Clear across campus from marbled, elegant Bancroft Hall, home of "The Brigade" at the Naval Academy, sits Halsey Fieldhouse. An ugly contradiction to the rest of the campus, it's the prettiest thing the basketball Midshipmen have ever seen.
A break from "The Life," it's where they can slip out of their uniforms and blithely defeat yet another civilian team, taking pleasure in steps that for once aren't measured.
After a couple of unthinking hours, they climb back into their Naval garb, stare longingly at a passing pair of blue jeans and pick up the cadenced steps once again. Once again, they have disproved the notion that Navy can't play the street game.
"Everybody likes to see the good guys win," said Navy forward Kylor Whitaker. "Not that we're good guys."
Navy's basketball team is good enough to be 20-4 overall, 11-2 in the Eastern College Athletic Conference South. The Midshipmen have become a disciplined running team, a force on the boards and strong enough inside to hold their own with almost anyone. After years of ridicule and a 24-8 record last season that was ignored by the NCAA and NIT, Navy finally is getting a little notice, and the Midshipmen like it.
"It goes back to our reputation," reserve forward Carl Liebert said. "A bunch of 6-6 white guys who hustle and scrap, but nothing fancy. They'll win some close ones but they won't ever be a national power. We've never gotten the publicity. But now word is starting to get out."
Navy will play Army Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in a game that is a sellout. The team has stirred up the Brigade in a way that only the football team had been able to do.
The main cause of excitement is David Robinson, a very atypical Navy center who is 6 feet 11 and black. He is averaging 23.9 points and 11 rebounds, and doughnut holes are passed out free for every one of his dunks, of which there are many.
He has lots of help. Junior forward Vernon Butler, a thick-skinned, blue-collar workhorse, set Navy's career rebounding record this season and is averaging 9.8 a game along with 18.5 points. Whitaker, also a junior, provides the finesse outside, averaging 13.8 points. In the back court are Cliff Rees and Doug Wojcik, slow guards who make up for it with enthusiasm. Rees, a freshman, averages 9.3 points and Wojcik, a sophomore, is 13th in the country in assists (7.1).
Navy does nothing particularly fancy, yet averages 78.8 points. The Midshipmen are second in the country in field goal percentage defense (41 percent) with a harassing zone, and third in field goal shooting (54 percent). Chances are good they will make their first NCAA tournament appearance in 25 years.
Stop any midshipman on campus and he'll tell you the same thing.
"You have to want the Academy," said Whitaker.
That's the problem with putting together a Navy basketball team, and what makes the Midshipmen so surprising in a year when they lost three starters and a top reserve from last season's team, the most successful ever in service academy history. In addition, blue-chip sophomore forward Rob Johnstone tired of "The Life" and went home to Connecticut.
It's a permanent hazard for Coach Paul Evans, but one he has come to ignore, and accept. In his fourth year at Navy, he has broken the old rules and more than occasionally gone after the all-star players usually sought by the top basketball schools.
Robinson was not highly sought after at Osbourn Park High School in Manassas. He was more scholar than athlete, scoring in the 1300s on his college boards, and grew from 6-8 to 6-11 in his first year in Annapolis. He now is one of the best centers in the country.
"You have to eliminate a lot of people from recruiting," Evans said, "but you can sell them something that's real, you don't have to lie. You can tell them that 40 years later they'll have it made, no matter what happens."
Evans' main problem is getting the undivided attention of players more worried about engineering class than pivots. They are constantly tired, distracted and behind in class. There are no easy slides for Navy athletes.
"We keep it simple so there isn't that much to learn," Evans said. "You don't have the time here you might have someplace else. They don't come to practice with basketball on their minds. They're worried about a test, or they're behind.
" . . . For most of them, this a release. People are yelling at them all day. They don't want that here."
Evans lately has been faced with another problem. There is talk that he is in some danger of losing Robinson, a sophomore, who will have to decide later this year if he wants to remain at the Academy and serve the required five years in the Navy or transfer to a regular four-year college in hopes of a shot at the NBA. Robinson, the son of a career Navy man, took up basketball only two years ago. All he ever wanted to do was go to the Academy.
"It's got to be one of the hardest jobs in the world here," Robinson said. "The basketball kills your studying, but it's a chance to get away. You try to balance it, but you don't have a lot of time to think. In the Hall, there's a feeling that you always have to be busy. On a road trip, you can relax in the hotel and watch TV, do things that everybody in the real world takes for granted."
Robinson says he is leaning toward staying. The grades are coming a little easier -- he has a 3.22 average and has switched his major from systems to mathematics. He also likes that his father Ambrose, a 20-year sonar technician, can go to almost every game and take his family with him.
"I know he can handle it, because he had it as tough at home with me as he will anywhere," Ambrose Robinson said. "I always told him, whatever you see in life that you want to do, you can do it. Never say to me, 'I don't know, I don't want to, or I can't.' "