For Navy, Booker is anchor Senior's spirit leads Mids on, off court

November 17, 1997|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

Eight years ago, a documentary entitled "Lean On Me" depicted how a tough-minded principal named Joe Clark produced positive results in a struggling school in New Jersey.

If Hollywood decides to do a sequel, it could choose Annapolis as its site and Navy senior basketball co-captain Hassan Booker as its protagonist. For everyone -- family, friends, teammates and classmates -- seems to lean on the unusually mature and inspirational Booker for support.

"I've been coaching for 24 years," said Navy's Don DeVoe, whose team opens its season tonight at Wake Forest, "and I have to put Hassan in a class by himself. He's a man's man who has been overcoming adversity all his life.

"Hassan is our leader on and off the court. He lets his presence be known. I don't know of any player I've coached who puts so much effort into practice and games. He's physical and plays with such abandon, it proves contagious. That's why we've been successful the past few years."

Last March, the muscular, 6-foot-2, 230-pound forward all but dragged the Midshipmen into the NCAA tournament with a 25-point, 13-rebound performance against Bucknell in the Patriot League tournament final, earning MVP honors.

Matched in the NCAA regionals against Utah's gifted Keith Van Horn, who would be the second player chosen in the NBA draft, Booker kept the Mids in contention longer than expected with his 15 points and eight rebounds.

During the season, Booker gave away eight to 10 inches to the likes of Colgate's Adonal Foyle and Pitt's Mark Blount and more than held his own.

"I like playing against bigger guys," he said. "I've been doing it since high school. It's a challenge, and I can look back in satisfaction now that Foyle is in the NBA and say, 'I shut him down.' "

Accepting unusual challenges and responsibility has been a necessity for the 22-year-old Los Angeles native since he was 14. That is when his adoptive mother, Joyce Astarte, who raised Booker after his birth mother got caught up in drugs, died of cancer.

With his father, David, working as a highway patrolman and his older brother attending college, it fell to Hassan to look after his two younger sisters, Mataji and Jameelah, helping with the cooking, cleaning and counseling.

Asked if he ever felt deprived of normal teen-age pleasures, Booker said: "No, I think I did everything my other peers did. I didn't miss anything not partying a lot. I guess I've always thought of other people more than myself."

The unusual demands placed on him as a youngster helped prepare him for the rigors and stress of life at a service academy.

"I was able to understand if somebody says, 'Get something done,' I'm responsible to help the people around me," he said.

"My dad taught me that responsibility early. He always preached to work hard at whatever you do, so coming here was an easy transition."

He shares the Navy basketball captaincy with senior guard Michael Heary, the team's high scorer the past two years. But the other players seem naturally to gravitate to Booker as the father figure.

"I guess I'm a little more outspoken than Mike," Booker said. "He has the same leadership qualities, but the players still come to me. Maybe I'm just more forceful."

Booker forced his presence on Navy assistant coach Doug Wojcik when he was scouting possible recruits at an AAU tournament in Southern California in 1992.

Wojcik was impressed with the play of Michael Green and Terrell Hickmon, who would later be offered academy scholarships. But he did not know what to make of Booker, a tweener who didn't fit any spot on the court. At University High, he had played all five positions at one time or other.

"It was my first year recruiting for Coach DeVoe, and I didn't want to make a mistake," Wojcik recalled.

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

Booker has never lost his competitive zeal. He finished second to Heary in team scoring (12.5) last season and was second only to Foyle in league rebounding (8.5).

"Sometimes you wonder how he gets all these rebounds giving away so much height," said DeVoe. "But he's a classic A-type personality. Even if he doesn't get a rebound, he'll try wrestling it away like a lion fighting over a bone."

Booker laughs at the analogy.

"That's just me," he said. "I just love to compete. I hate losing in pickup games. Yes, even in solitaire. If I do something, I want to be as good as possible."

Sacrificing his body and mind for the good of the team remains the top priority for Booker, a science major who spends his time on road trips reading Tom Clancy novels.

"I think I've learned more technology from Mr. Clancy than in my Navy science classes," he said.

A solid student, he has not lost his zeal for basketball.

"I love this sport," he said. "Especially here. You have to love what you do. You have no time for other things. It hurts your social life and academics.

"When the other students leave for Christmas vacation, you're going to practice. That separates the athletes from the other students here. They don't understand that we were recruited by the coaches. We're committed to our team as well as the academy."

And no one is more committed than Booker to leading Navy to another NCAA tournament berth.

Pub Date: 11/17/97

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