Alvin Robertson: A Fallen, Forgotten Spur on Trial for Human Trafficking

Shaun PowellSpecial to Bleacher ReportNovember 6, 2014

B/R

SAN ANTONIO — Alvin Robertson wanted to see the defending champion Spurs collect their championship rings on opening night of the NBA season in person, except he couldn’t make the short trip from home. The load he’s carrying right now was just too heavy.

One piece of cargo is his past. It weighs a ton, swollen from a series of confrontations with women and violating protective orders and probation. Those actions have sent him in and out of jail for the last decade and a half. And they kept him far away from the AT&T Center and a team he once starred for in the mid-1980s, a bleak stretch of Spurs history that seems long forgotten, like Robertson himself.

The other part of his load only weighs a few ounces. It’s a court-appointed tracking device, strapped to his ankle, confining Robertson’s body to his house and his mind to an upcoming trial that could lock him up for life.

Two weeks after the Spurs were honored for winning their fifth title and praised again for being a near-perfect franchise, one of their former all-time greats will appear before a jury. On Nov. 10 in the 186th District Court in San Antonio, Robertson will face charges of trafficking persons under 18 for prostitution, sexual assault of a child and sexual performance of a child—all felonies—according to Kirsta Melton, an assistant district attorney in Bexar County. Two of the charges carry a maximum punishment of 99 years each.

Alvin Robertson after his arrest in 2009.
Alvin Robertson after his arrest in 2009.San Antonio Express-News/Zuma Wire

"These allegations have been, like, the all-time worst," he says, softly yet with a strong air of defiance. "I really don’t have any involvement with it. ...This has really, really killed me. Just killed me."

As he speaks, he is combative and at times contrite and clearly struggling to comprehend where he is and how he got here. He isn’t escaping the hard questions, and even if he tried, Robertson wouldn’t get far with that GPS, his ball-and-chain the last three years.

In 2009, a 14-year-old from a homeless shelter told police she was held captive for two weeks by a man who pimped her in San Antonio then forced her to dance in a Corpus Christi strip club. According to Melton, the man, Leslie Roy Campbell, cut a deal, pleaded guilty to human trafficking and agreed to testify for the state in Robertson’s trial. Campbell is expected to support the findings of a three-month investigation by a task force that said Robertson helped facilitate the girl’s introduction into prostitution.

According to the bill of indictment, Robertson penetrated her from in front and from behind with his finger.

Investigators had heard her type of story before. According to Carlos Lopez, an investigator in the Bexar County Sheriff's Office, different girls and boys are forced into a world of sexual depravity every year in the U.S. Investigators in the Robertson case believe the 14-year-old was a pawn in a small-scale sex-trafficking ring run by Campbell and frequented by three johns; two of them are awaiting trial and one is on the loose, according to Melton. 

As authorities rounded up the suspects in the case, one by one, the last arrested was a four-time NBA All-Star once saluted by Michael Jordan as one of the toughest sumbitches he ever played against. They nabbed him in Arkansas, about a bounce pass from where he was a collegiate star, just as he was prepared to conduct a basketball clinic for kids.

It is now five years later, and in a candid conversation, he says with conviction: "I’m totally innocent. Totally."

 

An Elite Defender

Alvin Robertson guards Michael Jordan.
Alvin Robertson guards Michael Jordan.AP Photo

Few NBA players have ever done hard time. Jayson Williams, the former Nets center, spent just over two years in jail for his role in the fatal 2002 shooting of his chauffeur and an unrelated drunk-driving charge. Last week, Mookie Blaylock, once an All-Star with the Hawks, was sentenced to 15 years after pleading guilty to vehicular homicide. Neither player had Robertson’s credentials, though the details of his playing career may seem fuzzy to anyone who didn’t start following the NBA until Jordan began winning titles.

Like Jordan, Robertson rode the range with Bob Knight on the Olympic team that won gold in 1984. Once he was in the NBA, the first-round pick rapidly became the decade’s best defensive guard. He’s also one of just four players to string together a quadruple-double in a game, with 20 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists, 10 steals (the other three, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Nate Thurmond, are in the Hall of Fame).

He did that in the 1985-86 season, his second, when he received the Most Improved Player (the first year for the award) and Defensive Player of the Year awards, made the All-Star team and led the league in steals. That’s never been done before or since by anyone.

Opposing players didn’t stay too late in the clubs the night before playing Robertson. He was tough and plucky and simply wore on his man. He was also very intimidating.

Reggie Miller, Hall of Fame player and smack talker, remembers being pulled aside by a teammate in his rookie year. The veteran player warned Miller not to say anything to Robertson. No boasting, no trash talk, nothing about his mama, anything. Don’t even say hello.

With quick hands and the guts of a gambler, Robertson played 10 years with four teams. Mainly, though, he bridged the George Gervin and David Robinson eras in San Antonio. He has twice as many All-Star trips as Manu Ginobili and still holds NBA records for highest steals average in a season and career.

This is where it gets tricky. A well-decorated 52-year-old who lives in a town that adores its only major pro-sports team soon found himself in disrepute in retirement. And this was well before being accused of forcing an underage girl into prostitution.

"He's an outcast," said Buck Harvey, a veteran columnist for the San Antonio Express-News. "Everything that's happened to him is sad, but most of his issues occurred after he left the Spurs in 1989. To many around here, Alvin doesn't exist because of what they've done since then, with only one losing season and five championships. He was just never a part of it. He was a ferocious player who refused to give up, but now, he'll just show up in one of those crime stories."

It started in 1990, when he was charged with spousal abuse, and continued just last June, when he violated terms of probation. In between was a pattern of abusive behavior toward women where Robertson was accused, but not always convicted, of being physical. What’s more, his actions run counter to the team that once held him as the face of the franchise.

 

The Exception to the Rule

Spurs owner Peter Holt.
Spurs owner Peter Holt.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

The Spurs are always cited as an example of what’s right with sports and not just in the NBA. They’re the spit-shine model franchise that’s constantly imitated and elevated, led by all-time great Tim Duncan, the basketball fundamentalist who is refreshingly free of chest-pounding and other forms of me-manship.

"I’m the only Spurs player who made the police blotter the last 15 years," Robertson says. "The Spurs don’t get into trouble. They’re not that type of organization. The Spurs are great guys, and they don’t need to have my name mentioned in the same sentence. Outside of myself, you don’t hear anything negative about any of the Spurs. Not one."

Two months ago, when the Spurs opened training camp, owner Peter Holt was standing and talking about the respect the Spurs receive. Their stability and durability are the envy of pro sports.

Coach Gregg Popovich, general manager R.C. Buford and Duncan have been with Holt since he bought the team. They’ve kept the Spurs humming in contention for 17 straight years. Also, the Spurs play the right way, with ball movement and outside shooting and help defense that make Dr. James Naismith nod approvingly from the grave.

Holt says, "It’s not an 'image.' It’s real. You can’t get away with anything anymore anyway these days, but especially in this small community. David set that tone, and Tim’s followed with the same values but with a different personality. We know how fortunate we are."

Robertson is a ghost to these Spurs. Holt doesn’t know him personally, and neither do any of the players. Popovich never coached him.

Robertson said the Spurs have had little to no interaction with him. "I don’t want to be a negative," he says. "The Spurs have to protect their brand."

 

1984 Olympics a High Point

Robertson was born to a truck driver and a school custodian in Barberton, Ohio, just outside Akron, another Rust Belt town pummeled by the loss of manufacturing jobs. Robertson was one of the best players in the state. After a year spent in junior college, he went to Arkansas. Eddie Sutton, the Razorback coach, liked his players tough, and Robertson was perfect. He and Darrell Walker, his backcourt mate, never relaxed defensively.

"There were times," says Walker, who played 10 years in the NBA, "when the other guards couldn’t cross midcourt."

Robertson mastered another sport, wrestling, without suiting up for the Razorbacks' wrestling team. He had a habit of putting football players in headlocks for kicks. Sometimes Robertson, at 6'3" and 185 pounds, was at a significant size disadvantage, and it didn’t matter.

"There was one guy named Robert Brannon," Walker recalled. "Damn good football player. Alvin and Robert got to rasslin’ and Alvin just pinned him. Dude was 6'7", 250, not an ounce of fat, but Alvin just tackled him. All the fights I saw, he won. Forget the physical talent. Alvin was hard-nosed and a hell of a competitor. I think he did some boxing back home. He came from a hardworking town. He was hungry."

Bobby Knight in 1984.
Bobby Knight in 1984.AP Photo

Knight wanted him on the ’84 Olympic team because Robertson was a lot like the coach: fearless and ornery. There was a point during the workouts when Knight singled him out as the most impressive player on the floor. And that team had a young Jordan.

The Olympic experience marked a tremendous summer for Robertson. He was taken No. 7 overall in the ’84 draft, which featured Jordan, Charles Barkley, John Stockton and Hakeem Olajuwon and is generally regarded as top-five all-time.

 

A Fan Favorite While with the Spurs

The Spurs lacked direction when Robertson arrived, and they pretty much stayed that way his five years in San Antonio. They went 156-254 and burned through three coaches. But Robertson thrived on the court.

In that tremendous ’85-86 season, Robertson averaged 3.67 steals a game, easily the NBA record. Robertson led the NBA three times in steals, averaging three per game each time. Nobody in the last 23 years has averaged three per game once.

"In the early ‘80s," Walker said, "you could still hand-check guys and control where you wanted them to go. Alvin had powerful arms, which helped. And he had the best, quickest hands you could possibly have. He could see the pass coming before the pass was thrown."

Alvin Robertson defends against Magic Johnson.
Alvin Robertson defends against Magic Johnson.Getty Images

San Antonio embraced Robertson. He was soft-spoken, humble, polite with fans, generous with friends. He lived year-round in town, unlike some Spurs. He hosted a popular reggae show on local radio. Robertson was a favorite of the Baseline Bums, the notoriously raucous group of Spurs fans who ruled the dusty, barn-like HemisFair Arena.

Teammates in San Antonio loved him; likewise at his later stops in Milwaukee, Toronto and Detroit. Bob Weiss, his first coach with the Spurs, said, "He always had a smile. I never heard anyone say anything negative about Alvin. They liked him as a person and also because, while not a true superstar, he was good. He only knew one speed."

 

Fits of Anger an Issue

Yet it wasn’t long into his NBA career when Robertson’s temper and destructive side began to surface. In the '86-87 preseason, he and teammate Walter Berry, the streetball player from New York, got into a heated argument that was part frightening and part comical. Frank Brickowski, the Spurs’ center, recalls returning to the Red Lion hotel to find Robertson and Berry squaring off.

"Walter starts talking s--t to Alvin, who told him to shut up," Brickowski said. "Walter kept talking, and Alvin put him on his back. Alvin let him up, then Walter pops Alvin in the eye. Everyone broke it up, but Alvin had a mouse under his eye. I thought it was over, and so I go take a shower.

"I hear a crash in the next room, hurry over there and Alvin and Walter are going at it again. It spills into the hallway, and somehow Walter grabs a butter knife. I think he got it from the housecleaning cart. He starts going after Alvin. He’s chasing him. I go, 'Walter, wait, that’s a butter knife. What the hell you gonna do with that?' Walter looks at it, tosses it aside and gets a fork."

The next blowup happened in 1989 when Robertson confronted new coach Larry Brown. He and Brown did not get along. What’s more, the Spurs were in the middle of a crummy 21-win season. Brown and Robertson got into a screaming match and had to be separated. Robertson’s days were numbered. The team shipped him and Brickowski to the Bucks.

“Alvin was good people,” says Brickowski. “Some people might not say that about Alvin, but he’s good at heart. He just couldn’t control his temper. He grew up hard and couldn’t help himself in certain situations.”

 

Alvin Robertson after being sentenced to jail in 1996.
Alvin Robertson after being sentenced to jail in 1996.San Antonio Express-News/Zuma Wire

Incidents Start to Pile Up

The first time a woman went to the police about Robertson, it was his wife, Jackie, in August 1990. He agreed to undergo therapy for spousal abuse, according to media reports at the time. When Robertson was involved in a scrap at a San Antonio nightclub the very next month (he allegedly went after a man with a crowbar), the San Antonio Express-News reported that Bexar County Judge Bonnie Reed said, “I think what I’m surprised about is that he is so stupid to get involved in an act like this.”

The incidents kept coming. Robertson even admits it was a “dark” time for him. In November 1993, having left the Bucks for the Pistons, Detroit's personnel director, Billy McKinney, questioned him about the extent of his back injury. Robertson choked McKinney, and teammates had to pry Robertson’s vise-grip off the director's windpipe.

A year later, according to an affidavit, a woman, Nicole Barber, said Robertson groped her breast, followed her to her car, fondled her again and made unwanted advances. She said he grabbed her by the neck, and when one of her female friends tried to stop him, he bit her on her arm. Robertson pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor assault charges and got probation, according to media reports at the time.

For nine of the first 11 years he was married to Jackie, Robertson was involved with a woman named Sharon Raeford. In June 1995, Raeford reportedly said that Robertson called her at 3 a.m., and when she refused to speak with him, he went into a rage.

According to media reports, he knocked down her front door, and once inside, he damaged two TVs and cut a sofa, then tried to start a fire. He left, then returned, assaulted her in front of her young daughter and took her wallet, wristwatch and two rings. It took two officers to cuff him. Robertson was charged with burglary, assault with bodily injury and resisting arrest.

Alvin Robertson with the Toronto Raptors.
Alvin Robertson with the Toronto Raptors.Getty Images

Just four months later, out on bail and with the Toronto Raptors in their expansion season, Robertson was reportedly arrested and charged with common assault and spent a night in jail when a 31-year-old Detroit schoolteacher said he attacked her in the SkyDome Hotel. The case was eventually tossed when the woman declined to show in court.

Robertson was never punished by the NBA for any of these infractions. In fact, not only did he suit up for the Raptors' season opener just days after the SkyDome incident, but he scored the first basket in Raptors history.

None of the major professional sports leagues or colleges had strict domestic violence guidelines in place at that time.

In the Raeford case, Robertson was convicted of burglary with intent to commit theft, earning probation for the third time in four years, this time for 10 years. Raeford reportedly refused to appear in court, so Robertson avoided the assault charge.

The San Antonio Express-News reported that his wife, Jackie, tearfully spoke to the jury on his behalf at the trial. She said his behavior was due to “dysfunctional circumstances.” She pledged to stand by him and added, “He is a good person. Sometimes good people act in a bad way.”

 

Robinson Nixes his Return

David Robinson displays his community service award before a Spurs game.
David Robinson displays his community service award before a Spurs game.Getty Images

Despite Robertson's troubles, the Spurs nearly tossed him a lifeline. Popovich weighed the idea of adding a 34-year-old with back and legal problems to a team desperate to turn the corner. Popovich met with Robertson and said at the time: “Alvin’s still a good player.”

Well, David Robinson, weary of losing yet skeptical about Robertson, drew the line where the criminal courts wouldn’t.

“The last thing we need to do is bring in a problem,” Robinson told reporters at the time. “All you have to go on is people’s actions. What he says is one thing. (But) it’s what he does.”

Substantial jail time finally arrived in 2002, when Robertson was arrested for sexual assault. The woman later recanted, and therefore rape charges were tossed. Yet, State District Judge Sid Harle slapped Robertson with a three-year prison term for probation violation. He served a year.

Former Bexar County Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz told reporters at the time, “Alvin Robertson does not exemplify the players that are with the Spurs today, or in past times.”

From 2004 through 2011 he racked up minor charges—driving with a suspended license, harassment, violating a protection order against a local dancer—and, as he admitted, struggled with this new, troubled life he created for himself. He said he developed serious financial problems. A construction company he ran buckled under his legal issues, he said, and he couldn’t find work.

Alvin Robertson after his June 2014 arrest.
Alvin Robertson after his June 2014 arrest.San Antonio Express-News/Zuma Wire

“I made some mistakes,” he confesses. “Some of the things I did, I was held accountable for and served my time for them. But some of the things said about me were untrue and shouldn’t have been allowed to be a part of my case. And when you’re on probation, there are people who can place a call and you’re not going to get the benefit of the doubt. Once you’re in a negative position, you’re automatically going to be judged. You don’t have a chance.”

 

Human Trafficking a Scourge

Texas is one of the leading states for human trafficking, according to Melton, the assistant district attorney. She has prosecuted human trafficking cases in Bexar County for four years but declined comment on the Robertson case specifically. She says a big misconception is that most victims are undocumented immigrants. Actually, local victims dominate her time.

Cases involving what she calls “the buying and selling of our kids” are especially heinous. The runaways are low-hanging fruit to the hustlers and scammers. Ask Melton to reveal her saddest case and the details are enough to make you want to run home and hug your daughter.

"We had one where a young lady was skipping school to buy pot," Melton says, citing the horrific Juan and Bobby Moreno case of 2010. "She was taken by the guy who ran the place where she was buying pot. He stripped her naked and tied her to a bed with one of those yellow nylon ropes. They raped her and kept her in the drug house for the next week-and-a-half to two weeks. They sold her to anybody who had extra money after buying drugs. For 25 bucks you could rape a 13-year-old tied to a bed, lying in her own feces and drugged up."

When asked if it surprises her that a former NBA star wound up on the radar as an accused trafficker, Melton says, "I’m not surprised by anyone. We have moms doing it to fund their drug habit, we have criminals, we have people who are opportunistic. We have people who have never been in the sex trade industry before, who don’t have that in their background."

 

Robertson Pleads His Case

Alvin Robertson brings the ball upcourt against Larry Bird and the Celtics.
Alvin Robertson brings the ball upcourt against Larry Bird and the Celtics.Getty Images

Robertson says the second victim in his case is him. While dealing with trial delays and postponements, he says his life has unraveled and mainly blames prosecutors for that.

“It’s disappointing the way things have gone,” he says. “I’m totally innocent. But how do you fight accusations? I’ve been on house arrest three years. I can only leave to see attorneys or for doctor's appointments. I’m not allowed to be around minors. Why are they treating me as though I’ve done something wrong? I should be proven guilty in court first before all of these stipulations are placed on me.”

He has a son who plays basketball for Oregon, another who was in training camp with the Atlanta Falcons and a daughter in sixth grade. Robertson’s voice lowers, almost to a whisper as he says, “I just hope the character issues that came from me don’t hurt them.”

He watched a special on the ’84 draft recently, and the TV show came and went without mentioning him. It was then Robertson suspected the NBA just wished he’d go away.

“I’m proud of the career I had,” he says. “Fortunately I’ve had some accomplishments that made the record book, and they can’t take them out. The steals. The quadruple-double. They can’t take that away from me.”

What can be taken from Robertson, depending on what happens in Judge Maria Herr’s courtroom, is freedom, possibly for life. Melton said a jury is expected to hear testimony from the alleged victim, Campbell and investigators. Robertson won’t discuss details of the case, but he maintains the prosecution's case is weak.

“My dream,” says Robertson, “is getting my name cleared and getting back in good standing with the Spurs.”

Last June, with the Spurs just days from a mad celebration for their fifth championship, police quietly made an arrest. An ex-con with a vaguely familiar name, awaiting trial for underage sex trafficking, violated terms of his bond. Alvin Robertson had strayed beyond his home confinement and was briefly jailed during the NBA Finals.

That begs a question, here in a town busy cheering a team that can do no wrong: If a former Spurs star falls even harder this month, will anyone hear it?