Paul Evans remembers the spring day in 1980 when he came to the Naval Academy to be interviewed about becoming the basketball coach. "I walked into the room and the entire Navy Athletic Association was sitting around this long table smoking big cigars," he said. "I thought to myself, 'Maybe I might be happy at St. Lawrence for another year.' "

To some degree, Evans' instincts were correct. Navy is a school where the men in power do spend a lot of time smoking cigars and talking about the football team. But now, largely because Evans decided to ignore his instincts in that smoke-filled room, Navy also is a place where people are talking about basketball.

"I think if you are going to be realistic, we couldn't ask for much more from our basketball program than what it's produced the last couple of years," Athletic Director J.O. (Bo) Coppedge said recently, lighting a cigar. "The way things work around here, we have 33 sports. There's football and then there's everything else. Paul understands that and he's dealt with it and done the job."

He produced 18 victories two years ago, then a school record; a remarkable 24 victories last season, and a 4-2 start this season. People laughed when Evans said Navy could play run-and-gun basketball. People giggled when Evans tried to recruit basketball players who wanted to be midshipmen rather than settling just for midshipmen who felt like playing basketball.

Evans has done both. Now, he says, "I think we can do a little better. I think we can reach the point where we can beat a nationally ranked team on a given night." And no one laughs.

"When I first got here, the attitude toward basketball was completely different than it is now," said Vernon Butler, a junior forward from High Point High School in Beltsville, Md., who was last season's leading scorer. "When I was a freshman, there were times when we had to fight the volleyball team for court time. That doesn't happen any more."

When Evans talks about how he has pieced together his program, it sounds simple. Remember that Navy cannot recruit anyone over 6 feet 8 because of Academy regulations. Remember that all graduates must fulfill a five-year service commitment, which is not exactly an inducement to a player with dreams of playing in the NBA. Remember that, unlike most other NCAA Division I schools, athletes at Navy get no special favors.

"The toughest thing is coming back after playing a game on a night where you're assigned the watch," Butler said. "You're tired, you're sore, maybe you won. Instead of going out and celebrating or having people say, 'Hey, great game,' you get to stand on your feet until 6 the next morning."

Yet, Butler, who was highly recruited, came to Navy. So did David Robinson of Osbourn Park High School in Manassas, who was 6-8 when he enrolled but now is 6-11 as a sophomore and a player big-time schools would love to have.

"It's very easy to come here and bog yourself down in 'I can'ts,' " Evans said. "When I came here I heard you couldn't get black basketball players at Navy. We have four on the team now. I heard basketball was second fiddle to football. Sure it is, but why shouldn't it be? We only had one local kid on the team. Now we have six.

"I know we can't go out and get the real super, the kid that everyone in the country wants. The kids who are developed to that level aren't going to come here. What we have to find is the young kid who can maybe do one or two things well, who has the potential to get better. That's what we saw in Robinson, that's what we saw in Butler."

"We try to be selective and realistic. We probably saw every game Butler played his senior year and I think that's the reason he finally chose us. He knew how badly we wanted him. I think we can go after one player like that a year. Once we get them, we think we can work with them."

Evans hardly looks the part of a Navy commander, basketball or otherwise. He is 38, has blond curly hair and a casual appearance and easy smile that are decidedly unmilitary. But his players say he understands the special burdens of being a midshipman. "If you're wiped out at practice because you've been up until 4 a.m. studying, he understands," said Robinson.

Coppedge remembers being surprised during his interview with Evans when the young coach said he believed Navy could play up-tempo and be successful. Bob Hamilton, Evans' predecessor, had slowed most games to a crawl. That way, Hamilton kept Navy in most games and the Midshipmen were slightly better than a .500 team during his four years. A lot of people thought that was as good as it could get at Navy in the 1980s.

Evans didn't think so. "Cliche or not, I think the most important thing in coaching is seeing to it that the kids playing for you enjoy the game; it shouldn't be a job," he said. "I have yet to meet a kid who enjoyed playing slowdown basketball. Games where the score is in the 30s or 40s put everyone to sleep, including me sitting on the bench watching them."

Evans set out to prove that playing and watching basketball at Navy could be fun. The first season was not much fun, however. It began with a game at Maryland that turned around when the Midshipmen were called for a technical because they had six men on the court. That season, four starters missed at least 16 games and the record was 9-16.

Things got a little better (12-14) the second year. By the third year, Evans was beginning to win small concessions from the brass. Coppedge even went so far as to get permission for the corps to report to 8 p.m. study hall one hour later on nights when there was a home basketball game.

Basketball games in Halsey Field House are quite different than most on-campus gyms. On weeknights, many Midshipmen are too busy studying for the next day's class to go to games. On Saturday afternoon, there are always other athletic events and, oft-times, members of the corps go elsewhere.

"If someone in your brigade is a fencer, you go to fencing," Coppedge said. "If there's a girl on the swimming team, you go to swimming. That's the way this place is, you tend to be loyal to the people you associate with. But I think basketball has changed the last couple of years. You can feel the support building."

Still, last season's team got a good deal of support. The nicest thing that can be said about Halsey Field House is that it sits almost adjacent to the water and offers a gorgeous view of Chesapeake Bay. Halsey seats about 4,000 and rarely has been filled to capacity. Last season, though, it was almost filled on several occasions.

"I had the sense that the corps really got caught up in the basketball team," said Rear Adm. Charles R. Larson, the school's superintendent. "Individual companies began coming over as a group and that was good to see."

Halsey is too small for the Academy. Larson says the Navy Board of Visitors first recommended a multipurpose athletic building in 1943 and that it still is being considered. Coppedge and Evans have hopes that a new building might be started within the next couple of years.

A new building would help recruiting and probably help attendance. More important, it would help Evans in getting opponents to schedule home-and-home series with Navy. Recently, several schools have refused return games at Navy, among them Pennsylvania, Old Dominion, George Washington and Manhattan.

Other schools can raise money from wealthy alumni to pay for a new building. Navy must wait to see if the government wants to spend the money.

Coppedge says the Naval Athletic Association raises about $50,000 annually from boosters who pay a minimum of $12 for a membership that entitles them to a newsletter, preferred seating at football games, discounted basketball tickets and parking privileges.

What most people don't realize is that Navy funds its athletic program independently. Football must carry the load because, short of an NCAA bid, basketball can do no better than break even. "If we break even in basketball, we're doing well," Coppedge said.

Last year, Navy was criticized for playing too many "nothing" games. This year, in addition to 14 conference games, it played in the Saluki Shootout at Southern Illinois.

Next year, Navy will play in the Carrier Classic at Syracuse and will travel to Japan to play in the Suntory Ball at Christmas along with Army and Air Force. It also will play in the Cotton States Classic in Atlanta, which includes Georgia and Georgia Tech.

This season, the team is built around Robinson and Butler. Robinson has developed so quickly since his senior year in high school, other schools have told him he can have a career in the NBA if he leaves Navy and gets out of his service commitment.

Evans doesn't think he'll lose Robinson. In addition to his basketball skills, Robinson is a math major who had a 3.24 grade point average as a freshman.

"I've never thought of myself as some kind of super athlete," Robinson said. "In high school, basketball was just something that I sort of experimented with. I guess my priorities are different. Right now, I have no plans to go anywhere. I like it here."

Evans has enough confidence in his ability to continue to attract good players that he says, "It would take a very good job, probably one in a top conference, for me to leave here." He has a new contract, a summer camp and a Converse shoe contract that probably puts his annual income in the $50,000 range. He loves the beauty of the Annapolis waterfront and the liveliness of the downtown area.

Last year, when the Clemson job was open, Evans called a coaching friend to ask if he should apply. When Evans heard what the job entailed compared to what he had at Navy, he decided not to apply.

In short, Navy is happy with its basketball coach and its coach is happy with Navy.

"This is a very good job right now," Evans said. "The money's gotten better, the budget is reasonable and I get to work with great kids."

Who, to the surprise of many, probably including the cigar-smoking men who interviewed Evans, play pretty good basketball. Next: George Mason them."

Evans hardly looks the part of a Navy commander, basketball or otherwise. He is 38, has blond curly hair and a casual appearance and easy smile that are decidedly unmilitary. But his players say he understands the special burdens of being a midshipman. "If you're wiped out at practice because you've been up until 4 a.m. studying, he understands," said Robinson.

Coppedge remembers being surprised during his interview with Evans when the young coach said he believed Navy could play up-tempo and be successful. Bob Hamilton, Evans' predecessor, had slowed most games to a crawl. That way, Hamilton kept Navy in most games and the Midshipmen were slightly better than a .500 team during his four years. A lot of people thought that was as good as it could get at Navy in the 1980s.

Evans didn't think so. "Cliche or not, I think the most important thing in coaching is seeing to it that the kids playing for you enjoy the game; it shouldn't be a job," he said. "I have yet to meet a kid who enjoyed playing slowdown basketball. Games where the score is in the 30s or 40s put everyone to sleep, including me sitting on the bench watching them."

Evans set out to prove that playing and watching basketball at Navy could be fun. The first season was not much fun, however. It began with a game at Maryland that turned around when the Midshipmen were called for a technical because they had six men on the court. That season, four starters missed at least 16 games and the record was 9-16.

Things got a little better (12-14) the second year. By the third year, Evans was beginning to win small concessions from the brass. Coppedge even went so far as to get permission for the corps to report to 8 p.m. study hall one hour later on nights when there was a home basketball game.

Basketball games in Halsey Field House are quite different than most on-campus gyms. On weeknights, many Midshipmen are too busy studying for the next day's class to go to games. On Saturday afternoon, there are always other athletic events and, oft-times, members of the corps go elsewhere.

"If someone in your brigade is a fencer, you go to fencing," Coppedge said. "If there's a girl on the swimming team, you go to swimming. That's the way this place is, you tend to be loyal to the people you associate with. But I think basketball has changed the last couple of years. You can feel the support building."

Still, last season's team got a good deal of support. The nicest thing that can be said about Halsey Field House is that it sits almost adjacent to the water and offers a gorgeous view of Chesapeake Bay. Halsey seats about 4,000 and rarely has been filled to capacity. Last season, though, it was almost filled on several occasions.

"I had the sense that the corps really got caught up in the basketball team," said Rear Adm. Charles R. Larson, the school's superintendent. "Individual companies began coming over as a group and that was good to see."

Halsey is too small for the Academy. Larson says the Navy Board of Visitors first recommended a multipurpose athletic building in 1943 and that it still is being considered. Coppedge and Evans have hopes that a new building might be started within the next couple of years.

A new building would help recruiting and probably help attendance. More important, it would help Evans in getting opponents to schedule home-and-home series with Navy. Recently, several schools have refused return games at Navy, among them Pennsylvania, Old Dominion, George Washington and Manhattan.

Other schools can raise money from wealthy alumni to pay for a new building. Navy must wait to see if the government wants to spend the money.

Coppedge says the Naval Athletic Association raises about $50,000 annually from boosters who pay a minimum of $12 for a membership that entitles them to a newsletter, preferred seating at football games, discounted basketball tickets and parking privileges.

What most people don't realize is that Navy funds its athletic program independently. Football must carry the load because, short of an NCAA bid, basketball can do no better than break even. "If we break even in basketball, we're doing well," Coppedge said.

Last year, Navy was criticized for playing too many "nothing" games. This year, in addition to 14 conference games, it played in the Saluki Shootout at Southern Illinois.

Next year, Navy will play in the Carrier Classic at Syracuse and will travel to Japan to play in the Suntory Ball at Christmas along with Army and Air Force. It also will play in the Cotton States Classic in Atlanta, which includes Georgia and Georgia Tech.

This season, the team is built around Robinson and Butler. Robinson has developed so quickly since his senior year in high school, other schools have told him he can have a career in the NBA if he leaves Navy and gets out of his service commitment.

Evans doesn't think he'll lose Robinson. In addition to his basketball skills, Robinson is a math major who had a 3.24 grade point average as a freshman.

"I've never thought of myself as some kind of super athlete," Robinson said. "In high school, basketball was just something that I sort of experimented with. I guess my priorities are different. Right now, I have no plans to go anywhere. I like it here."

Evans has enough confidence in his ability to continue to attract good players that he says, "It would take a very good job, probably one in a top conference, for me to leave here." He has a new contract, a summer camp and a Converse shoe contract that probably puts his annual income in the $50,000 range. He loves the beauty of the Annapolis waterfront and the liveliness of the downtown area.

Last year, when the Clemson job was open, Evans called a coaching friend to ask if he should apply. When Evans heard what the job entailed compared to what he had at Navy, he decided not to apply.

In short, Navy is happy with its basketball coach and its coach is happy with Navy.

"This is a very good job right now," Evans said. "The money's gotten better, the budget is reasonable and I get to work with great kids."

Who, to the surprise of many, probably including the cigar-smoking men who interviewed Evans, play pretty good basketball.

Next: George Mason