COLUMBIA, S.C. — David Robinson’s place on the men’s basketball team at the United States Naval Academy in the 1980’s was obvious.
The man who became known as The Admiral was not only the most talented Midshipman to ever step onto the hardwood, he was a bonafide star in college basketball. The chiseled 7-foot-1 center looked like an action figure that had come to life, and he was dominant on the court.
In 1987, his senior campaign, Robinson won the Naismith, Rupp and Wooden awards. He was first in the country in blocks, second in rebounds and third in scoring. He averaged 28.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.5 blocks, 2.1 steals and an assist per-game. He was named Player of the Year by the USBWA, the UPI, the NABC, the AP, the CAA and Sporting News.
Robinson’s part on the team was simple: He was the best rebounder, the top scorer, the toughest defender and the undisputed leader. With him leading the way, the Midshipmen won three straight CAA crowns and made three trips to the NCAA tournament. In 1986, Navy appeared in the Elite Eight.
When Robinson was on the court, Navy was one of the best teams in college basketball.
More than three decades later, The Admiral is still near greatness in college hoops. When the Duke Blue Devils – the No. 1 overall seed in this year’s NCAA tournament – took the court against 16-seed North Dakota State last Friday, Robinson was sitting just a few rows behind the bench. If he spoke loud enough, Mike Krzyzewski, who coached Robinson on the 1992 U.S. Olympic Dream Team, could likely hear him.
“It’s always cool seeing a legend,” Duke star Zion Williamson said of Robinson after the Blue Devils’ first round win.
But Robinson hasn’t been sitting courtside to admire his old Olympic coach or to check out the phenom, Williamson. He’s there to support his son, Justin, a junior reserve forward for Duke.
Justin Robinson can easily go unnoticed on this Duke team. For the most part, he’s been a spectator during games, having one of the best seats in the house to the Zion-RJ-Cam show. Robinson averages 3.4 minutes of playing time, 0.5 rebounds and 1.1 points per-game this season.
While Robinson isn’t stuffing stat sheets like his dad, they have more in common than their last name, height, a love for basketball and an affinity for the No. 50.
Like The Admiral in 1987, Robinson has a real role on one of the best teams in college basketball. The difference is, you can’t tell what it is by looking at the box score.
“J.R. brings a lot to this team,” Williamson said. “He’s like the heart and soul that people don’t know about.”
On a Blue Devils’ team that is overflowing with youth, Robinson – a redshirt junior who made the team as a walk-on – has taken up some of the leadership duties for the squad.
When the Blue Devils aren’t practicing as hard as they should be, Robinson is there to speak up. When a youngster teammate misses a switch or doesn’t execute on an offensive set, Robinson is the one to pull them aside for a moment during a timeout. And when there’s something to cheer about, Robinson can get as wild as the rest of the bench.
“(Robinson) always brings energy. He’s one of those guys where, he’s ready to work every day,” Williamson said. “He comes knowing what we need to do. When he sees us slacking off in practice, he’ll be like, ‘Guys, we need to pick this up, now.’”
Robinson got some playing time in Duke’s first round NCAA tournament win over North Dakota State. It was the first time he had seen game action since Feb. 5. In the final four minutes of the game, Robinson grabbed a pair of rebounds.
He was also open often in the corner for three-point attempts, but his teammates didn’t see him.
“It’s always fun playing, especially in the tournament. It’s an exciting time,” Robinson said. “I try to help in any way I can… I always try to be ready.”
When called upon, Robinson typically delivers. He’s only attempted 32 shots at Duke, but he’s connected on 16 of them for a 50 percent success rate. He’s a career 38 percent three-point shooter too.
But being a heavily relied upon sniper from behind the arc hasn’t been Robinson’s usual job this season.
After the win over North Dakota State, sitting in a locker in the bowels of Colonial Life Arena, Robinson was asked about what he brings to the team this season. The psychology major took a few moments to consider the question.
“I guess I’m just a leader for the younger guys,” Robinson said. “I think at the beginning of the year, I was teaching them how to be a part of the program, and now they understand and they’ve fully bought in. Now, it’s just the little things. Just being there, encouraging them, supporting them, trying to teach them little things that I see when they’re playing.”
The San Antonio native says he’s comfortable pulling any Blue Devil aside – whether it be a role player like Alex O’Connell, or a future NBA lottery pick like RJ Barrett – and offering them advice.
“It could be anybody” Robinson said. “This team is very close. We can approach anyone and have a quick conversation with them.”
That includes Williamson, the undisputed star of this Duke team and the 2018-19 college basketball season. Since the gifted forward from Spartanburg, S.C. arrived on Duke’s campus, it has typically been Robinson’s job to guard him in practice.
Williamson and Robinson match-up height-wise – Robinson actually has a three-inch advantage – but Williamson outweighs him by 83 pounds.
As he has made apparent countless times in games this season, Williamson can be nearly impossible to stop when he gets a full head of steam.
“It’s difficult,” Robinson said of trying to contain Williamson in practice. “I mean, you see what he can do and what it takes to guard him. Sometimes I do (feel) a little bad for some of the defenders he goes against.”
Robinson will be finished with his bachelor’s degree in psychology this spring. He says he’d like to pursue a business degree next. But first up is finishing this season with Duke and doing whatever he can to help the Blue Devils win a national championship.
“It’s been fun. They’re easy guys to teach,” Robinson said. “At the beginning of the summer, it was really easy to teach them and they bought in right away. At this point, I’m not the only leader. Anybody is a leader at any moment.”
In the locker room after Duke’s win over North Dakota State, Robinson was having some difficulty with a simple task. He was sitting in his locker, trying to put on a pair of socks, but his personal space began to quickly diminish. Reporters with large cameras and recorders and notebooks converged on the locker to his left, where Williamson was holding court, giving a post-game interview.
Robinson squirmed into some open space, slipped on his socks and a pair of white and black checkered Vans. He threw on a gray T-shirt, popped in a pair of head phones and snuck out of the locker room, unnoticed.
Said Williamson: “J.R. is like that, a leader that a lot of people don’t know about.”