In the age of material man, the Naval Academy's 6-foot-11 David Robinson would appear to be a throwback to the likes of Thomas Merton, the late American monk and writer who measured the world's offerings against a rare personal standard and went his own way.
One or two seasons from now, had Robinson opted to leave the Academy after his second year instead of making a commitment to the service, he likely could have become a first-round draft choice in the National Basketball Association and a millionaire. Instead, he is scheduled in 1987 to begin serving at least five years in the U.S. Navy.
"It was a tough decision," said Robinson, pausing recently between classes and practice. "I don't think I gave up the opportunity (to turn pro) completely. I'm always going to be almost 7 feet; that's not going to change. But I definitely have to set my priorities."
Something unforeseen yet could enable him to become the first Navy athlete to go directly to the pros. Because of his height, Robinson will not be eligible for "unrestricted line commissioning," and graduating Midshipmen are given an administrative waiver to accept an assignment into "restricted line," a land-based job, according to an Academy spokesman. One conceivably could contest such a waiver in an effort not to be commissioned, but Academy spokesmen could not recall any such case.
Would Robinson consider any effort in his senior year that would delay his service obligation?
"If there was a way, I definitely would think about it," Robinson said. "But I'm under the impression there's no way. If something did arise, I would ask. But I don't think there's any way it could be delayed." He said no exception was given recently graduated Navy football star Napoleon McCallum, and he didn't expect any for himself -- he is thinking only of going directly into the service. "I have my mind set," he said.
So, he would not be eligible for the NBA until 1992, when he would be 27. Robinson's intentions have been widely lauded, and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo said on a national radio commentary: "David Robinson chose to stay at Navy. He talked about commitment, loyalty and values . . . I wonder how many of us would choose these virtues rather than the chance of becoming a multimillionaire, especially if you were a college sophomore when you had to make that choice."
No one reason seems to answer the question of why Robinson has remained at the Academy: he likes it, his father used to be a Navy man, collegians tend not to transfer, Robinson never has viewed basketball as an end-all, he does not equate money and happiness. Single explanations might be expected in today's world, but instinct and faith can serve as beacons.
One thing: Robinson is happy, and he has made Navy basketball the best it's been. A strong student with diverse interests who did not play competitive basketball until his senior year of high school, Robinson has been an enormous surprise for Navy. To begin with, he grew four inches after he got there. Walking through an Academy building the other day, Robinson took care to duck his head at each doorway. To a basketball coach, a stirring sight.
Because of him, the Midshipmen fill arenas home and away. As a sophomore last season, Robinson led Navy to its first NCAA tournament in 25 years. This season, with the finesse of a small forward, he has averaged 21.8 points and 12.8 rebounds and blocked 114 shots (tops in the nation) while leading the team, with stellar support from senior forward Vernon Butler of Beltsville, to a 15-4 record. Robinson is a team man -- another reason he's still at the Academy -- but his personal aspirations include being all-America and a member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic team. Reasonable ambitions, considering that he continues to raise his game to new levels.
"This year," said Navy Coach Paul Evans, besides Robinson's improved offensive moves and shots, "his stamina is much better. He can play more minutes. Defensively, he's been a very dominant player, not only with blocks, but he leads the team in steals (with 25)."
A Navy athlete's experiences can be quaint compared with a typical college athlete's. What high-powered athletic department would let one of its basketball players box as a freshman? But Robinson boxed as a plebe -- and, to Evans' dismay, injured his hand and got off to a slow start in his first basketball season. Last summer, while America's top college players spent most of their time honing their games, Robinson passed much of his summer at flying indoctrination in Pensacola, Fla., "playing Marine" at Quantico, on a sub near New London, Conn., and sailing for a week on a small Navy craft. But this was to his liking; he never has been one-dimensional.
As a youngster growing up in Virginia Beach, he enjoyed science fiction stories, worked science experiments, played the piano, built a five-foot projection screen. Years ago, he wanted to attend the Academy, before he took basketball seriously. And with SAT scores of almost 1,400, he likely would have made it even if he never had stepped onto a basketball court. But when you're pushing 6-6, even if you're thin (he's now 230), a high school coach is apt to spot you in a hallway. That's what happened to Robinson after he moved with his family to Northern Virginia and transferred for his senior year of high school to Osbourn Park in Manassas.
Since he started playing basketball so late, few colleges sought him -- it came down to Navy and Virginia Military Institute. "I wanted to add a little bit of discipline," he says. "In high school, I was hardly structured."
Structure has had its effect. After returning to the Academy about midnight recently following a night game at Delaware, in which Robinson scored 37 points and got 14 rebounds to defeather the Blue Hens, Robinson the math major stayed up to the wee hours and then got up earlier than usual to finish writing a computer program. His roommate and teammate, Carl Liebert of Floyds Knobs, Ind., asked, "How many athletes are going to do that? He has pride in his grades and that carries over to the basketball floor."
If Robinson has this effect on his classmates, think how his family feels. His brother, Chuck, 14, often helps as a ball boy at games and would like to attend the Academy. His parents follow Navy games religiously. If his father can't attend, or watch on TV, he'll listen on radio -- but he can't pick up the radio games at home.
"I'll drive up to Telegraph Road in Alexandria, park the car in an empty lot and listen to the game," Ambrose Robinson said. That's where he was during the Delaware game when a police officer came up to the car window and asked for identification. " 'It's unusual for somebody to be here,' he said. I said, 'I'm listening to the basketball game. My son plays for Navy.' When he saw the name he recognized it. 'Oh, hi, Mr. Robinson.' "
Ironically, although Robinson apparently has deferred the NBA until another decade, he views basketball with an importance it didn't hold before he realized how good he could be. "The more recognition he's gotten," said Evans, "he's worked at it that much harder."
When it came time to make a binding commitment last spring, stay at the Academy or leave, Robinson heard both sides from a lot of people. "He came in one Friday, and said he was going to decide over the weekend," said Evans. "I told him to do what was best for him." Then Evans waited. He won't reveal how much he sweated it, except to say, "I was really happy when he came in that Monday."
Thanks to Robinson, Midshipmen these days are standing just a little taller.