SAN ANTONIO — David Robinson was 37 years old when he rode off into the NBA sunset with a fresh Lawrence O'Brien trophy under his arm and his legacy as the greatest player in San Antonio Spurs history firmly intact.
It's been 10 years since Robinson left his team in the hands of Tim Duncan and a couple of precocious and unpredictable young guards named Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Now it's Duncan's legacy that is being debated as the Spurs battle the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
"I was fortunate to end my last game on a win. I'd love to see that for Tim," Robinson said. "I don't know if this will be his last year. If they win it this time, there's nothing to say they can't win it again next year."
Duncan turned 37 in April, but that's where the similarities end. Everyone knew "The Admiral" was on his last legs back in 2003. Robinson, who scored 71 points in a game in 1994 to lock up the scoring title with 29.8 points per game, averaged just 8.5 points and 26.2 minutes in his final season. But he was able to deliver one last forceful performance — 13 points, 17 rebounds, 6-for-8 shooting — to close out the Nets in Game 6.
Duncan is still motoring right along. He averaged 17.9 points and 9.9 rebounds this season to earn first-team All-NBA honors for the 10th time.
"He's aging gracefully," Robinson said. "He's playing amazing basketball. He's phenomenal."
The two became friends when Duncan was drafted No. 1 overall in 1997. Duncan would tease Robinson about getting old, and now it's the 47-year-old Robinson who sees his younger friend dealing with those same issues.
"I've not been so small as to come back at him," Robinson said with a chuckle. "When he came in, every once in a while I'd have to warm up a little longer than him and he'd tell me how much of an old man I was. I'd have to go ice my knees down and jump in the hot tub. He's experiencing some of those growing pains."
When Duncan worked out for the Spurs before being taken No. 1 overall, Robinson famously told then-owner Red McCombs: "He's already better than me." So began the plans for succession, which aren't always met with open arms by aging stars. But Robinson had yet to win a title during his brilliant career, and Duncan helped deliver the first one in 1999 against the New York Knicks.
That made it a lot easier for Robinson to swallow his pride and let the Spurs become Duncan's team.
"It's not tough when you want to win," Robinson said. "You realize what your limitations are. When Tim came in and we started working out together, it was clear to me this guy could score and he was going to be a great player. So it would have been stupid for me to say, 'No, I want to keep leading the team in scoring.'
"Who cares? As long as we win, that's all that matters."
Duncan had 20 points and 14 rebounds in San Antonio's Game 1 win in Miami, but the younger Spurs like Danny Green, Gary Neal and Kawhi Leonard played bigger roles in blowing out the Heat in Game 3 to put championship No. 5 within reach.
"He sees his limitations starting to come up and says, 'Hey, Tony can carry this team just as well,'" Robinson said. "We give him good support, we're still going to win and we all get the credit. So I think we just have smart players. There's only one agenda on this team, and it's been that way for 20 years."
Duncan learned from Robinson about sacrificing personal numbers for the greater good, which is why the leadership transition from him to point guard Tony Parker has been so seamless.
It's also one of the main reasons he was able to get back to the finals 14 years after his first appearance.
"I don't know that there was a point where we actually said, I'm stepping aside and this is your team or whatever else," Duncan said of taking over for Robinson. "There was kind of an evolution of my game and his game. It is happening the same way now with Tony and Manu. I don't think I've stepped aside or anything else. Our roles have just changed. And we're all comfortable with that, as long as we're working toward the same goal."