Booker's career is over commitment has just begun

March 13, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Now that his Navy basketball career is over, it seems only natural to ask: What if Hassan Booker had been 6 feet 10 instead of 6-3?

"He probably wouldn't have been in school this year," North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge said yesterday. "He probably would have gone to another school, been highly recruited, been in the NBA."

What if?

"I'd be his agent," said Booker's Navy co-captain, Michael Heary. "Or I'd be Tim Legler, spotting up anywhere I could."

What if?

"I probably wouldn't be standing here," Booker said. "I'd be probably be in the other locker room getting ready to play Saturday, high-fiving Vince Carter."

Well, Booker isn't 6-10.

In fact, he isn't even 6-3.

"I'm 6-2 1/2 -- 6-3 when I wake up in the morning," he said after Navy's 88-52 loss to the Tar Heels in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Perhaps, then, the game should have started at 8 a.m.?

"I would have had a little more lift in my shots," Booker said, smiling.

A crowd of reporters was gathered around him in the Navy locker room now, listening to his booming voice, absorbing his every word.

Navy did its best as a No. 16 seed, leading at the first TV timeout, trailing by only four with less than three minutes left in the first half.

But seriously, what did anyone expect?

Nothing, of course. But Booker was a revelation.

He not only scored eight of his team-high 10 points in the first half, but also played ferocious defense on Antawn Jamison, who is listed as six inches taller.

Jamison could be the first player chosen in the NBA draft if he decides to skip his senior year at North Carolina.

Booker will begin his five-year Navy commitment in November, reporting to Surface Warfare School in Newport, R.I.

"The guy is really strong," Jamison said. "I faced some strong guys during the season. He's one of those guys, you're really glad he's going to be helping your country.

"He can play. He's got tremendous heart. He didn't care who was out there playing. He's going to try his best, try anything possible to help his team."

Including trash-talking.

"There was a lot of talking going on," Booker said. "It kept going back and forth. I'm going to talk, just to keep my intensity up. We kept battling and battling."

Booker played with his usual scowl, telling Jamison, "You guys are supposed to be No. 1. You're only up six." Or, "You're No. 1. You're supposed to make that shot."

Well, Jamison made eight of 15, finishing with 17 points and 14 rebounds in only 23 minutes. But he isn't likely to forget Booker, and Booker definitely won't forget him.

"I'll remember the physical part," Booker said. "I'm about to take some Advil right now."

What if? Booker frequently asks that question himself, wondering if he would have developed the same work ethic, the same commitment, the same heart.

He recalls bigger players lining up against him and smiling, thinking they would have it easy. Then he would hold them to, say, five points.

It became part of his motivation, part of his pride.

"I'm a competitor," Booker said. "I don't care who we play against. We could have played against the Lakers in the first round, and I would have gone out and banged with Shaq."

Yesterday, though, was probably the last competitive game he will ever play. Booker was back-to-back first-team All-Patriot League his final two seasons. Now, it's on to the high seas.

Reporters kept asking him what it would be like working on a ship in the years to come, knowing that Jamison and Carter would be earning millions in the NBA.

"I'll be happy for 'em -- that's what they're destined to do," Booker said. "I'm destined for bigger things. I'll be out there doing something more important than entertaining. I'll be

guarding you guys from Saddam Hussein."

Picture the headline:

Hassan to Saddam: Is that all you got?

Navy's Don DeVoe called Booker "one of the best offensive rebounders I've ever coached." Rest assured, he'll make an excellent officer, too.

Booker, a black kid from Los Angeles, left the floor arm-in-arm with Heary, a white kid from Fredonia, N.Y.

"We've become very close," Heary said. "We just said, 'We came into this program together. We're going to walk out together.' And that's what we did."

It was a moving scene, a fitting scene, a Navy scene all the way.

Booker talked about the difficulty of playing sports at a service academy. He talked about the seniors raising expectations for future Navy teams. And he talked about leadership, "the best thing I got out of this place."

What if?

Booker shook his head, surveying the crowded locker room.

"This is my family right here," he said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world."

Pub Date: 3/13/98

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