The youngest of Spurs legend David Robinson’s three sons, San Antonio Christian senior forward Justin Robinson gravitated toward basketball not long after he was out of diapers.
While other tykes played with toys, Justin wore out a Nerf hoop his famous father had set up in the family’s back yard.
David Robinson, who won two NBA championships during his 14-year Hall of Fame career with the Spurs, chuckled and shook his head Tuesday night when he recalled those days.
“Early on, he had it in him,” Robinson said. “When he was a little kid, we had the little Nerf hoop in the back yard and he was out there for hours. He’d put the ball over his head and he’d run up and dunk it, then grab it and dunk it again. He’d do that for hours. You could see that that was kind of in him.
“He just wanted to do it, so it’s nice to see it come around full circle now. Now he’s getting to do this. He loves coming out there and playing. It’s neat to see that come out of him. You never know if the stuff they do when they’re kids is going to stay with them, but he was the one kid who would play basketball all the time, all day long.”
Now 6-foot-7 and 185 pounds, Justin Robinson already has been accepted to Duke academically and will join the Blue Devils’ as a “preferred walk-on” next season. Justin made his college choice last month after legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called to tell him he had a spot for him on the 2015-16 team.
While Robinson will start college as a non-scholarship player, he said Krzyzewski has assured him he’ll have an opportunity to earn one.
“I would have been a little hesitant to go just as a walk-on if I thought I was going to ride the bench all four or five years, but when I talked to them, they really sounded like they’re going to build me into a player,” Robinson said. “And in two or three years, they’re going to have me in the rotation. They sounded like they were very confident about giving me a shot, and they believed in me.
“That was a big confidence builder for me. That made me want to go right away. I talked to Coach K a few times. It’s just amazing. It’s like a dream come true. He’s the greatest. It’s awesome. It caught me off guard how nice a guy he is. He’s a coach who genuinely cares for his players. Duke has been my dream school since I was a baby.”
Robinson met Krzyzewski while attending his camp at Duke in the summers of 2012 and 2013. David Robinson also has known Krzyzewski for years. Krzyzewski was an assistant coach for the 1992 U.S. Olympic “Dream Team,” which Robinson played on, and Robinson has spoken at Krzyzewski’s camps several times.
Navy, Texas State, Lamar and Columbia expressed interest in Justin, but none of the schools had made an offer before he made his decision to walk on at Duke.
“I’m excited for him,” David Robinson said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity. It’s a wonderful opportunity to be a part of one of the best basketball programs ever. Whenever you can be around excellence, you should be around it excellence. He’ll have an opportunity to earn a scholarship. This is maybe one of the most challenging situations in college sports.
“Duke’s got, what, eight McDonald’s All-Americans? This is where you find out who you are. If you like that kind of a challenge, you’re going to say, ‘I’m going to go compete and I know it’s going to be hard, but I’m going to go compete anyway.’ I was really proud of Justin because he made that decision to compete. That’s half the battle right there.”
Valerie and David Robinson’s other two sons, David Jr. and Corey, also were standout athletes at San Antonio Christian. David Jr., the oldest, played football, basketball and soccer and competed in track in high school, and is now a senior at the University of Texas. Corey signed a football scholarship with Notre Dame as a senior in 2013, and was a sophomore wide receiver for the Fighting Irish this past season.
While being David Robinson’s son has opened doors for him, Justin said his father’s legacy also comes with responsibilities and challenges.
“It makes me work twice as hard, makes me keep my integrity in check, everything,” he said.
But Justin makes it clear he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “If I have any questions about my life, I can go straight to my father. It’s really easy having that role model right there. I see him every day. It’s great. Expectations-wise, I love it. I love the pressure of having to be on my game all the time. It’s fun.”
Justin will watch his first Duke basketball game at the Blue Devils’ storied Cameron Indoor Stadium with his parents next month.
“I’m super excited,” Justin said. “I’m stoked for it.”
Like his father, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, academics are important to Justin, who plans to earn his degree at Duke regardless of how his basketball career goes.
“I’m excited because it’s such a good school, not only basketball-wise but academically,” he said. “I want to do something in business, major in business, and they have the best business school in the nation.”
Justin has been a force this season for San Antonio Christian, which is 25-6 overall and 6-0 in TAPPS District 4-4A. He averages 13.5 points, 10.2 rebounds and 4.6 blocks, leading the Lions in all three categories.
“His basketball IQ is off the charts,” Lions coach John Valenzuela said. “He will come up and make suggestions to me that I don’t even think of. He’s a coach out on the court. Talk about that pedigree. He’s going to go into Duke and be under the best coach in the nation, possibly the world. Then there’s his great historical family background. Academically, he’s amazing. It is a perfect fit.”
David and Valerie Robinson watched San Antonio Christian’s game against TMI on Tuesday night with David’s parents, Freda and Ambrose Robinson.
“I’m so proud of him,” David said. “As a dad, the hardest thing is just keep your mouth shut, and let him figure things out at his own pace. He’s doing a beautiful job of that. It’s all a part of growing up – physically, mentally, emotionally. Teams are going to put pressure on him, and he’s going to have to figure out how to adjust.
“I’m really enjoying watching him. He’s getting smarter and getting better day by day. You go to that next level, the competition is going to jump to a whole other level. But he’s got that ace in his pocket. He knows his body is going to gain 40 pounds. Whatever size he’s going to be, he can shoot it. He has a different skill set than I had. He’s very, very smart.”
As a player, David could affect the outcome of a game with his bountiful skills. Watching his son play hasn’t been quite as easy.
“It’s harder as a dad,” David said. “I see all of the stuff happening on the floor and I’m thinking, you need to do this, you need to that. I’ve got to understand and make myself remember that these guys aren’t there yet. They don’t see all of that stuff. I just try to keep my mouth shut and enjoy the game.
“It’s hard because I’d love to go in there and do a couple of things, make the game easier. But it’s part of being a dad, sitting back and letting your kids grow up.”
Justin said Duke coaches have told him he will start his college career playing small forward, but could also play at power forward if he keeps growing.
“College teams love that stretch four (power forward), the kid that can really shoot the ball,” David said. “The Christian Laettners, the Ryan Andersons. There’s a ton of these kids of guys. We have Austin Daye and Matt Bonner on the Spurs, big guys who can shoot the ball. Justin can definitely play a role. He’s got to figure out how to assert himself and where to assert himself. This is a lot of fun for me. I’m enjoying it.”
David was about the same height as Justin in high school, but grew six inches at the Naval Academy. Nicknamed the “Admiral,” David was 7-1 when he was selected by the Spurs with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1987 NBA draft.
“I was skinner than Justin when I was in high school,” David said. “I weighed less than him. I was about 170, 175 pounds. Still, I think he’s got the same kind of body. I don’t know that he’ll grow as much as I did in college, but he’s not done growing. This last year, he’s grown about three inches. He’s moving along. Who knows? You can’t predict a lot of that stuff.”
David expressed confidence that Justin eventually will compete for playing time at Duke.
“They think he’s the right fit for that team,” David said. “Coach (Krzyzewski) called me and told me, ‘Hey, we’d love to have him. If he wants to play, we would love to have him as a part of this team.’ First year, Coach told me they’re going to redshirt him, let him grow into his body.
“He told me, ‘Tell him it’s a long journey. It could be a five-year journey for him. Get his degree from here. Regardless of what happens on the basketball court, this is the right school for him.’ I agreed with that. I think Duke is a fantastic school. Whether Justin gets out on the floor ever or not, I couldn’t care less. I want to see him grow into the man he’s supposed to be.”
How is Justin like his father and mother?
“He’s like me in the sense that he loves to compete,” David said. “He loves to push himself. He’s not afraid to challenge himself. Every time through high school, he’s taken the most difficult classes he could. He’s pushed himself, always challenged himself.
“In that way, he’s very much like me, always saying, ‘I’d rather go swim in the deep water because I can do a whole lot more and be more successful in the deep water than I can in the shallow.’ That’s a certain type of a personality.”
And so how is Justin like his mother?
“He’s more like Valerie in a lot of ways,” David said. “He’s more structured. Valerie is very much a routine person. She likes her routines. He’s a lot like that. I don’t care what comes tomorrow. I’m really happy with today. He’s more a creature of habit.
“He likes knowing what’s coming. He likes the predictable. He eats the same food every day. He’s got a routine. I think he’s much more structured, which I think is going to serve him well.”
Valenzuela lauded Justin for the way he’s handled the high expectations placed on his shoulders.
“To talk about his future, you have to talk about his past,” Valenzuela said. “Their whole family is the family of San Antonio. When David Robinson came to San Antonio, all that we have with the Spurs and everything that’s an event here it’s the city of David. That’s really what it is. Justin growing up his whole life and watching his father being the man, and then watching his brother doing well at Notre Dame, he almost has no choice. The expectations are high.
“But Justin never backs down from them. He embraces them, and that’s a hard thing to do. The toughest person to be is Michael Jordan’s son. There’s no way you’re ever going to measure up. It’s the same way with David Robinson. It’s hard to measure up to him, but Justin loves it. He loves the game. He’s been a student of the game.”
Valenzuela became head boys basketball coach at San Antonio Christian in 2011, when Justin was starting his freshman season.
“We’ve had the Robinson family for four years,” Valenzuela said. “I’m envious that Duke is going to have the Robinson family for five years.”