The San Antonio Spurs are the model of NBA organizational excellence in the 21st century, but when the calendar flipped from the 1980s to the 1990s that wasn’t the case. The 1990 San Antonio Spurs were a franchise that had never reached the NBA Finals and hadn’t so much as won a playoff series in seven years. The long-awaited arrival of David Robinson changed the game forever in San Antonio.
Robinson, a 7’2” center that dominated college basketball in 1986 and 1987 was the coveted prize in the NBA draft lottery. The Spurs won the lottery and picked Robinson in the spring of ’87.
But the center nicknamed “The Admiral” had played his college ball at Navy, and that meant a military commitment. The Navy wouldn’t make him do the full five years normally required, figuring the publicity value of Robinson’s NBA participation would make up for it. But it was still 1990 before The Admiral could start his pro basketball career.
Larry Brown coached Kansas to a national championship in 1988, but with Danny Manning leaving town and NCAA investigators arriving, Brown figured it was time to get out of Lawrence. With Robinson on the way, the coach took the San Antonio job, lived through a 21-61 campaign in 1989, and then welcomed his new center.
Robinson was surrounded by a cast of mostly young players on a rebuilding team. Point guard Rod Strickland was 23-years-old, a playmaker who would average eight assists per game. Willie Anderson was also 23 and a potent two-guard who averaged 16 ppg.
Sean Elliot was a rookie out of Arizona. The man who would eventually be a part of championship teams and today handles color commentary for the team’s TV broadcasts, averaged 10 ppg as a 21-year-old rookie. Vernon Maxwell would eventually be the backcourt running mate for Kenny Smith and the Houston Rockets as they won NBA titles in 1994 and 1995, but the 24-year-old Maxwell had a hard time getting minutes on this lineup.
Terry Cummings was in his prime, and the forward averaged 22 points/8 rebounds per game. And Mo Cheeks, the man who ran the show for the Philadelphia 76ers of Julius Erving, was the man who provided the veteran savvy, at 33-years-old.
The Los Angeles Lakers had won the Western Conference eight teams in the 1980s, and even with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar now retired, they were still the team to beat in this conference. The Robinson era started with a game against the Lakers and the Admiral lit up Los Angeles with a 23 points/17 rebounds showing as San Antonio won.
After splitting their next ten games, the Spurs took off. They won 13 of 14 over late November and much of December. In late January, another win over the Lakers—this time on the road, with Robinson going for 19/16—keyed another five-game win streak. San Antonio’s record reached 32-13, they closed the regular season with seven straight wins and finished 56-26. It was good enough for the Midwest Division title and the 2-seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
Los Angeles was the top seed and the favorite, and the Portland Trail Blazers had won 59 games to finish second to the Lakers. That would give Portland homecourt in a potential playoff matchup with San Antonio, even if the Blazers were the lower seed. On balance, after all the losing Spurs fans had endured, to complete a regular season with more wins than everyone other than the Blazers, the Lakers and the defending champion Detroit Pistons, was a significant achievement.
Before San Antonio could dream big, they had to get this matter of finally winning a playoff series taken care off. The Denver Nuggets were the opponent in what was then a best-of-five first round. The Nuggets, with 36-year-old Alex English as their best scorer, were never known for defense in this era and Robinson ate them up. The Admiral averaged a 28/14 in the series, with Cumming and Anderson also averaging 20-plus a night, and the Spurs won in three straight.
Portland awaited in the second round. Homecourt would be the dominant factor throughout the series, but never more than in the first four games. The teams split, with the home team winning by double digits each time. An ominous sign in Game 1 though, was that Robinson only had nine points and nine rebounds. While he never tested those depths again, it was a sign that the Admiral wasn’t going to dominate Blazer center Kevin Duckworth the way had Blair Rasmussen for the Nuggets and other softer teams during the regular season.
Game 5 went to double overtime and Portland survived 138-132. The key difference was three-point shooting—the Spurs only hit three treys, while the Blazers hit nine, five of them by guard Terry Porter. The low volume on those numbers is a sign of how much basketball has changed, but they were the difference on this night in the Pacific Northwest.
Robinson played his best game of the series for the home crowd in Game 6, going for 24 points/13 rebounds, while Anderson drilled 30. The Spurs pulled away in the second quarter and won by 15. It set the stage for a Game 7 in Portland.
It was another overtime thriller, and again the Spurs came up short. With the score tied 103-103 and Strickland having the ball with thirty seconds left in OT, the young guard inexplicably attempted a behind-the-head-no-look pass. After the predictable turnover happened, Strickland then committed a “breakaway foul” on Portland’s Clyde Drexler. The equivalent of today’s “clear path to the basket” rule, the foul gave the Blazers two free throws plus the ball. They took full advantage and went up 107-103.
San Antonio got one more chance after cutting the lead to 108-105 and having the ball. One more turnover ended their season. The Spurs had won three games in blowouts, but not being able to split two overtime games cost them a chance to go the Western Conference Finals—a spot that became even more valuable after the Lakers lost. Portland ended up in the NBA Finals.
The ending might have been heartbreaking, but in the bigger picture, San Antonio was back. The arrival of Robinson kept them in the championship discussion and when another draft lottery jackpot gave them Tim Duncan eight years later, the Spurs would become a new standard for excellence.