When you come right down to it, there is no law that says the leading scorer in major-college basketball has to have shoulders. Shoulders would be nice, yes. A lot of people have them, and if they don't, they're thinking about getting some. Shoulders are what give the traditional "head-and-shoulder fake" its unmistakable je ne sais quoi.
Shoulders are where the great scorers carry their prodigious loads, which makes it all the more unusual that senior guard Kevin Houston of Army, who has almost no shoulders at all, should be shouldering the heaviest scoring average in the nation this season. Shooting mainly from outside, frequently way outside, the 5'11", 165-pound Houston has averaged 31 points per game, or 46% of Army's output, despite having a body that looks vaguely as if it has not yet fully formed.
Houston is also the nation's second-leading free throw shooter, having missed only 6 of 116 all season. He had a string of 39 in a row earlier this year, and had hit 32 straight before missing one on Saturday against Iona. Though his ranking is technically only No. 2 in this statistical category, Houston has converted a whopping 30 more free throws than any of the top 23 other players in the country, a good indication of the success he has had fooling defenders. Houston's strongest competition for the overall Division I scoring title currently consists of Ohio State's Dennis Hopson (28.8), Terrance Bailey (28.3) of Wagner and oddly enough, another service academy player, David Robinson (27.8) of Navy.
Houston's edges are rounded where they should be sharp, and the freckles that dapple his skin give him a blurred look. In short, his body does not seem to be singing "Be all that you can be." The image of this runty figure scoring 36 points against Vermont in the Cadets' 79-74 victory last week was almost more than Catamounts coach Tom Brennan could bear. "Just look at him," Brennan sputtered. "He looks like he should be out in a field, walking with Lassie."
January 19, 1987
Houston is as unlikely looking a hero as you would ever be likely to see, if you were likely to see him, which you aren't. Army, 5-7, almost never plays on TV, and apart from a game against The Citadel earlier this season, which the commandant of cadets encouraged everyone on the post to attend, Houston has been playing in near solitude in West Point's Multi-Purpose Sports Facility. Houston could be the smallest NCAA Division I scoring champion since 5'9" Murray Wier of Iowa averaged 21 points per game in 1948. As it is, his face is so fair and freckled that he could still be the altar boy he once was at Our Lady of Angels Church in the Bronx.
"It's so deceiving to meet him and then watch him play," says Army coach Les Wothke. "If you lined up 10 guys on the floor and were going to choose up teams, Kevin would be the last one you would choose."
That actually happened two summers ago, when Houston and senior forward Ron Steptoe went to Fort Knox for the drill cadet program. After the training session was finished one day, some of the regular Army guys chose sides for a game. "I was picked, but Kevin wasn't, so he had to sit and watch," recalls Steptoe. "It really hacked him off. I told them they were making a mistake, but they just didn't believe anybody who looked like Kevin could play."
"I know a lot of people don't think I look too much like a real player," Houston says. "If I saw me I wouldn't think I was much of a player." And yet, compared with the body he had in high school, Houston's form—enhanced by weight training—now looks as if it had been quarried in stone. "So you can imagine what he looked like five years ago," says Wothke. Backup guard Jack McGuinness first saw Houston in the ninth grade, when the two faced each other in pickup games of one-on-one. "I remember coming out on the floor thinking. I'm going to kill this guy," says the stout McGuinness. "But he'd beat everybody in the gym and never change expressions. He was always the best player there."
Houston received his first coaching when he was four from his father, Jerry, who played at St. John's in the mid-'60s and later coached at the high school level in Yonkers, N.Y. "I was always on my dad's tails, going to the gym all the time," he says. "A lot of times, if he was running practice I had to stop bouncing the ball, and I'd listen. I learned a lot that way."
Much like Larry Bird, the patron saint of slow-footed white guys who can't jump, Houston gets by on guile. "Kevin plays the game 90 percent above his shoulders [that is, if he had shoulders]," says Wothke. "I think his success is a result of being able to get inside that defensive man's mind. He anticipates the defensive move before it happens."
However, Houston didn't anticipate being so completely overlooked by college recruiters that not one school offered him a scholarship. Houston had played club basketball during high school for the highly regarded Riverside Church team in New York, which featured such players as Walter Berry, Bruce Dalrymple and Olden Polynice, but despite starting and playing well he wasn't recruited. "You do pretty well down there, and you think you can play with that caliber player, but then you find you're not getting the same kind of attention they are," Houston says. Houston attended the U.S. Military Academy Prep School at Fort Monmouth, N.J., for a year before moving on to West Point.
While he was in prep school Houston's classmates began calling him Beaver, a reference to his physical and temperamental resemblance to television's Beaver Cleaver. The name followed him to the Point, and just two weeks ago Wothke challenged his players during a team meeting by suggesting they were "playing Leave It To Beaver from the start of the game." That has been a problem for the Cadets. "We sit on the bench and watch him," says McGuinness, "and most of the stuff he does is so amazing that when you look into the stands, people are just laughing."
What Houston does best is constantly fake defenders off their feet, then go up himself at peculiar angles for his long-range jumpers, which he makes a great percentage of the time. Though he struggled with his shot for much of the Cadet game against Iona last Saturday, he calmly launched a three-pointer with the score tied and five seconds to play and knocked the bottom out of the basket to give Army a 58-55 win. His 26 points once again accounted for almost half the team's total.
Houston is eager to begin his military service and is hoping—perhaps not surprisingly—to get into the field artillery. "I'm not really the infantry type, or the armored-division type, rolling around in a tank all day," he says. "In the field artillery I'll get to shoot a couple of rockets and missiles here or there. I think it'll be a pretty exciting thing to do." It's a big responsibility, but the Beaver is just the man to shoulder it.