Navy expects 6-3 Booker to stand tall Low post-to-small forward switch should benefit junior

November 19, 1996|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

On a bleak winter day in Worcester, Mass., last March, the Navy basketball players left the arena at Holy Cross with their heads down.

The Midshipmen had been eliminated in the first round of the Patriot League tournament by Army, a team they had beaten in 10 previous games. It was the kind of devastating loss that a player prefers erasing from his memory as quickly as possible.

"Coach [Don] DeVoe wasn't going to let us forget that fast," recalled junior forward Hassan Booker.

"As soon as we got back to our hotel, we spent two hours watching the game tape. He wanted to make sure we recognized our mistakes and make certain we wouldn't suffer that kind of letdown again."

And Booker is one of the upperclassmen whom Navy is counting on heavily this season to help the team make a serious run at the conference title.

That seems like a tall order for a heretofore role player who averaged 4.9 points and 3.5 rebounds his first two seasons. But this is the season the Navy coaches expect him to blossom.

"I sent Hassan an e-mail message the other day," said assistant coach Doug Wojcik, who recruited Booker out of Los Angeles. "I told him that right now he's playing the best basketball of his life, and he is going to be one of our team leaders.

"If [senior point guard] Brian Walker is the heart of our team, then Hassan is the soul. He's not afraid to speak his mind and light a fire under everyone."

The first thing one notices about Booker is his boundless energy and enthusiasm.

When people applaud his zest for the game, he replies: "Some nights, you may miss all your shots, but it doesn't take much to play hard."

A muscular 6 feet 3, 220 pounds, he has played most of his minutes for the Mids at power forward or center, where his rebounding skills and quick inside moves could best be utilized.

This season, however, DeVoe is counting on junior Josh Height, 6-9, and sophomore Josh Williams, 6-11, to mature and fill the void at power forward and center, allowing Booker to play small forward.

"Hassan has really worked on improving his outside shooting," DeVoe said. "Last year, he would make his jumpers in practice, but was reluctant to shoot it. Now, he's a lot more confident, and it has really opened up his game."

For Booker, proving himself at a new position is nothing new. It was his versatility that first caught Wojcik's eye in 1992, when he was scouting an AAU tournament in Los Angeles featuring the area's leading prep players.

"I didn't want to make mistakes judging players because that was the first year I was out recruiting for Coach DeVoe," said Wojcik, a former Navy guard.

"Hassan looked too small to be playing up front, but he played with so much enthusiasm that I called my boss and said, 'Coach, we've got to get this kid. He plays harder than anyone I've ever seen.' "

Fortunately for Navy, most scouts regarded Booker as a "tweener" -- a player without a true position.

"We didn't have a lot of talent on my high school team," he said. "I played all five positions at one time or another. Sometimes, I'd bring the ball down the floor. But we needed to score; I went down low and posted up."

Despite being selected All-City his senior year at University High, Booker was all but ignored by college recruiters, receiving scholarship offers from Cal-Northridge, Cal-Davis and Navy.

"Being from Los Angeles, I really didn't know much about the East Coast or the Academy, except that David Robinson had played there," he said.

"But I wanted to play Division I ball and get a good education. I wasn't too worried about the service regimen. It wasn't a tough adjustment for me, because my dad was a strict disciplinarian and I learned responsibility at an early age."

Booker saw scant playing time as a plebe, when the Mids boasted the talented frontcourt tandem of Wes Cooper and Larry Green. But playing against Cooper in practice provided valuable lessons.

"Coop was also undersized for a power forward," Booker said, "but he knew how to use his body and post up bigger guys. I'm not as big as Coop, but I compensate with my quickness and using reverse layups rather than trying to overpower my man."

DeVoe projected Booker as a possible starter last year, but a stress fracture sidelined him for the first five games. He did not reach his playing peak until late in the season, closing out the year with a 13-point, 10-rebound performance in the bitter loss to Army.

"That Army game brought everyone back with a stronger commitment," he said. "You could see how hard everyone worked in the preseason.

"Now we're all hellbent on winning the Patriot League title and going to the NCAA tourney in March. Like our locker room poster says, 'It don't mean a thing without the ring.' "

Navy at a glance

Coach: Don DeVoe (60-53), fifth year

Affiliation: Patriot League

1995-96 record: 15-12, 9-3 in Patriot League

Radio: WNAV (1430 AM)

Arena: Alumni Hall (5,710)

Game tickets: $6

Starters lost: Eddie Lucas and Alex Kohnen

TC Best home game: Army (Feb. 1). Always the game of the year.

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