NEW YORK — The way hall-of-famer David Robinson tells it, the atmosphere permeating the San Antonio Spurs wasn't always one of professionalism and accountability.
Back in 1989, when the U.S. Naval Academy graduate nicknamed the Admiral joined the NBA franchise that's become synonymous with selflessness, fundamentals and excellence, players routinely showed up for practice reeking of booze.
"How much do you have to drink to sweat alcohol?" asked Robinson, who after his NBA career co-founded Admiral Capital Group and whose Wall Street friends and advisers include JPMorgan Chase Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon and Avenue Capital Group CEO Marc Lasry. "It was a bunch of total foolishness."
Back then, Robinson says, teammates didn't know what to make of the rookie who showed no inclination to join their carousing. The other Spurs took to calling him L-7, which Robinson at first thought was a term of endearment.
Laughing at how naive he was back then, Robinson makes an L with his left thumb and forefinger, and then a 7 with his right, his thumb at the top. He connects them to form a square.
"By the end of the week I realized they were making fun of me," said Robinson, whose Spurs lead the Miami Heat 2-1 in the best-of-seven National Basketball Association Finals, which resumes tonight in San Antonio. "If I was going to be here, the culture was going to have to change."
The 7-foot-1 Robinson these days marries philanthropy and finance with New York-based Admiral, a real estate-focused private equity fund with more than $250 million under management. Ten percent of the firm's profits go to community projects, says Dan Bassichis, a former Goldman Sachs banker who left that firm to co-found Admiral.
"To use a basketball term, David's approach to philanthropy makes him a triple threat," Dimon said in a statement. "He's passionate about making a difference, he's smart and thoughtful about finding innovative ways to tackle tough social issues, and he's humble enough to know he can always learn from others."
Robinson, 47, spent his entire NBA career, 1989-2003, in San Antonio, ultimately winning two championships, a Most Valuable Player Award and — the accolade he values most — a universal admiration that Commissioner David Stern says is rarely seen these days. Robinson honored a commitment to serve two years in the Navy before beginning his basketball career.
"He's everything you could want," is Stern's appraisal of Robinson, who owns 2 percent of the Spurs, winners of four NBA titles since 1999. "I would see David Robinson as conservative and solid — very, very reliable."
Admiral partnered with San Antonio-based USAA Real Estate Co., which committed $50 million to become a major shareholder. USAA, which offers banking, investing and insurance to members of the military and their families, provides administrative support for Admiral and advises on investments.
Admiral last year received $15 million to invest for the Texas Teacher Retirement System under the fund's emerging managers program.
Spurs owner Peter Holt, who served in the U.S. Army, said he intends to make an undisclosed investment in Admiral Capital. Holt, who was awarded a Silver Star, three Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart for service in Vietnam, said there's one reason why Admiral Capital — and not some behemoth investment bank — will get his money.
"If David's involved, I'll invest," said Holt, chief executive of San Antonio-based Holt CAT, the largest Caterpillar dealership in the U.S. "I don't know those guys on Wall Street, especially now when you trade 10,000 shares a minute."
Robinson's admirers span not only the owners' suites in professional sports but the C-suites at banks and hedge funds. Avenue Capital's Lasry, for instance, called Robinson "unique."
"His desire to do good and his ability to bring disparate people together and work toward a common goal or investment is why Admiral Capital is successful," he said in a statement.
Robinson cautions potential partners that he requires a commitment to community if they're to piggyback on his brand and athletic fame for personal gain.
"I don't mind signing a couple of balls," he said, "but this is not who I am or what I want to get accomplished."
Robinson brings a community-improvement mindset to each transaction. Admiral, for instance, joined with Hilton Worldwide Inc. to start a program that provides on-the-job training for high-school students in lower-income schools.
Admiral Capital has an undisclosed stake in Centerplate Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based company that operates food concessions at sports stadiums and convention centers. It's owned by Kohlberg & Co., the investment firm run by leveraged- buyout pioneer Jerome Kohlberg. Admiral is also working with KKR & Co.'s Academy Ltd. to create opportunities in lower-income communities.
"David has set a standard that is hard for people to reach," says Kathy Behrens, the NBA's executive vice president for social responsibility and player programs, noting that each year the league's community assist award winner receives the David Robinson plaque.
Robinson says he's intent on helping people set a higher standard, which is why he's so passionate about children and education.
Robinson has partnered with IDEA, a network of tuition-free K-12 public charter schools that has sent 100 percent of its graduates to college for six consecutive years. Robinson started one school in San Antonio and wants to have 20 within five years.
"Real success is being able to influence and make things happen," Robinson said. "I don't have any tolerance for things that don't work."
The Spurs of today work just fine, propelled to the franchise's first championship series since its 2007 title by a workmanlike, limelight-eschewing crew that includes 37-year-old Tim Duncan, a two-time Most Valuable Player, as well as Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, a whirling-dervish of a point guard whose shot-clock-beating basket sealed a Game 1 victory.
Much of the team's no-nonsense culture, according to Holt, traces back to Robinson, who says it helps to explain why around San Antonio his fan base rivals that of even Parker.
"Tony has all the young, cute girls," Robinson says. "I have all the moms and grandmothers. People see me as trustworthy, old faithful. I love that."
_ With assistance by Dawn Kopecki in New York.