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Hope and Glory--2 Athletes in Military : Robinson and Houston, Once Foes on Same Floor, Follow Divergent Paths

December 03, 1987|JOHN FEINSTEIN | The Washington Post

The first week of November was a dizzy time for Ens. David Robinson.

On Nov. 5, he left the submarine base at King's Bay, Ga., where he is stationed, and flew to San Antonio. The next morning, the San Antonio Spurs formally announced that they will pay him $26 million over eight years to play basketball for them.

"That night I was in a bar down there and it was amazing," Robinson said, laughing. "All of a sudden, I was a lot better-looking than I had ever been before. My jokes were funnier. My personality sparkled. Women wanted to buy me drinks. I guess people in Texas are just friendly, right?"

On the same night Robinson flew to San Antonio, Kevin Houston sat in a dark Italian restaurant less than a mile from Thayer gate at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and talked about his week.

"For a while, I thought basketball might be over for me," he said. "I was getting a little discouraged. But this is a great opportunity for me. Now, I feel like I may at least have a chance. That's all I want."

Houston's opportunity had arisen in the form of new orders from the Army. Rather than report to Fort Sill, Okla., in January to go through a six-month training program as a field artillery officer, he will report to San Francisco. There, he will try out for the All-Army team, a group of barnstormers.

The new orders are important to Houston because they mean he will be playing basketball--assuming he makes the team--through April. That also means that when the Olympic trials begin May 14, Houston will be in good shape. If he gets invited.

"I would hope that someone like Kevin, someone who led the nation in scoring last year (averaging 32.9 points a game), would get a chance to go to the Olympic trials," said his coach at Army, Les Wohtke. "But I also thought he would get a chance to go to the Pan American trials."

David Robinson will be at the Olympic trials. He will be on the Olympic team. To him, it isn't that big a deal. He played against the Soviets in the World Championships in 1986 and in the Pan American Games last summer, so international basketball doesn't excite him that much.

He has represented his country. He has played against the Soviet Union's star player, Arvidas Sabonis. He is ready for San Antonio and the National Basketball Assn. and $26 million.

Kevin Houston has no such dreams. He is 14 inches shorter than Robinson--5 feet 11 inches to 7-1--and his future, for now, is in the Army. His military commitment is five years, three more than Robinson's. He dreams of one more chance in basketball, to go out wearing USA on his uniform.

"I know if I get the chance to go to the trials, it will be my last big shot in this game," Houston said. "Of course, you never know. I might hit a growing spurt somewhere along the line."

He laughed at the thought and went on: "Last year was like a dream come true for me. As a kid, I used to watch college basketball on TV and think how great it would be to play college ball, be on television and do well. I never thought I'd have a chance to do the things I did.

"Until a couple weeks ago, I thought that was it, though, the end. When I didn't get invited to the Pan Am trials, it was a letdown. I thought they'd at least give me a look-see. But they didn't. Now, it's like I've been given life again, at least for a while."

As soon as Houston got word that his basketball career had been rescued, he began to work out again. He is assigned to West Point as a graduate assistant coach. After practice or on days off, Houston comes in to shoot. In order to save time, he has a rebounder work with him, his wife, Elizabeth.

"It's nice that she comes over and helps me," Houston said. "Anything for a good cause, I guess."

So as fall becomes winter, Robinson and Houston, the two military kids who made good in basketball, are looking ahead: Robinson to the day he can play basketball full time and start spending his millions, Houston to a trial he only can hope will come.

The afternoon was cool, almost chilly considering that the Florida border was only a few miles away, and Robinson shivered slightly as he loped to his car.

He had just put in a fairly typical day, working in the trailer that serves as the office in King's Bay for the ROICC--Resident Officer in Charge of Construction. He works every day from 8 until 4, a young officer charged with helping build this giant base, one that isn't scheduled to be open for another two years.

Robinson is leading a double life and knows it.

He wakes up every morning 35 miles away from the base in a comfortable condominium on Amelia Island Plantation in Florida. The sliding glass door in the living room opens onto the ninth hole of the Oak March Country Club. Behind the golf course, the sunset each evening is spectacular.

His agent, Lee Fentress, got him a deal on the condo, and Robinson likely lives a lot more comfortably than any other Navy ensign in Georgia, Florida or anywhere else.

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