David Robinson’s advice on effective social change: ‘Slow down’ ‘The Admiral’ says it took years to get his school and investment fund up and running

SAN ANTONIO — The students making their way through a first-floor corridor at Carver Academy and College Prep grew wide-eyed when they bumped into the school’s founder. A few gasped when the still-trim, 7-foot-1 Spurs legend David Robinson stopped to wave, and they beamed when he posed for a few selfies.

Most of these young people were not yet born when Robinson’s Hall of Fame NBA career ended in 2003. But, to them, the man nicknamed “the Admiral” is as much a star for what he has done off the court as for what he did on it.

Robinson launched what was then called Carver Academy 16 years ago with $10 million of his own money. It began as a small parochial school serving elementary students, but it is now a publicly funded charter school that enrolls more than 1,100 pupils. Most of the students are Hispanic or black, and most of them are from low-income families. Nearly all of them are on track for college, school officials say.

We’re in an age when athletes are embracing social activism in a way that rivals anything in the past. Following the lead of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, scores of NFL players have stirred a national debate by taking a knee or sitting during the national anthem to call attention to police brutality and racial injustice. Others have worn T-shirts or hoodies to protest the deaths of Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin. Many athletes have started foundations or otherwise tried to leverage their wealth and fame to spur social change.

It is a level of consciousness that heartens the 52-year-old Robinson. And while Robinson is careful not to criticize any protesting players, he says it remains to be seen whether their strong words will be matched by meaningful deeds — or make the kind of difference that is happening at Carver.

“There is certainly more awareness now. Guys understand their influence and opportunity,” Robinson said. “I’ve talked to a lot of young athletes. They care. They want to do something significant. The question is, how? How do they do it?”

It is something Robinson knows firsthand. It took him years to turn his dream of a school into reality. He says the athletes eager to make change should be prepared for a similar struggle.

A line of students eagerly greet David Robinson as they walk to their next classroom at the IDEA Carver College Prep campus. “I’m a teacher at heart,” said Robinson. “I’m a lifelong student.”

Julysa Sosa for The Undefeated

“Guys in the NBA visit Carver all the time. Some of them say, ‘This is great. I want to start a school too,’ ” Robinson said. “My reaction is usually, ‘Wait. Slow down.’ You’ve got to be sure this is what you want to do. There is so much to learn. It is daunting. When a lot of guys come into the league, they are not prepared to write a check, much less run a school or build something.”

Robinson’s patient brand of activism led him to not only open a school but to also co-found Admiral Capital Group, a private equity firm that helps pay for his good deeds. Admiral controls more than $1 billion in office space, hotels and apartment developments. The company also has invested alongside several NBA and NFL team owners in an online platform that helps coaches at all levels break down game film as well as a separate online platform that automates management of youth athletic leagues. The firm sets aside 10 percent of its profits for donations aimed at making social change.

“The business is a sustainable way of making a long-term impact,” said Daniel Bassichis, a former Goldman Sachs banker and the firm’s co-founder, who once served on Carver’s board. “It has a constant income, which is key. Most [athletes’] foundations do not have this kind of income.”

Admiral has also helped guide investments by other professional athletes, including Spurs guard Tony Parker, former NFL defensive lineman Justin Tuck (who served an internship with the firm as an MBA student) and retired major league outfielder Torii Hunter. Not only are the investors immersed in the details of their investments, but they also receive advice on how to make lasting social change.

“There is so much to learn. It is daunting. When a lot of guys come into the league, they are not prepared to write a check, much less run a school or build something.”

For instance, each year the firm hires 25 Houston-area high school students to work in a Hilton Garden Inn hotel it owns there. The idea is to expose young people to careers in the hospitality industry. If students take to the work, they are given scholarships to the University of Houston, which they attend as Admiral scholars.

Robinson’s vision for social activism came into focus three decades ago during a two-year military commitment after his graduation from the Naval Academy. During that time, Robinson visited a couple of dozen Washington, D.C.-area high schools to deliver a simple message: Just say no to drugs.

Most students seemed thrilled to have the basketball star in their midst. Still, Robinson’s words frequently fell flat, particularly with the students who most needed to hear them. He realized he had to do more than say something. He had to do something.

“I realized it was like trying to put a Band-Aid on a big wound,” Robinson recalled. “Some of the kids would say, ‘This ain’t reality to us.’ From what they knew, drug dealers were making money. Or education wouldn’t change their lives. I found myself wondering, what can I do to help these kids? How do I make change?”

Robinson, a devout Christian, prayed on it. The answer he got convinced him that he should one day open a school to help guide young people to make better choices, regardless of the difficult circumstances they may confront.

“You can talk until you are blue in the face, but you can’t change people,” he said. “But you can plant seeds, and education is a natural way to plant seeds.”

Robinson nurtured his dream for most of his NBA career, making donations and connections and learning what he could about educational policy. Finally, he made his move, opening Carver Academy in 2001, two years before he retired from basketball. As a parochial school, it had just 120 students. To expand its reach and relieve the constant fundraising pressure, Robinson agreed in 2012 to convert Carver into a publicly funded charter school by joining forces with IDEA, a nonprofit that operates 61 schools serving 36,000 students across Texas. Robinson is now a member of IDEA’s San Antonio regional board.

The school, renamed Carver Academy and College Prep, now has more than 1,100 students in kindergarten through 11th grade. (It will add 12th-grade classes next year.)

David Robinson originally founded George W. Carver Academy in 2001. Eleven years later, he partnered with IDEA Public Schools to expand his goal of accessible quality education for all children.

Julysa Sosa for The Undefeated

“When I started Carver, I did not know what I was doing,” Robinson said. “It is a huge undertaking: fundraising, curriculum, finding partners. It is a commitment, and it takes a long time to learn.”

Carver is located not far from the Spurs’ home arena. “We have students in homeless shelters, or who have lived in cars for periods of time. There are all kinds of life issues,” said Guadalupe Diaz, principal of Carver’s elementary program. “But there is an abiding belief that they can overcome. They can do it.”

One of Robinson’s core beliefs is that tough circumstances should not be seen as insurmountable obstacles to achievement. He named the school after George Washington Carver, who was born into slavery but nonetheless went on to become a widely respected botanist, inventor and teacher. He thought Carver’s life story contained a lesson for young people today.

“If you think you have a bad situation, that man grew up in a worse situation,” Robinson explained. “But Carver knew there was a reason he was here. That led him to do amazing things. We have to start where we are, use what we have and make something of it. And never be satisfied.”

Robinson says another one of his core strategies is to inspire young people to tap into their own gifts and leverage whatever opportunities they have.

“Every time you turn on the television, people see rap stars, athletes and actors. You don’t see the everyday people who are doing well. The culture points us to these unattainable roles. How many of us are going to be athletes? Practically nobody. Success is not being Jay-Z. There is only one Jay-Z. Who is telling kids that this long journey of being a father is crazy important? The idea is to get them excited for the life before them.”

Too often, Robinson said, schools that serve low-income students succumb to the instability and low expectations that often accompany poverty. It is a problem identified by many educators but one Carver has apparently found a way to conquer. Its elementary school students consistently score near the 70th percentile on standardized math and reading tests, an achievement that officials attribute to their individualized focus on the students. Parents have responded: This year the school could enroll just 120 new students out of 300 who applied through a lottery.

“Who is telling kids that this long journey of being a father is crazy important?”

“What I think Carver has figured out is how to help students grapple with community issues that might come up and not hold them against the kids,” said Brittany Hibbert, an assistant principal at Carver’s upper school. She said students and administrators do home visits, staff Saturday school and take calls from students at night. “We literally do whatever it takes.”

High expectations and individually tailored instruction help. But it is also helpful that one of San Antonio’s best-known celebrities is a regular presence at Carver. The first floor of the upper school has a small museum dedicated to Robinson, a two-time NBA champion, 10-time All Star and former league MVP. There are jerseys from the Naval Academy, the Spurs and the two U.S. Olympic teams he played for. There are also medals and trophies, and even a small section of basketball floor marked with the footprints of Robinson and some of his former teammates and coaches.

“His presence is significant,” said Chang Yu, principal of Carver’s upper school. “His name appeals, and it resonates quality, sportsmanship, education — all good things that people gravitate toward. He definitely is a factor in our success.”

Robinson says that is where many people who command the spotlight can be helpful. Robinson applauded stars such as LeBron James, Chris Paul and others who have backed up their calls for social justice by donating millions of dollars for things such as after-school programs and college scholarships. As he watches more athletes find their voice embracing the new civil rights movement, he said he will be dividing them into two categories: those who just say things, and those who back their words with action.

“I can say anything I want to say, but you can also go back and track what I’ve done over the last 20 years to see if what I’m saying matches up,” Robinson said. “Where is your money going? What have you given to? So you have the nerve to make a public statement. Now I am going to check and see how much you’ve done so I can determine whether your statement has any value.”

What if it wasn’t all a Dream (Team)? Five 1992 Olympic what-if scenarios — 25 years later Dominique Wilkins’ injury, Jordan sticking to his word and Shaq over Laettner. What if?

Want to feel nostalgic? Great. Better yet, want to feel old? Twenty-five years ago today, the 1992 U.S. men’s basketball team won Olympic gold. Canonized as “The Dream Team,” the squad curb-stomped an entire world of competition, and its international impact is eternal.

The Dream Team opened the NBA’s door into China — and the world’s love affair with the game of basketball. Their Olympic tuneups weren’t as much games as they were red carpet ceremonies as they laughed, galloped and, in Toni Kukoc’s case, smothered the life out of opponents, beating them by 44.3 points per game — second only to the 53.2-point margin of the 1956 squad anchored by Bill Russell. The Dream Team’s song is one to which the entire world knows the lyrics — thanks to the documentaries, features and books in the quarter-century since their summer excursion. But even a crew with some of the game’s most iconic names — Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird — isn’t immune to the “what if” game. It makes for a psychedelic voyage into a parallel universe.

What if Team USA had taken gold in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea?

This is, by far, the most important question involving The Dream Team. America winning bronze in the ’88 Games was a watershed moment. The Soviet Union defeated the United States 82-76 in the semifinals (there’s a Russia/America-beating-us-at-our-own-game joke that will not be told right now). Up until 1988, only collegiate players were allowed in Olympic play. That talk soon shifted. “Personally, I would like more of a chance to compete,” Team USA and then-Georgetown head coach John Thompson said. “I’m also an advocate of professionals playing in the Olympics.”

Not everyone was for the change. Bill Wall, executive director of the United States Amateur Basketball Association, touched on philosophical issues: “Do you want to watch the best players beat everyone else?” It turns out the answer was a resounding yes. In Munich, on April 7, 1989, FIBA voted 56-13 to allow pro players to participate.

Many, like Boris Stankovic, FIBA’s secretary general, saw it as Olympic basketball’s “triumphant entry into the 21st century.” Stankovic was a chief proponent of allowing NBA players access, as they were the only professionals barred worldwide. One of its most vocal critics, however, turned out to be the United States Amateur Basketball Association, which took the stance that pro players’ involvement eliminated its opportunity to participate.

So, did America’s bronze medal showing in the ’88 Games lead directly to the introduction of NBA players? Perhaps not 100 percent, but it undeniably aided a process already in motion. Put it this way: If anything defines Big Sean’s Last night I took an L, but tonight I bounce back, it’s Team USA basketball 1988-92. It’s also fair to say that if America had won gold in 1988, the push for NBA stars may never have happened.

NBA players in the Olympics are the norm these days, but in the immediate aftermath of the decision, the desire to play was slightly better than 50-50. Superstars such as Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson and Karl Malone didn’t hide their excitement. “[I’d] go in a heartbeat and pay my own ticket,” Malone said. But a 1989 poll revealed only 58 percent of NBA players would play if afforded the opportunity. The biggest one to say no? Jordan. Which brings us to the next point …

What if Michael Jordan had stuck to his word and not played in the 1992 Olympics?

Let’s get the elephant out of the room. The Isiah Thomas/Jordan factor was a real issue — a beef with origins in the 1985 All-Star Game, known in hoops circles as the “freeze-out game.” How do we know Jordan didn’t want anything to do with Thomas as a teammate? He said it himself. “That was one of the stipulations put to me [on the team] — that Isiah wasn’t part of the team,” he said in a 2012 Dream Team documentary. The Thomas exclusion remains a thrilling subplot of ’90s basketball because of how the selection committee did whatever it had to do to get Jordan while sacrificing Thomas.

The Detroit Pistons’ floor general wasn’t one of the first 10 players selected. The Olympic selection committee began choosing players shortly after the 1991 playoffs ended. It was in those same playoffs that the Pistons, swept by Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals, infamously walked off the court before time expired in Game 4. Thomas was seen as the linchpin in one of the most infamous examples of pettiness in sports history. But even with Thomas on the outside looking in, Jordan still wasn’t a lock. Peep the timeline:

April 1989 Jordan says he’s not interested in playing in the Olympics again (he won gold in 1984). The thought of giving up another summer didn’t appeal to him.

May 1991 In one of the more revealing yet often forgotten interviews of his career, the ’91 MVP once again states his hesitation to Pat Riley. The season was long enough, and adding the Olympics would only shorten recovery time. But he doesn’t slam the casket shut either. “The only reason that I would wanna go is,” he says, only semi-joking, “if we feel that we certainly can’t win with the team we put out there.”

“Do you want to watch the best players beat everyone else?” It turns out the answer was a resounding yes.

July 30, 1991 — Agent David Falk denies that both of his clients, Jordan and Patrick Ewing, are undecided about what to do the next summer.

Aug. 1, 1991 — Playing in his first competitive golf tournament at the Western Amateur in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Jordan seemingly deadens any hope of Olympic dreams. “There are a lot of professionals who want to play and, being that there are a lot of professionals that haven’t played — and I’ve played — I don’t mind giving the other guys an opportunity,” he says. “Right now it’s a closed door for me.” For the golf aficionados wondering, he shot an 85 that day.

Aug. 10, 1991 — “I’m working on him,” Magic Johnson says. “I even told him I’d give him a million dollars if he’d do it. But so far he hasn’t changed his mind.”

Aug. 25, 1991 — Few remember the attacks on Jordan’s patriotism because of his reluctance to play in the Olympics. Three weeks after his statement about sitting out, Jordan reconsiders, promising to make the decision in a few days but saying it would be his and his alone. “Not one forced on me by what somebody else says or wants,” he said.

Sept. 4, 1991 — Thomas says if he’s not invited to the ’92 Games later that month he will not blame Jordan. “While I cannot speak for Michael,” Thomas says, “I can say that such a feud does not exist.”

Sept. 24, 1991 — The selection committee releases the names of 10 players invited to form the 1992 Olympic men’s basketball team: Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Ewing, Johnson, Malone, Chris Mullin, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, John Stockton and, yes, Jordan. Jack McCloskey resigned from the selection committee over Thomas’ snub, calling the omission “ridiculous.” As for Jordan’s response? “If I had anything to do with the selection, I would’ve selected my mother and my sister. I didn’t have anything to do with it.” Riiiight.

March 18, 1992 — By now, Jordan is openly stating he wants to play. But not until the money ceases looking funny. Jordan’s camp was unhappy about marketing rights — in particular, the official Olympic T-shirt that bore semblances of all team members. He had no issue with USA Basketball, a nonprofit organization, making money. He did, however, have beef with the NBA making coin. It was a subtle but undeniable example of what The New York Times at the time called a “deteriorating relationship with the NBA over the issue.” Jordan was adamant that money wasn’t the motivation for holding out. However, “This is a business,” he says. “This is what happens when you let professional players in.”

March 20, 1992 — Turns out that headache lasts only 48 hours. Jordan’s agent, David Falk, confirms that a compromise will be reached, and Jordan will be in Barcelona, Spain, that summer. USA Basketball had secured the face it so desperately coveted. Without Jordan, Team USA likely still wins gold. But it begs the question, is the NBA the global international force it is now if Jordan stayed stateside in the summer of 1992?

What if Shaquille O’Neal had been chosen over Christian Laettner as the Dream Team’s college player?

Love him or hate him — and many did both — Laettner’s star power was undeniable heading into the Summer Games. His resume at Duke was drunk with achievement: back-to-back national championships in ’91 and ’92, a three-time All-American, Final Four MVP and National Player of the Year in ’92. Combine all that with one of the most iconic plays in college basketball history, and Laettner’s stock was sky-high. Surrounded by elite talent that trumped his, it’s beyond understandable why he barely got much tick in the ’92 Games. That said, if you ever want to win a bar bet, ask who averaged the fewest points on the Dream Team. Chances are most will say Laettner (4.8), who went on to have a solid NBA career, averaging 12.8 points and 6.7 rebounds over 13 seasons. The correct answer, though, is Stockton (2.8), as the future Hall of Famer missed the first four games with a broken leg.

“I’m working on him,” Magic Johnson said. “I even told him I’d give him a million dollars if he’d do it.”

But let’s keep it a buck. This is Shaq we’re talking about. In 1992, the feeling was post-up centers would have difficulties in the trapezoid-shaped lane of the international game. Hindsight is 20/20, but it’s violent to envision what a 20-year-old O’Neal would have done to the likes of Angola or Germany. Seriously, picture this: Johnson leading the break, with Jordan and Pippen on the wings and a young, nimble 20-year-old O’Neal as the trailer:

It’s fun to imagine young O’Neal running fast breaks in Barcelona, because we already know how destructively poetic young O’Neal was running fast breaks in Orlando with Penny Hardaway. O’Neal would later receive his own gold medal at the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta, but the four-time NBA champion didn’t like his ’92 omission. “I was pissed off. I was jealous,” O’Neal said in 2012. “But then I had to come to the realization that I was a more explosive, more powerful player. Laettner was a little bit more fundamentally sound than I was.”

What if Dominique Wilkins never ruptured his Achilles?

The Original ATLien was one of the more entertaining and beloved players in the ’80s and into the ’90s. His 47 points in Game 7 in Boston Garden vs. Larry Bird and the Celtics in 1988 remains one of the all-time great playoff performances (despite being in a loss). He won two dunk contests, in 1985 and 1990. Even Jordan admits Wilkins was robbed in 1988 when he lost in Chicago. “I probably would’ve given it to [Dominique],” Jordan said years later. “But being that it was on my turf, it wasn’t meant to be.”

Wilkins is also one of five non-centers in NBA history to average at least 26 points for a decade — the other four being Jerry West, Jordan, Allen Iverson and LeBron James. In layman’s terms, Wilkins was that deal. The issue with Wilkins’ legacy, however, is what plagues Chris Paul today — his teams never advanced past the second round. But by the start of 1992, there seemed to be momentum building for Wilkins to become the 11th professional player to be added to the Dream Team. Unfortunately, Wilkins ruptured his Achilles tendon against the Philadelphia 76ers in January 1992, ending his season and whatever shot he had at making the Olympic squad. At the time of his injury, he was putting up 28.1 points per night.

How the story played out: Portland’s Clyde Drexler was announced as the final NBA player to make the squad in May 1992. Wilkins eventually played on the second iteration of the Dream Team two years later, a dominant squad in its own right. But we’re all left to wonder how differently Wilkins’ Hall of Fame career might have been remembered. What an acrobatic light show the fast break of Johnson, Jordan and “The Human Highlight Reel” would’ve produced in Barcelona! It’s the second time we missed out on a Magic and Dominique tag team — the Los Angeles Lakers had the chance to select Wilkins No. 1 overall in the 1982 draft, opting instead for James Worthy (a selection that worked out extremely well for the Lakers in the ’80s).

What if Magic Johnson had been unable to play?

For context, only 263 days had passed between Johnson’s announcement that he had HIV (Nov. 7, 1991) and Team USA’s first Olympic game (July 26, 1992). In the immediate aftermath of his announcement, America began to emotionally distance itself from Johnson. Advertisers and marketing agencies ceased using him in their campaigns. How sick was he? Would he wither away in front of our eyes? And should he even be allowed to play basketball? The debate became one of the most polarizing of its day.

“If Magic Johnson is prohibited from participating in the Olympics,” a New York Times response to the editor ran in February 1992, “then the accepted risk factor for all sports should be re-evaluated.”

“Americans have always regarded our Olympic athletes as role models for our boys and girls, which Magic is not,” another stated. “Let him use his energies and money setting up a trust fund of a few million dollars to pay the medical bills of the women he may have infected.”

On Feb. 3, 1992, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ruled that athletes with HIV were eligible to participate. Later that same week, Johnson not only participated in the NBA All-Star Game in Orlando, Florida, but he also took home MVP honors with 25 points, nine assists and a spine-tingling 3-pointer that has since transcended sports. Johnson, of course, went on to become one of the faces of The Dream Team and a beloved executive, broadcaster and ambassador of the league.

But what if history were different, and the IOC had ruled differently? Not only would that have been tragically inhumane, but athletes with HIV being ruled ineligible means no Magic Johnson. No Magic Johnson means no Larry Bird and no Michael Jordan. No Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan means no Dream Team. One decision quite literally changed the world.