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It's Not Just a Job, It's a Way to Get Out of L.A.

March 12, 1998|ROBYN NORWOOD

HARTFORD, Conn. — In an age when fewer and fewer players want to listen to their coaches and more and more see college as merely a whistle-stop on the way to the NBA, Navy's Hassan Booker and his company of Los Angeles teammates stand tall.

They picked the hard road, choosing to play at a military academy where their elite education will cost them a five-year stint in the Navy after graduation.

North Carolina junior Antawn Jamison, the player Booker will try to defend today in a first-round game at the NCAA East Regional in Hartford, probably will be in the NBA next season--and if not then, the year after.

And Booker?

"Probably standing bridge watch on the Mediterranean," the 6-foot-3 senior forward from University High said with a laugh. "Probably watching what these other guys do [in the NBA.] It's the life I choose to live. I'll be protecting you guys, something more important. You won't have to worry if I sprained my ankle or I'm getting $5 million."

Booker is one of five L.A. players on the underdog Navy team--no 16th-seeded team has ever knocked off a No. 1--and he was one of the first to prime a cross-country pipeline that started with Brentwood's Michael Green, last year's Navy captain.

Skip Victor, a junior guard whose steal and layup late in the Patriot League tournament final got Navy into the NCAA tournament, played at Cerritos High. Known for his defense, Victor plays up that role, superstitiously carrying five locks with him to the bench, where he holds them when he isn't in the game.

Inglewood's Terrell Hickmon, who played at St. Bernard, comes off the bench as a senior. Freshman forward Robert Reeder from Pasadena Poly is a reserve and freshman guard Reggie Skipworth played at Artesia High before moving to Tennessee.

Booker, the adopted son of a police officer, said adjusting to life at the Naval Academy wasn't so hard.

"Growing up in my household, it was the same thing," he said.

Victor laughed.

"It's the same for me too," he said. "Just someone different yelling at me than my mother."

Assistant coach Doug Wojcik is the one responsible for the L.A. influx, with the help of Roger Millstein, an AAU coach.

"He was the one guy among all the AAU coaches who brought transcripts, and at the Naval Academy we need to be aware of what kind of students players are," Wojcik said.

"It's interesting. You wouldn't think we'd be able to get kids to come out from the West Coast. But I think having the naval base in San Diego and the Marines up and down the coast, you can say that in four or five years, you could be stationed in San Diego and have a good job. Yes, you'll be in uniform, but at 5 o'clock you can go have your own life.

"What's interesting is a lot of kids' parents want their kids out of L.A. Skip Victor's mom raised him as a single parent and was always very disciplined and wanted to see he would grow up."

Booker considered UC Davis, Cal State Northridge and Cal State Dominguez Hills, but Wojcik's Navy pitch took him by surprise.

"I didn't know much about it. At first, I thought they were recruiting us for the military," he said.

He decided the education he was being offered was too much to pass up. And discipline has its benefits.

"Dean Smith at North Carolina, Coach [Mike] Krzyzewski at Duke, Bob Knight at Indiana, he's won for 20 or 30 years, being disciplined," Booker said. "That still works."

STATE OF THE ART

By one measure, the nation's basketball capital isn't North Carolina's Tobacco Road, but the state of Michigan, which placed five teams in the NCAA tournament: Michigan, Michigan State, Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan and Detroit.

North Carolina has four (North Carolina, Duke, North Carolina Charlotte and Davidson.) So do South Carolina (Clemson, South Carolina, South Carolina State and the College of Charleston) and Indiana (Purdue, Indiana, Valparaiso and Butler.)

KNIGHT DOESN'T MAKE RIGHT

So Bob Knight says he will personally pay the Big Ten Conference's $10,000 fine for berating official Ted Valentine after his three-technical ejection last month against Ohio State.

That's a half-decent gesture, given that the citizens of Indiana shouldn't pay the fine the university would have been willing to.

But the problem is the Big Ten's written policy allowing coaches a choice between a fine and a suspension.

That means that a guy like former Indiana football coach Bill Mallory, who was about to be fired, sat on the sidelines when he was given the same ultimatum in 1991, and a repeat offender like Knight knows he can simply pay up.

As Knight said at the Big Ten tournament, there was no doubt in his mind he would be on the sidelines.

"I know the rules," he said. "I said then it was not possible I wouldn't be coaching."

In addition, while leagues usually back game officials too far--let's face it, they make errors, and coaches ought to be able to voice their opinions without being fined--the Big Ten went too far in censuring Valentine.

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