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Commentary : David Robinson Compromise Serves All Well

January 25, 1987|JOHN FEINSTEIN | The Washington Post

If one cuts through the rhetoric and the posturing, this, in essence, is what the United States Navy said to Midshipman David Robinson on Jan. 9:

David, you want to play pro basketball and we understand. You are 7 feet 1 and when you enrolled at the Naval Academy four years ago no one had any idea that you would grow six inches and become the best college basketball player in the country. By becoming a great player and by being such a terrific example for young people as a student and a person, you have given the Navy publicity it could not have bought at any price.

But we also have given you many things: An education, the chance to grow as a player and as a person and a place where your All-American image can be enhanced almost daily. So, we will compromise. We will not ask you for the five years you committed to--on two occasions. Instead, we will ask you for two years.

Since you cannot represent the Navy and your country at sea, we will ask you to represent them on the basketball court, in the Pan American Games and the Olympics. Then, you are free to make millions of dollars in the NBA.

If one then cuts through the talk of incentive and options, this is what David Robinson has been saying for the last three days: I want to play in the National Basketball Association--right away.

That is where the compromise comes in. Robinson could sign with an NBA team and attempt to be a part-time player next season. But the Navy could just as easily station him somewhere where that would be impossible.

Robinson isn't wrong to want to play in the NBA. But the Navy isn't wrong either.

"David was worried on Thursday night that they might give him the whole five years," said his roommate-teammate, Carl Liebert. "But they compromised, showed some flexibility and I think that was the right thing to do."

The Navy apparently believes that--just as it owes Robinson something for being such a terrific symbol and spokesman for the Academy--Robinson owes something back. The two years of active duty it is requesting from Robinson is not coincidental. The 1988 Olympics will come 18 months after Robinson is commissioned.

"I really don't know how I feel right now," Robinson said a few days later. "In some ways, I'm glad the decision is over and I know what I'm dealing with. But in other ways, now there's even more pressure on me.

"Before, people were just asking me how I felt and I would say, 'Well, we just have to wait and see.' Now, it's in my hands again. It will be like my sophomore year all over again."

The sophomore year was a major factor in the Navy's decision. It was then that Robinson grew in stature both literally and figuratively, emerging as one of the best big men in the country. Then, as now, he had a decision to make.

If he had transferred at the end of his sophomore season, he would have been relieved of his five-year naval commitment. Robinson chose to stay then, partly because he wasn't certain he wanted to be a basketball player; partly because he liked it at Annapolis and--significantly--because there were signs that the service would seriously consider granting Robinson some kind of relief from the full five years.

No promises were made, though, and, reportedly, there was some question as late as the morning of Jan. 9 about whether Navy Secretary John H. Lehman would let Robinson out of the full five years.

"David was a wreck on Thursday," Liebert said. "You could tell during the game that night (a 64-62 loss to Richmond during which Robinson scored only eight points) that his mind was nowhere near the court. He knew the decision was coming down the next day and that was all he could think about. You have to understand, this is the kid's life now.

"That night he said, 'They may make me stay the whole five years.' He was scared."

Scared, because what David Robinson wants now is to be a professional basketball player. Only in the last 12 months has he known that for certain.

Before, being the son of a Navy veteran, he thought the Navy was his career. Now, having represented the United States last summer in the World Championships and having outplayed the Soviet Union's Arvidas Sabonis in leading the Americans to the gold medal, Robinson feels he has crossed international play off his checklist. He has told friends that playing in the Olympics would be a redundancy at this stage of his life.

What's more, two more years of amateur basketball means two more years of collapsing zones like the one George Mason Coach Joe Harrington threw up last Monday, limiting Robinson to 10 shots--each of them painful as Robinson was banged by three players whenever he touched the ball.

When it allowed Napoleon McCallum to play pro football part-time this fall, the Navy set the two-career precedent Robinson was looking for.

But Robinson does owe the Navy something.

"I can't even describe how much I've grown and broadened as a player and a person the last four years," Robinson said. "The reason for that has been the Academy."

Given that, what the Navy is asking is fair. Robinson can still be drafted this June by an NBA team. If the Navy stations him overseas, he can play for a European league team and retain his amateur status. At the same time, because he would be playing in a league that is considered professional by the NBA, the team that drafts him would retain his rights indefinitely--or at least until the Olympics are over. If he doesn't wish to play with the team that drafts him, Robinson can skip playing at the (European) pro level and be eligible for the draft again in 1988. Either way, Robinson has options.

As long as Robinson waits those 18 months, the Navy gets its All-American symbol. Robinson gets to be a hero first, a millionaire shortly thereafter.

It isn't a bad deal--for anyone.

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