Bruce Grooms' first love was basketball.
"I kind of hoped that maybe I would be a great basketball player," he said. "I think a lot of youths feel that way, but my mom certainly made it clear to me that I could be as good a basketball player as I wanted to be, but I had to be something else on top of that. The light bulb flashed when the pro scouts weren't looking for me."
But the Naval Academy was looking for him, and they recruited him to the Annapolis military college, where he became a captain of Navy's basketball team. That began a naval career that has taken Grooms to the No. 2 position at the academy, making him the highest-ranking black leader in its 160-year history.
He is also one of the so-called Centennial Seven, a group of seven African-American officers who have commanded a submarine during the first 100 years of U.S. submarine forces.
Still, Grooms, 47, was reluctant to focus on his race during recent interviews on his Navy career.
"Sometimes there was a sense that `I don't know this person' or that `He's different,'" Grooms said. "And for me, the challenge was just showing that I was no different and that I was just trying to do the best I could."
Friends say Grooms, who stands just over 6 feet, is a gifted leader who cares deeply about sailors, winning praise as a listener and mentor. His role as commandant is similar to that of a dean of students, responsible for the leadership and ethics training of 4,200 midshipmen, as well as indoctrinating them into the rigorous life of a Navy or Marine Corps officer. Grooms, who has been married for 18 years and has two sons, is widely viewed as a rising star who could someday become a four-star admiral, the Navy's highest rank in peacetime.
Vice Adm. Rodney Rempt, the academy superintendent who picked Grooms after interviewing a half-dozen naval officers, called him the "very best officer based on leadership and the right fit for the academy and the brigade of midshipmen."
Since arriving in June, Grooms has come in and imposed new restrictions on Mids after increased scrutiny about how U.S. service academies deal with sexual assaults and alcohol use. The restrictions have been unpopular with some Mids, but Grooms says they're a necessary part of creating future officers.
Experts say Grooms' appointment is a major step at the Naval Academy, which was not always hospitable to African-Americans. The first cadre of blacks to enter the academy, in the Reconstruction era, were all ostracized despite the tepid support of the school's administration.
The same happened at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., but several cadets nonetheless managed to graduate in that period, the first being Henry O. Flipper in 1877. The Naval Academy did not have its first black graduate until Wesley Brown in 1949. West Point appointed a black commandant in 1987, though two African-American deputy commandants preceded Grooms in Annapolis. This year, blacks make up about 6 percent of each school's student totals.
"Capt. Bruce Grooms becoming commandant is a good thing," said Robert Schneller, a Navy historian who has written extensively on African-Americans at the Naval Academy. "By now it's not quite routine but a symbol that the academy's equal opportunity policy is working."
Grooms grew up in suburban Cleveland, the son of an Air Force veteran and postal worker. His home was on a country road and his was the only black family in the neighborhood, said his father, Gilbert Grooms. The young Grooms was a standout basketball player in high school but also did well in math and school projects, his father said.
Gilbert Grooms said his wife "always was a driving force in his life."
"She was proud of him because he was such a good kid," he said.
The elder Grooms also played down the significance of race and said, "Race doesn't matter if everyone has the right chance."
After graduating from the academy, Bruce Grooms completed nuclear power training and served in a variety of roles in the submarine forces. While away from subs, he returned to the academy as a company officer, attended Stanford University and the Naval War College, and served as a top aide to former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith.
But Grooms' rise has largely come as a submarine commander, first at the helm of the USS Asheville in 1997 and then leading a squadron of attack submarines based in Norfolk, Va., immediately before reporting to the Naval Academy.
The world of submarines is largely unknown outside the military. They perform missions that include intelligence gathering on solo deployments, mine-hunting, guarding a carrier group at sea and launching land-attack Tomahawk missiles. Because of the myriad missions and the technical expertise required to operate a nuclear reactor underwater, submarine crews are heavily trained and are expected to be able to perform just about any function on the ship. Grooms served on nuclear-powered attack submarines, often dubbed the "sports cars of the sea" by sailors.