ANNAPOLIS -- Of all the Navy basketball players, the one who misses David Robinson most is the one who knew him the longest, Cliff Rees. Rees, the only senior on this Navy team, played three seasons with Robinson, three glorious seasons in which Navy won an unprecedented -- and altogether unimaginable for a service academy -- 82 games, went to three straight national tournaments and once advanced as far as the final eight.
"A once-in-a-lifetime player," Rees admiringly called Robinson. "So big and strong, and such an enforcer on the court. Anytime we needed a point, we went to him." A dreamy, faraway look painted Rees' face as he reminisced about how easy it was to play on a team with Robinson. "For a role player like me, it was great. All I'd have to concentrate on was hitting the open shot. Teams always collapsed around Dave. If I hit that shot they'd have to come out on me, and that would open him up. If Dave got any daylight at all, he'd score on anybody . . . He made us look so good. People would compliment you on throwing a nice alley-oop pass, but it was Dave who made it look nice. It's amazing how easy it was to get him the ball. You put it anywhere near the board, and even if he was surrounded he'd simply go up and get it." Rees softly shook his head. "Don't get me wrong, we had good players, we were tough, and better than people thought. But you could've taken any four guys and put them around Dave and had a good team."
With Robinson, Navy ripped off victories in large chunks: 11 straight three seasons back; 13 straight last season; 16 straight in Robinson's junior season. So you can imagine how shocked and dismayed Rees was by Navy's nightmarish 3-12 start this season. After just 15 games Rees had already lost more times than he had in his previous 67. "It was terrible," Rees admitted. "I never expected it. After every game I'd reevaluate myself as a player and wonder what I was doing wrong." As captain of the team, Rees felt a special burden to lead. After all, isn't that impulse why young people choose to attend the Naval Academy?
"I think Cliff blamed himself," observed Navy Coach Pete Herrmann. "It was very tough on him. He tried to do too much. He tried to play every position."
Confessing as much, the personable Rees allowed, "I know I'm not a 20-point scorer, but we needed somebody to step up and score because we weren't getting it . . . And it wasn't just basketball, it was motivating the others. I saw myself as failing."
Real pressure is heavy enough without imagined pressure adding to it. Rees said he had "talked to Coach Herrmann hundreds of times before the season about how different it would be without David." Perhaps he hadn't listened. "I don't think I realized as much as Coach what a struggle it would be." Rees estimated, by combining all Robinson did on the court -- his scoring, his blocks, and all the offensive alterations he caused -- that "David was worth 40 to 45 points a game." Yes, Navy had established a winning tradition in recent years, and Herrmann had recruited well. But this was no rowboat that was missing, this was a destroyer. It'd be impossible to replace Robinson under ideal circumstances, but injuries to frontcourt starters, 6-9 Byron Hopkins and 6-7 Derric Turner, and the abrupt suspension of promising 6-9 freshman Darren Morningstar, made it hopeless. Eventually Rees understood he "expected too much of all of us," and wisely came to see, "It was unfair to them, unfair to Coach, unfair to me, too."
In retrospect, it may be that this Navy team needed to suffer through such a miserable start to rid itself of Robinson's giant shadow, to shed it as if it was a second skin. At 3-12, staring into the horrifying abyss of 6-20, Navy finally found the reverse gear. "At 3-8 and 3-9, the young guys were beginning to question the system," Rees said. "That's where my role as a senior came in. I told them, 'Don't talk like that. This is the system we've won with before.' As time went on they realized it wasn't the system, it was the execution."
Navy began winning on January 27, and hasn't stopped yet: eight in a row, a sudden and eye-popping turnaround to 11-12. Rees, who will play in his final home game tonight against American, is the team's leading scorer (14.1 per game) and the last significant link to the Robinson Era. An upheaval caused by injury and departures has transformed Navy into an especially young team. Two freshmen and two sophomores start; two additional freshmen see a lot of time. The familiar, shepherding zone defense that cajoled people toward Robinson is gone, replaced by a bothersome man-to-man. "We play harder now than on any team I've ever been associated with," Rees declared. "Everybody leaning on everybody. Before, we'd depend on Dave covering up for us by blocking shots and scoring. Now every man has to be responsible."
The irony of Rees' captaincy is that this group is going to be good, and when it is, Rees won't be with it. Nonetheless, he crowed, "I'm so excited for this team. I have so much respect for these guys and what they've done." Like another Navy man with a good sense of himself, Mister Roberts, Rees said humbly, "I'm proud to say I was here to help get this season back on track."
The last month salvaged Rees' senior year, but in most respects this season is superfluous to what preceded it. With Rees' basketball past, how could he avoid wading in it? Getting that dreamy look again, Rees said, "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't remember playing with Dave, and remember beating Syracuse at Syracuse in the NCAAs, and remember being in the final eight. I'll carry that with me wherever I go. And I'm sure that when I get old I'll be one of those guys who talks about the glory days. I'll be proud to tell people that I played with David Robinson and what it was like, because something like that is worth bragging about."