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David Robinson, Navy's Top Gun: He's NBA-Shape, Not Shipshape

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Riordan’s is a watering hole right off Main Street in Annapolis, Md. Sitting at the bar, hunched over a Rolling Rock, is Navy basketball coach Pete Herrmann. Poor guy seems a bit dazed. “Incredible,” he keeps repeating. That glazed look in the coach’s eye has nothing to do with the beer; it’s the residue of the evening’s nerve-shattering win over James Madison University. With two seconds to go, Navy trailed, 71 to 70. Defeat seemed certain. Somehow, the Middies got the ball to their 7’1″ star David Robinson, who soared through the air like a giant bird of prey, unleashing an impossible 40-foot jump-shot that dropped, giving Navy three points and the game. Herrmann is just now recovering. “I still can’t believe it,” he says, watching the TV replay. “I don’t believe it.” Then, for those who have somehow missed the point, he murmurs once more, “Unbelievable.”

Yes, David Robinson is unbelievable. He didn’t even play organized basketball till he was a senior in high school. Now, as a Navy senior, he has become the best college player in the country, a thunderous rebounder with an inside game that makes strong men weep. And there is suspicion he’s just scratching the surface. “He’s still a baby when it comes to basketball,” says coach Herrmann. “He’s still improving.” Even more remarkable, at 21, the kid is still growing—six full inches since he came to Annapolis. He is a true scholar-athlete as well. As a math major specializing in computer science, he finished his junior year with a highly respectable low-B average.

He also has a dazzling smile and an infectious laugh—and why not? Just last month Navy Secretary John Lehman ruled that Robinson, because he has grown too tall to fit into most ships, subs or planes, is not physically qualified to be a Navy line officer. Lehman didn’t say anything about the National Basketball Association; he didn’t have to. Freed of the customary five-year naval obligation, Robinson is virtually certain to be the first player picked in the NBA draft next June. Robinson is pleased, especially since this is nothing he planned on. “I never dreamed of being a pro in any sport,” he says. “I knew a lot try out, a lot don’t make it. I was a pretty practical kid.”

Whiz kid would be more like it. The son of a naval sonar technician, Robinson grew up in Virginia Beach, Va. As a small boy he could total his mother Freda’s grocery bill before she got to the cashier. He learned to play the piano by ear and can still pound out a mean Beethoven sonata. By age 14, he was attending advanced computer courses at local colleges. “He liked to take things apart and put them back together,” says his father, Ambrose. When David was 15, Ambrose bought himself an $1,800 Heathkit projection TV with a five-foot screen. “It was state of the art, and I was looking forward to building it,” he says wistfully. Forget it. While Ambrose was putting in three weeks of sea duty, David got out his soldering iron and beat him to it. “Then he went down to the store,” says Ambrose, “and he helped them fix their display model.”

In high school David was a tinkerer and a sci-fi addict who played basketball only for fun. All that changed in his senior year, when he transferred to Osbourn Park High in Manassas, Va. Having grown three inches a year since ninth grade, he was now 6’7″, and when the Osbourn Park coach saw him he nearly swooned with delight. “He said, ‘You don’t play basketball?’ I told him I’d try.”

Despite scholarship offers from several major basketball schools, Robinson wanted only Annapolis. “I wanted to be an engineer,” he says, and for a while it seemed that he would be. As a plebe he broke his hand boxing, and in terms of basketball the year was almost a washout. But he continued to grow—another two inches a year—and anatomy began to dictate his destiny.

The problem was, Robinson’s desire didn’t always keep pace with his growth spurts. He would slack off in practice and lose his concentration in games. “I don’t think he really knows how to get intense,” coach Herrmann complained to a reporter last year. “I was lazy,” admits Robinson. “There was a lot of work, and I didn’t know if it was worth it.” After all, basketball has always been small change at Navy, and the academy gives no slack for its players. There are four hours of class-work a day, in addition to two hours of practice. Homework comes in two varieties: too much and way too much. Also, Robinson fell in love—with Stephannie Johnson, a junior at George Mason University. “They’re still very serious,” reports Carl Liebert, David’s teammate and former roommate. “He calls her every night, writes to her two or three times a day. He’s always thinking about her.”

It was during last year’s NCAA tournament that Robinson also focused hard on his basketball, carrying Navy to surprising wins over Tulsa, Syracuse and Cleveland State. His competitive fire now seems to burn higher, and to compensate for his lack of experience, he has turned his fine analytical mind to the game. “I look at great players,” he says, “and I ask myself, ‘Why are they great?’ There has to be a key. Something you can learn.” He is particularly fascinated by overachievers, like the Boston Celtics’ maddeningly efficient forward, Kevin McHale. “I’ll watch him,” says Robinson. “He has real good moves. He scores a lot. But he can’t jump. How does he do it?”

Next year Robinson may experience the mystery of Kevin McHale at first hand, courtesy of Secretary Lehman’s decision not to send him to sea. Obviously there is something in that verdict for everyone. Navy graduates an officer and a gentleman—Robinson will serve two years in the civil engineering corps—and the NBA gets a solid citizen, a clean-living role model and, barring injury, an exciting new star. David, in turn, can look forward to a few million dollars, the chance to resist the myriad temptations of professional stardom and just maybe a few more years to keep growing. The NBA, after all, has no limit.