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2021 Gerald R. Ford Award: David Robinson

Former U.S. Naval Academy standout has blazed a path in philanthropy and business since retiring from the NBA

David Robinson’s post-basketball life is filled with successes in family, philanthropy and business.

His dedication to strive for excellence both on and off the floor are the primary reasons Robinson will receive the NCAA President’s Gerald R. Ford Award during the 2021 NCAA Convention, which will be held virtually this month due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The award is named in recognition of Gerald Ford, the 38th president of the United States and a member of two national championship football teams at Michigan. The award honors an individual who has provided significant leadership as an advocate for intercollegiate athletics over the course of their career. It was established in 2004 by then-NCAA President Myles Brand.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who followed Robinson’s Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame career from his days at the U.S. Naval Academy in the mid-1980s to his 14-year stint with the San Antonio Spurs that ended in 2003.

While Robinson, nicknamed “The Admiral,” excelled on the court, he also conveyed a balanced approach to life and used his platform to help others.

His philanthropic and charitable contributions so impressed then-NBA Commissioner David Stern that the league’s seasonlong recipient of the NBA Community Assist Award has been presented the David Robinson Plaque since the 2011-12 season.

Robinson, who was the consensus national player of the year in college basketball after his senior year at Navy, where he averaged 28.2 points and 11.8 rebounds in 1987, lightheartedly said the NBA honor places more pressure on him to live up to a standard.

In 2001, Robinson and his wife, Valerie, started the Carver Academy, a nonprofit Christian-based school in San Antonio.

By 2012, it was converted to a tuition-free charter school as part of a merger with the IDEA Public Schools network. 

“I wanted to have an impact to make people’s lives better,” Robinson said. “I wanted to use my platform to help get low-income kids into college.”

On the business side of his life, Robinson and Daniel Bassichis created the Admiral Capital Group in 2007. It is a private equity firm that combines business and the desire to make a positive social impact while creating long-term sustainable businesses.

Robinson said the firm has created over $1.5 billion in assets.

“We’ve done well for our clients,” said Robinson, who was a 10-time NBA All-Star, was named most valuable player of the league in 1995 and helped the Spurs win two world championships in 1999 and 2003.

In 2011, Robinson completed a master’s degree in administration at Incarnate Word. It’s an example of his avid quest to seek knowledge and improve himself.

“It was good, because I was able to look at a lot of case studies, and it helped me understand leadership and how business worked,” Robinson said. “But then the only way you can truly learn is to get out there and do it. We’ve built an incredible culture at Admiral Capital Group.”

Strong upbringing

Robinson’s sense of being a balanced person came from his parents, Ambrose and Freda Robinson.

His father served in the Navy for 20 years and later did engineering contract work for the military, and his mother was a nurse. They both grew up in the segregated South and saw education as a way to obtain a better life.

Robinson recalled reading car manuals with his dad to fix automobiles and working together to build televisions from scratch. He said his father also instructed him to read the dictionary every day.

“I remember saying to him, ‘Dad, no one else does this,’” said Robinson, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame twice — once for his individual play and the other for being a member of the 1992 U.S. men’s Olympic basketball “Dream Team.” “It shaped me and gave me a good vocabulary and helped me academically.”

Robinson majored in mathematics at Navy. He said leadership was the best attribute he learned in Annapolis.

“Military academies aren’t for everyone,” Robinson said. “You have men and women only a couple of years older than you bossing you around like your daddy would. You learn responsibility and not to make excuses.

“In the first month there, you are only allowed five basic responses. They are, ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘No, sir.’ ‘Aye, aye, sir.’ ‘I’ll find out, sir,’ and ‘No excuse, sir.’ They don’t want to hear why you didn’t get something done.”   

The Spurs made him the No. 1 pick in the 1987 NBA draft but had to wait two years for Robinson to fulfill his military commitment.

While he starred on the floor for the Spurs, averaging 21.1 points and 10.6 rebounds per game in his career and being named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history, Robinson and Valerie also raised their three sons David Jr., Corey and Justin.

It can be tough being the offspring of a famous father, but Robinson is proud of the way his sons have approached life.

Robinson said David Jr. had no interest in pursuing athletics to the highest level and didn’t want that lifestyle. After graduating college at Texas, he moved to New York City to start his business career and now works with his dad at the Admiral Capital Group in San Antonio.

On the other hand, Corey pursued athletics and even considered attending Navy like his father. He eventually decided to attend Notre Dame, where he played receiver on the Fighting Irish football team.

Justin walked onto the Duke men’s basketball team, and despite limited court time, he was named a team captain because of his leadership skills. He has signed to play professional basketball in Europe.

“It’s amazing to watch my kids on their own journeys,” Robinson said. “The hardest thing is keeping my mouth shut. You must let your kids become who they need to be. It’s amazing that in a couple of generations my grandfather and father lived in a segregated society. Now I have three boys who think they can be president of the United States. It’s crazy when you think of how much mindsets have changed.”