Army and Navy put war in perspective WAR IN THE GULF

JOHN EISENBERG

February 24, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

ANNAPOLIS -- The players did not have little flags stitched across the front of their uniforms. Few fans wore yellow ribbons or red, white and blue pins. Most of the signs tacked up around Halsey Field House were about basketball, not war.

Army's players even warmed up in black T-shirts referring to a "40-minute war" with Navy. It would have been bad form at any other game across the country. At Halsey, though, the war was treated without a speck of irony yesterday. No one doubted that Army's players knew the difference.

The lesson, of course, is that demonstrations of any ilk are inconsequential when the real thing is so close at hand. "We don't need to wear flags," said Erik Harris, a senior guard for Navy. "Everyone already knows how we feel. Both of us."

The "both" of them were the basketball teams at Army and Navy, which played for the 69th time yesterday before a full house of fans. Navy won big, real big, by 21, and no one thought about the Persian Gulf for a couple of hours. That is the life these teams have shared this very strange season.

"We have been through similar experiences, that's for sure," said Harris. "We know people who are over there. I'm sure they do, too. We think about it every day. I'm sure they do, too. It's funny. We're such fierce rivals, but we have so much in common. I think that is especially true this year."

Both teams had games on that January night when the war broke out. At Army, the coaches chose not to tell the players until after the game. A couple of players broke down instantly in the locker room, their emotions running wild. At Navy, everyone thought about Cliff Rees, the team captain two years ago, now flying planes over there.

Initially, no one felt like playing on. The campuses, which have thousands of graduates in the war theater, were in a stunned state. Like everyone else, though, the players had to reconcile the sudden smallness of their lives and get on with living. Gradually, talk of the war subsided in their locker rooms.

"It was a factor back in the beginning," Harris said, "but we talked about it a lot and came to terms with the idea that those people were doing their jobs over there, and we had to go on with our lives and do our job here. We know what's more important. But we can't do anything about it."

Army lost 11 of 12 games after learning of the outbreak of war. Navy had lost eight straight before yesterday's game. Their combined record since the war began is 4-22. The easy analysis is to say it was a terrible distraction, but that isn't so. The truth is that Army has little talent and Navy plays in a tough conference.

"I can't say that the war has been the factor everyone thinks," Harris said. "It's just been a tough season for us. The basketball really has been our escape. The war is always there. Everyone watches CNN between classes. It's on your mind. But this has been our chance to get away and do something else entirely."

Even still, it was hard not to notice that there were differences yesterday. The guards at the front gate of the academy were Marines in full battle dress. They gave your car a suspicious eye as you passed by. The national anthem was sung lustily, and without the sarcastic "O" in the last verse. The war without irony.

David Robinson's younger brother, Chuck, an injured Navy forward, put his hand over his heart during the singing. When the public address announcer asked for silence to honor the troops, not a sound was uttered, not a flinch made. The only noise in the packed gym was the hum of the electric lights.

This was Army-Navy, though, and the usual hullabaloo did take over. The players did not go through the ritual of shaking hands before the center jump; a psych thing, no doubt. Navy jumped ahead quickly, the crowd roaring with each basket. A 9-2 lead became 19-9, then 35-21, then 44-25 at the half.

"Army-Navy is Army-Navy regardless of the circumstances," Harris said. "It is huge. It is the games you will remember. What they say is really true. It doesn't matter what your record is. If you beat Army, you have done something. We were sky high."

The public address announcer read scores of the Army-Navy riflery duel, the Army-Navy wrestling meet, the Army-Navy pistol duel, all occurring yesterday. Every score was greeted with a roar. On the court, Navy took the lead out to 53-28. Army called timeouts and hustled frantically, but the game was over long before the final whistle.

For Harris, it was his last game in Halsey, and he made it a beauty. When he finally came out with 89 seconds left, he pointed to the fans and raised his arms. He hugged coach Pete Herrmann, whose job is in jeopardy after three straight 20-loss seasons.

"I'll be going to flight school when I graduate," Harris said. "That'll be two years and a little more, and I'll be ready for combat then. It makes you think. I know guys who passed through here and never thought they'd be in a war. I'll be ready, though. After basketball, life goes on."

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