In the end, Admiral makes a difference

SAN ANTONIO -- The back was loose. The knees were quite bendy. Nothing creaked or stiffened up, and the left arm stretched elastically. It stretched fantastically.

David Robinson's left arm reached back for one last rebound jam Sunday night, to go with the 17 rebounds he grabbed and the two shots he blocked and the three charges he took head-on. Robinson finished a storybook career with an absolute fairy tale, and not only because it ended with the San Antonio Spurs winning a championship.

The twist is that Robinson got to finish in a manner none of his peers in the pivot have managed. Not Patrick Ewing. Not Hakeem Olajuwon. Not Dikembe Mutombo, who left the Nets' bench for zero minutes in the first half of this clinching Game 6 in the NBA Finals.

Robinson? He got to finish as a factor.

A major factor, even. The future Hall of Famer who was always maligned for something -- like his supposed softness, or his devotion to religion -- finished his NBA life as the antithesis of what a younger nemesis, Shaquille O'Neal, calls the "token big man."

"Will I ever forget this Father's Day?" Robinson bellowed, walking back to the Spurs' champagne-drenched locker room for one last time as a player.

"I don't think so. I don't think so."

No he won't. Robinson won't soon forget how good it feels, at 37, to feel good. As late as March, he often looked wooden on the floor, like that blasted back couldn't fully straighten. Watching him then, even if you dared to imagine the Spurs in the Finals, you wondered whether Robinson would still be upright in June.

Turns out, the gentlemanly former officer had a little left. The back and the knees lasted long enough to get him to a series where the other team had centers that actually played near the rim. Unlike the Mavericks and Suns, who small-balled Robinson right off the floor, the New Jersey Nets re-energized him. Robinson was spry when the series started (14 points and four blocks in Game 1) and sufficiently recharged by Sunday's finale to score 13 points ... and grab seven rebounds alone in the fourth quarter. His best single-game board total, in the first five games of the Finals, was eight rebounds.

"I know, for me personally, the last couple of weeks have made this so much more special, just getting into a couple of games and contributing," said Spurs guard Steve Kerr. "I can't imagine what David feels. Knowing he was going to retire all year, going through this season with some ups and downs, and then to finish this way. What an amazing sendoff."

In one time-machine sequence, Robinson threw down the follow dunk and then drew charges on Richard Jefferson and Jason Collins. His first of those seven rebounds in the fourth quarter later led to the Stephen Jackson 3-pointer that, at 73-72, gave San Antonio its first lead all evening.

The lead swelled from there and soon Robinson couldn't stop smiling. What figured to be an emotional farewell never strayed into teary territory, probably because Robinson couldn't be more at peace with his future. It wasn't a night for sadness.

"We made that decision at the beginning of the year because my heart was just settled," Robinson said. "I knew that this was it. I knew that this was supposed to be the time. Sometimes God speaks to your heart and you have a settled feeling about it.

"All year long I just kind of enjoyed it," Robinson said of his 14th and final season. "Everything that came along, I just swallowed up. ... And it even now confirms it, the way it's come to an end, you know? My last game, streamers flying. How could you write a better script than this, man?

"I've had some ups and downs in my career, but I'm going to end on the highest of highs. I just praise God. This has been unbelievable."

It reads that way. Because it's now two rings for Mister Robinson, to go with his two Olympic gold medals (1992 and 1996) and a slew of individual trophies: MVP (1995), scoring champion (1994), Defensive Player of the Year (1992) and Rookie of the Year (1990). Not bad for a giant thought to be too gentle for so long.

"There has never been anyone like him," Spurs owner Peter Holt said. "As David likes to say, when (the team) gets off the bus (on the road), all the young girls would run to the other guys and the mothers would run to him."

Yet Robinson insisted the other night, after fouling out of Game 5, that he would be fine physically and noticeably physical no matter how long the Finals stretched. "I feel really fresh," he said. "I feel fantastic. I can run up and down the court and do some good things out there."

He wound up making me feel old. My very first assignment covering the NBA was a trip to the L.A. Summer League in 1989, to write about two rookie centers: Vlade Divac and Mister Robinson. Five years after that, as a rookie beat writer, I was courtside for Robinson's 71-point detonation against the Clippers. Five years after that, I was in New York to see Robinson help San Antonio win the championship that had always eluded him. Almost five years after that, I was among those at SBC Center watching Robinson exit as centers from his generation never do.

"From the beginning of the season, I really expected to be in a good position at the end," Robinson said.

Simply being a factor made it a dream ending.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.