-old rookie with the telegenic smile, chiseled muscles and a deft low-post game rocketed to superstardom, instantly transforming the Spurs from a moribund franchise (21-61 record in 1988-89) into a Western Conference power (56-26 in 1989-90). 

From a worldly perspective, David had it all. Fame and fortune washed over his deck like a gale-force swell. But his soul was far from shipshape.

"I was having great success on the court, but I didn't feel great," he says. "I felt like I was at the mercy of fans and everyone else. It was my whole identity. You get into that environment and you start becoming that environment."

A conversation with Greg Ball, the president of Champions for Christ and a pastor in Austin, Texas, showed David that he had been acting like a "spoiled kid" — lavished with divine blessings but never thankful. On June 8, 1991, David put his faith in Christ and got baptized. Six months later, he married Valerie. David Jr. arrived within two years.

Since then, David has seen his parents and siblings become Christians. He has helped his pastor — the well-known author Max Lucado — build a thriving men's Bible study of about 200 attendees per week. He also started three philanthropic endeavors: the David Robinson Foundation, which helps fund grants to children's causes; the Carver Academy, a nonprofit school in San Antonio; and the Admiral Center, which assists celebrities in launching other philanthropic projects.

In 2003, David retired after winning the second of his two NBA championships. During his career, he eclipsed 20,000 points and 10,000 rebounds and also earned three Olympic medals.

On the home court

Parenting has presented David with far greater challenges than Hakeem Olajuwon or Shaquille O'Neal ever did on the court. Sometimes, David just stares at his sons in bewilderment, struggling to make sense of it all: These traits are from me. … These are from your mom. … I can barely figure you out.

Other times, David's old military instincts kick in — the desire for unquestioned, lockstep obedience:  I know you're not all like me, BUT JUST DO WHAT I SAY!

"The most important thing," David says, "is that they see Christ in me and that we teach them their responsibilities, not just to us but to themselves and the future generation."

Recently, David had to navigate a difficult conversation with his oldest son, David Jr. The Robinsons have always preached the importance and benefits of godly living to their sons. But David Jr., now a college sophomore, sees plenty of godless people prospering on campus. Naturally, questions arise: What gives? Were Mom and Dad just blowing smoke? What's the point of strict moral standards when the atheists and agnostics I know are doing just fine?

So dad and son chatted about Psalm 73, which poses similar questions.

"It was hard for me to listen to," David says. "I was saying, 'Did you even grow up in my house?' But part of me was like, 'Hey, I hear you.' A lot of people get by just fine without faith. But what's 'just fine'? So we talked about redefining what 'OK' is. Is the typical divorce rate OK? And of the people who are still married but not happy, is that OK? But you've got to let them explore that."

David adds: "You've just got to pray a lot. You've got to say, 'Lord, in the end, bring them back to where they need to be.'"

Three boys. Three potential husbands and fathers. Three future leaders. So many possibilities.

"They have to make decisions," David says. "You're sending them out into the world to either thrive or struggle. It's a great time for us to see what we've planted in these kids and what comes out."</p> David has been faithful to his mission. But the world is a volatile place, especially for young adventurers. And so the Admiral — all 85 inches of him — bends down to his knees and keeps praying.

This article first appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Thriving Family magazine and was titled "Tougher Than the NBA." If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. Get it delivered to your home by subscribing for a gift of any amount.

Copyright 2013 by Joshua Cooley. Used by permission. 

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