Hope and Glory--2 Athletes in Military : Robinson and Houston, Once Foes on Same Floor, Follow Divergent Paths
The first week of November was a dizzy time for Ens. David Robinson.
On Nov. 5, he left the submarine base at King’s Bay, Ga., where he is stationed, and flew to San Antonio. The next morning, the San Antonio Spurs formally announced that they will pay him $26 million over eight years to play basketball for them.
“That night I was in a bar down there and it was amazing,” Robinson said, laughing. “All of a sudden, I was a lot better-looking than I had ever been before. My jokes were funnier. My personality sparkled. Women wanted to buy me drinks. I guess people in Texas are just friendly, right?”
On the same night Robinson flew to San Antonio, Kevin Houston sat in a dark Italian restaurant less than a mile from Thayer gate at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and talked about his week.
“For a while, I thought basketball might be over for me,” he said. “I was getting a little discouraged. But this is a great opportunity for me. Now, I feel like I may at least have a chance. That’s all I want.”
Houston’s opportunity had arisen in the form of new orders from the Army. Rather than report to Fort Sill, Okla., in January to go through a six-month training program as a field artillery officer, he will report to San Francisco. There, he will try out for the All-Army team, a group of barnstormers.
The new orders are important to Houston because they mean he will be playing basketball--assuming he makes the team--through April. That also means that when the Olympic trials begin May 14, Houston will be in good shape. If he gets invited.
“I would hope that someone like Kevin, someone who led the nation in scoring last year (averaging 32.9 points a game), would get a chance to go to the Olympic trials,” said his coach at Army, Les Wohtke. “But I also thought he would get a chance to go to the Pan American trials.”
David Robinson will be at the Olympic trials. He will be on the Olympic team. To him, it isn’t that big a deal. He played against the Soviets in the World Championships in 1986 and in the Pan American Games last summer, so international basketball doesn’t excite him that much.
He has represented his country. He has played against the Soviet Union’s star player, Arvidas Sabonis. He is ready for San Antonio and the National Basketball Assn. and $26 million.
Kevin Houston has no such dreams. He is 14 inches shorter than Robinson--5 feet 11 inches to 7-1--and his future, for now, is in the Army. His military commitment is five years, three more than Robinson’s. He dreams of one more chance in basketball, to go out wearing USA on his uniform.
“I know if I get the chance to go to the trials, it will be my last big shot in this game,” Houston said. “Of course, you never know. I might hit a growing spurt somewhere along the line.”
He laughed at the thought and went on: “Last year was like a dream come true for me. As a kid, I used to watch college basketball on TV and think how great it would be to play college ball, be on television and do well. I never thought I’d have a chance to do the things I did.
“Until a couple weeks ago, I thought that was it, though, the end. When I didn’t get invited to the Pan Am trials, it was a letdown. I thought they’d at least give me a look-see. But they didn’t. Now, it’s like I’ve been given life again, at least for a while.”
As soon as Houston got word that his basketball career had been rescued, he began to work out again. He is assigned to West Point as a graduate assistant coach. After practice or on days off, Houston comes in to shoot. In order to save time, he has a rebounder work with him, his wife, Elizabeth.
“It’s nice that she comes over and helps me,” Houston said. “Anything for a good cause, I guess.”
So as fall becomes winter, Robinson and Houston, the two military kids who made good in basketball, are looking ahead: Robinson to the day he can play basketball full time and start spending his millions, Houston to a trial he only can hope will come.
The afternoon was cool, almost chilly considering that the Florida border was only a few miles away, and Robinson shivered slightly as he loped to his car.
He had just put in a fairly typical day, working in the trailer that serves as the office in King’s Bay for the ROICC--Resident Officer in Charge of Construction. He works every day from 8 until 4, a young officer charged with helping build this giant base, one that isn’t scheduled to be open for another two years.
Robinson is leading a double life and knows it.
He wakes up every morning 35 miles away from the base in a comfortable condominium on Amelia Island Plantation in Florida. The sliding glass door in the living room opens onto the ninth hole of the Oak March Country Club. Behind the golf course, the sunset each evening is spectacular.
His agent, Lee Fentress, got him a deal on the condo, and Robinson likely lives a lot more comfortably than any other Navy ensign in Georgia, Florida or anywhere else.
“I’m living in two entirely different worlds right now,” Robinson said, relaxing over a late-afternoon pizza. “One world, I rule. It’s all there on a silver platter for me. People want to give me big money, an incredible amount of money. to play a game, to do something I enjoy. That boggles my mind.
“In the other world, I’m at the bottom of the totem pole. I might be asked to run out and get coffee for people. Who knows? The whole situation is teaching me a lot. I’m learning about power and about restraint.
“It’s a funny thing, you know, how people who have everything can always get more. When you’re down and out, or don’t have anything, you can’t catch a break. I’ve thought about that a lot.
“A few weeks ago, before I signed the contract, I was in a Burger King. The manager says to me as I’m leaving, ‘Hey, after you sign and you’re rich and famous, come back and we’ll give you some free food.’ That’s typical. A guy who isn’t rich, he could use that free food. Once you’re rich, why do you need free food? But that’s when people want to give it to you.”
The money still isn’t real to Robinson, partly because he doesn’t have it yet, partly because it is the kind of money that simply can’t be fathomed in a tangible way.
He talks about buying himself a Jaguar and maybe getting a Mercedes for his father, but for now he still drives the same 1985 Pontiac with the 47,000 miles on the odometer that he drove to Georgia when he got his orders last summer.
Still, Robinson understands what he has to look forward to and he is thankful--and a little bit nervous--about it all.
“Your first instinct is to want to take care of your family,” he said. “I feel great, that I can give something back to my parents now. I’m never going to do my mom’s laundry enough times to even that score, but now they can at least be able to say that I’m their son and I’ve done some good things.
“My brother and sister, though, I’m not sure what to do. My sister has taken out $10,000 in loans to pay to go to Howard (University) and she’s worked two jobs. It’s been hard for her, but it’s also been a good learning experience. Probably, I’ll pay off her loans, but I hope she keeps working. I think it’s healthy.
“My brother is a junior in high school and I really don’t want to spoil him. We have a great relationship and I don’t want him to change. I don’t want him to feel like he’s going to be given everything because I have money now. I feel like I have to be careful. I don’t want to spoil him.”
There is no sign Robinson has been spoiled by all this. His self-effacing description of his new-found popularity in San Antonio is typical. He is bright enough to understand that the world is at his feet but sensible enough to know who he is.
Always with Robinson, there has been a level-headedness that he credits to his family. His father, Ambrose, was a Navy man, and he raised his son to respect discipline and not to be cocky.
Because he was not a high school star, because he was not highly recruited and because he ended up at a military academy, Robinson never has been exposed to the kind of boot-licking that most high-school stars come to expect by the time they are 16. Last year, when he was a senior at Navy and agents began to pursue him, marked Robinson’s first real exposure to that sort of circus.
Even then, his background stood him in good stead.
“I tried to listen carefully to what everyone was saying,” he said. “I didn’t make my judgment (choosing Fentress and his company, Advantage International) based on who could get me the most money. Maybe someone else might have made me more, who knows? But I felt comfortable with Lee as a person and that was important to me.”
Robinson’s senior season was not easy. When he came back from the World Games, he knew he wanted to play in the NBA as soon as possible. That was the only new challenge left.
He wondered what the Navy would do with him, whether it would demand that he serve his five-year requirement, waive it entirely because at 7-1 he is too tall to serve on a ship, or come up with a compromise.
“The wondering really got to me after a while,” he said.
He got the answer in January. The night before the announcement, Navy played Richmond. Robinson scored just eight points and missed two free throws at the finish that could have saved the game for the Midshipmen.
“I’ve never played in a fog like that in my life,” he said. “It was as if I was watching the game, not playing in it. I didn’t want the ball or anything. All I could think about was what they were going to do with me.
“When the game was over and we lost, I was like, ‘OK, we lost. Let’s go home.’ I was really messed up.”
He was not thrilled the next day, either, when the Navy said it would waive three years of his requirement but not all five. But it could have been worse. And the Navy’s decision probably played a key role in Robinson’s huge contract.
Because of his two-year commitment, Robinson could have chosen not to sign when San Antonio made him the first pick in the NBA draft. The Spurs, a wounded franchise, could not afford to waste that pick. Once they drafted Robinson, they had to sign him.
“It’s funny how things have always seemed to work out for the best with the Navy and me,” Robinson said. “My junior year, after I decided not to transfer (which would have relieved him of his Navy commitment), I thought I’d made a terrible mistake because I got to be a much better player than I thought I would. But I ended up player of the year as a senior.
“When they said two years, I thought that was lousy, but then it helped me get the contract I got.
“And when they sent me down here after I requested duty at the academy, I thought, ‘King’s Bay, Ga., what is that?’ What it is is south Georgia. Maybe not the best place in the whole world to be black, but so far, I’ve enjoyed it.”
Robinson smiled the smile that wowed them in the San Antonio bars.
“You know, it’s that two worlds thing again,” he said. “Tomorrow, I go off to negotiate a shoe deal that I could live on comfortably with no other salary (the Navy is paying him $1,500 a month).
“But today, walking around here, people have no idea who I am. They just come up to me and say (he puts on a drawl), ‘Gosh, you sure are tall. You must be a ballplayer or something.’
“I just tell them I’m trying real hard.”
Kevin Houston never has been mistaken for a ballplayer walking around in street clothes, whether his West Point uniform or blue jeans. Tom Sawyer, perhaps, with his red hair and freckles, but certainly not the leading scorer in the country for the 1986-87 season.
“A lot of times during the off-season here, I’d go down to the gym to play in pickup games,” Houston said. “Guys would choose up sides, and I’d never get chosen. You get used to it after a while, even expect it.
“Two summers ago, I was stationed at Fort Knox, and some friends of mine and I would go down to this gym on Saturdays to play.
“One day we’re in there, and 11 guys are on the court. We decided to play. I was hoping we would shoot free throws to see who played (Houston led the nation in free-throw shooting last season), but two guys started choosing. I said to my friends, ‘Watch who doesn’t get picked.’ Sure enough, I was No. 11. I just called winners and waited my turn.”
That sort of patience is a Houston trademark. His father coached in high school and college. Although Houston grew up in Pearl River, N.Y., his father’s connections got his son on the famed Riverside Church AAU team in New York City while he was in high school.
“I learned a lot about playing down there,” he said. “The guys were really tough, and I’m sure they looked at me as some kind of white, suburban jump-shooter when I got there. I wanted to prove I could play with them. I don’t like being told I can’t do something.”
A coach’s son, Houston played well in high school but wasn’t highly recruited as a senior. Unlike Robinson, whose family had a Navy background, he had no military connections. But he liked Wohtke and he liked the idea of playing right away. Even after a summer in the plebe “beat barracks,” he never questioned his decision.
“I doubt if I could have stepped right in and played anywhere else,” he said. “If I’d gone someplace else, I never would have developed like I did. I’ve never had a regret or a second thought.”
By his senior season, Houston was a phenomenon. Everywhere Army went, people asked which one was the big scorer. When the 5-11, 165-pound kid with the freckles was pointed to, people said, “That’s him?”
Their doubts were quickly erased. Houston is quick, can shoot on the move and has an uncanny knack for getting off his shot. His face never changes expression on the floor as he pours in the points.
“He just kills you,” Robinson said. “He shoots that rainbow jumper, and you think it can’t go in and it just does. Over and over.”
It certainly went in when Army played at Navy last February. Houston had 38 points, 27 in the first half.
“I was just jacked,” Houston said, remembering. “Doug Wojcik (Navy’s point guard) is a friend of mine and he kept saying to me, ‘Why are you doing this to me in front of all my friends?’ I just kept shooting.”
When the season was over, Houston thought he would get a chance to surprise people one more time at the Pan American trials. The invitation never came.
“It really ticked me off for a while,” Houston said. “I thought with the three-point shot and all, I’d at least make the trials. After a while, I tried to accept it and go on.”
The three-point shot beat the Americans in the Pan American final against Brazil. Recently, Georgetown Coach John Thompson said: “The outside shooter has gone the way of the buffalo in this country. We could use one on the Olympic team.”
Houston wants that chance at the Olympic trials in May. Robinson hopes Houston gets his wish. “They should forget the way he looks and look at the way he plays,” he said. “That’s what matters.”
After four years of competing, against one another, Robinson and Houston have grown to admire and like one another. Perhaps that is why Houston says he isn’t jealous of Robinson.
“Last year, we were together in New Orleans for the (NBA) All-Star game,” he said. “A bunch of us went down to Bourbon Street and we couldn’t walk three feet without people stopping David to stare or point or tell him who he was. He has no place to hide wherever he goes. It isn’t easy for him.”