Mr. Robinson shares his neighborhood

It's a joyous confluence of sports these days, a cacophony of sights and sounds.

There was Payne Stewart earlier this week, stumbling and fumbling but somehow righting himself and his emotions to make a delicate 15-foot putt on the final hole to win the US Open golf championship. There were the Dallas Stars beating Buffalo for hockey's Stanley Cup, on the strength of a hotly disputed goal in the third overtime.

There is women's World Cup soccer with the United States sporting a quality entry, something the men can't ever seem to produce. Wimbledon is under way, and the excitement potential is breathtaking.

Magnificent all.

But none did or will approach the soaring dignity of David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs, as his team looks on the verge of beating the New York Knicks for its first NBA title. The Spurs lead 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, going into tonight's game in Madison Square Garden.

It's happening only because Robinson thinks far more of winning basketball games than of personal stats, which most in the NBA will find baffling. He thinks far more of team excellence than personal ego. He thinks proper behavior, however quaint, still has its place: "You don't have to become a jerk just because everybody around you is all the time."

Indeed, Robinson has been the centerpiece of the Spurs ever since he arrived in 1987 as the No. 1 draft pick. He responded spectacularly, as folks of character tend to. He was, at various times, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, all-NBA four times, MVP, scoring leader, rebounding leader - and extraordinary human being.

But, the Spurs never were the best.

Then, in 1997, they drafted Tim Duncan, college player of the year, from Wake Forest. In the first season, Duncan was first team all-NBA; Robinson hadn't been. Duncan smoothly emerged as the go-to guy, and Robinson suddenly had his nose pressed to the window looking in.

Most deal with such an event with a scowl and vitriol. Robinson responded with a smile and a helping hand. He immediately embraced Duncan.

His approach was exactly what you would hope to see from a smart person (Robinson scored a blistering 1,320 on the SAT college entrance exam out of a possible 1,600) who went to the US Naval Academy to study engineering and mathematics. Robinson devoted himself, on and off the court, to mentoring Duncan, to making him the best possible player. What Robinson would do, he explained, would be fit himself in around Duncan's wondrous game. In effect, Robinson made plans to pick up Duncan's crumbs.

To see these two work together isn't basketball. It's art. Fine art. Duncan is playing far beyond his years only because Robinson has taught - and is teaching - him how.

And, just as unlikely, Duncan has been a willing student. He didn't come in with any sort of cocksure arrogance that Robinson was an old-timer and that there was a new sheriff in town. What Duncan did was listen to Robinson, instantly understanding he could learn volumes at Robinson's knee.

It appeared earlier in the season that Utah, with stars Karl Malone and John Stockton, finally would win its elusive first title. But, in the playoffs, Malone and Stockton abruptly grew old before our eyes. Conversely, in San Antonio, Duncan was young and Robinson grew young. Both run the court with aplomb, and even better, with speed.

Just five seasons ago, Robinson averaged 29.8 points per game. This year, with Duncan in full cry and averaging 21.7, Robinson averaged 15.8. Yet, Robinson has never looked happier.

See, for all the money - Robinson gets $66 million over six years and is underpaid (the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal, for example, gets $122 mill over seven years) - there does come a time when the winning matters more than the bucks.

It's probably true that the Spurs never would have been this close to winning it all without Duncan, the evidence being that they didn't. But it is unquestionably true the Spurs wouldn't be in this position without Robinson's towering example of class and cooperation.

When a student is ready, the teacher will appear. Any other students out there?

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