This is a far cry from Navy basketball in the '60s, when potential fighting men opted to become flower children. The Middies surpassed .500 only three times in that decade and went 10-10 in 1964-65. In August 1965, a Navy brat was born to Ambrose and Freda Robinson in Key West, Fla. And what a different kind of brat little David turned out to be. Growing up, Robinson's inquisitiveness was manifest. At the grocery store he calculated food prices and had the total ready by the time his mother reached the checkout. He learned to play the piano by ear and can still do a passable job on more than a few Beethoven sonatas. In Virginia Beach, Va., he entered a program for gifted children in the first grade and at 14 attended advanced computer courses at local colleges. When his father went to sea for three weeks, Robinson sat down and put together an $1,800 Heathkit six-foot-screen projection TV. By himself. It is still there in the downstairs family room, where David recently took the thing apart again to point out the maze of wires, resistors, capacitors, etc., he had gadgeted together. "I was only worried about him soldering," says Ambrose Robinson. "David didn't know how to solder."
He said solder, not soldier. And not sailor. Young Robinson knew all about sailors. He was in the 10th grade when he decided he wanted to go to Annapolis. Sports? He played pickup games, but they were just something else to do with his friends. Even when Ambrose Robinson retired from the Navy to work for a defense contractor and moved the family to the Washington suburbs, only peer pressure forced Robinson to join the Osbourn Park High team as a senior. The coach, Art Payne, treated the newcomer with a velvet glove. "I was so afraid of David disliking basketball," says Payne. At halftime of one lackadaisical effort Payne stood in front of Robinson and chewed out the team. The senior center sat stunned, eyes straight ahead, at total attention. Payne felt like an admiral. He thought, Yeah, this guy really wants the Naval Academy.
What about the Ivy League? "At an Ivy school I would have had to play basketball," Robinson says. "At Navy I could take it or leave it."
With enthusiam like that, who needs nonchalance, much less concentration? But the Navy staff loved the gangly kid's athleticism. "Concentration? David?" says Paul Evans, who left Navy after last season to become head coach at Pittsburgh. "What day? It depends on what day you're talking about." Sure enough, Robinson missed the first four games of his plebe year after he broke his hand in a boxing class.
Evans says he doesn't know if any midshipmen really like the Academy. "And I don't know if David liked it.... But he was smart enough to realize what was best for him." According to his classmates, however, for his first two years at least, Robinson was as "gungy" (short for gung ho) as any Navy family would hope its scion would be. The part of Academy life Robinson didn't take to was basketball.
"The game didn't come naturally to me," Robinson says. "I didn't play street ball, so I didn't have the moves, the intuitive stuff. I was getting my face beat up. And basketball was more work than fun. I knew I could prove myself academically, so I wanted to stick it out. I just wanted to play so I could get my letter."
Just for a moment consider what happened thereafter: At the end of his plebe year Robinson, who had not started a game, earned his block letter N. Barely two seasons later he is probably the best college player on any block.
For a while, even as a sophomore, basketball was still only another game to Robinson, one more adjunct of Academy life with which to round himself. "Don't you get tired of working out, of playing?" he once asked his roommate, Carl (Hootie) Liebert, a basketball junkie from Floyds Knobs, Ind. Robinson would never practice on his own. He used every free moment for sleep. As recently as the Colonial Conference tournament last March, Evans kicked him out of practice for loafing. New Navy coach Pete Herrmann, who had been Evans's assistant, shakes his head and laughs. "David's lack of singlemindedness never bothered me before. But I don't think he really knows how to get intense. He's not exactly a, uh, coach's player."
Ah, but Robinson was having a gold braid of a time soaking up the atmosphere. The tradition of the Academy, the look, the ceremony. Square this. Square that. As Huey Lewis would sing later, "It's hip to be square." If a measure of a man's Navy-ness is how he looks and keeps himself, Robinson never showed a speck of lint. "David loved the security of the place," says Liebert. "The idea of someone telling him when to eat, sleep, work, play. The only negative was freedom, and David wasn't a drinker or partier, so he didn't need that."
Robinson even liked formations. He took a basketball recruit to noon meal formation once, and the fellow hated the ordeal so much he decided to enroll at William and Mary. Robinson even dated one or two midshipman women and he took an awful ribbing from the team until Wojcik and Liebert fell in love with a couple of female middies themselves.