Under normal circumstances, this would have been a difficult freshman year for Jehiel Lewis.
Lewis had to make the transition to Division I basketball, which meant playing sparingly for much of the season. He had to adjust to the academic rigors of college, which meant finding enough time to study.
And there were the unexpected events that would have been hard for any freshman, and most upperclassmen, to handle. Badly bruising his collarbone was tough enough. Learning that his father, Ronald Lewis, had suffered a stroke was nearly too much.
"It was the first time I had something like that happen to someone close to me," said Jehiel (pronounced Ja-heel).
Perhaps because of who Lewis is and where he goes to school, he was able to take most of these situations in stride. Lewis is a plebe at the Naval Academy -- and a developing star on the basketball team.
Life here is different from that of college students and athletes at non-military institutions around the country. And life here for plebes is different from that of upperclassmen. Lewis said he knew what to expect.
"I can't say that I've enjoyed every moment of it," Lewis said one morning last week, walking to a chemistry lab. "But I had talked to other guys who had been through it, and I figured if they could do it, so could I."
Lewis had heard stories back home in Houston, where one former Eisenhower High School teammate left to play for Army and another for Air Force. He had heard stories while attending the Naval Academy Prep School last year in Newport, R.I.
"I talked a lot there with Jimmy Hamilton, who played here and was an assistant coach at NAPS," Lewis said. "I think NAPS really helped me, not just physically, but mentally, too. I'm glad I went there. Instead of coming here alone, I was coming with 200 other plebes."
Going gets tougher
Still, as well prepared as Lewis thought he was, the first few months of his plebe year proved more challenging than he imagined.
A nearly straight-A student in high school who graduated 43rd in a class of 600, Lewis said he received a 2.2 (out of 4.0) grade-point average in his first semester.
That, despite often asking for a "late-night" chit that allowed him to stay up for an extra hour past the 11 p.m. bedtime for plebes. Lewis, who gets up every morning about 5: 45, said he constantly plays catch-up with academics.
Then there were the other time-honored rituals plebes have to follow, such as "chopping." That involves running in the hallway, pivoting on the corner where you turn and chanting some sort of inspirational bromide such as "Beat Army" within earshot of an upperclassman.
"It gets you from Point A to Point B quicker," Lewis said.
If anything, basketball was the easy part. It didn't matter that he began the season deep on coach Don DeVoe's bench.
"It helps. It allows me to get out there and release any frustrations I've had in the hallway or in the classroom," Lewis said as he sat in the small dorm room he shares with two other plebes in Bancroft Hall.
One of three plebes who dress for varsity games, Lewis showed a few flashes early in the season, such as the night he hit all three shots he attempted and scored nine points in eight minutes of a 97-88 loss at Air Force.
But there were more nights when he never got to take off his warm-ups.
"I think it's a more unique situation here for plebes than it is for freshmen at other schools," said DeVoe, who is in his seventh season here after coaching at places such as Virginia Tech, Tennessee and Florida. "You can't parallel it to any other school, the adjustment to military life. It's almost asking too much."
But DeVoe saw the potential in the 6-foot-3, 189-pound guard with the sweet left-handed shot. As the Midshipmen were preparing to play Harvard in early January, DeVoe was planning to give Lewis more court time.
In the course of an eight-minute stint, Lewis bruised the left side of his collarbone. It happened the night that Ronald and Brenda Lewis were on their way to Annapolis to see Navy's next two games.
"When they saw me, I was wearing a coat over my sling," Lewis recalled. "They didn't even know I had been hurt."
Lewis wound up missing both games, and the injury continued to bother him for another few weeks. When starting forward Chris Williams sprained an ankle warming up for the Lafayette game Feb. 3, DeVoe put Lewis in the rotation.
After hitting his first two shots, both three-pointers, Lewis wound up scoring 23 points in 24 minutes of a 74-71 loss. Four nights later, Lewis scored 11 points in 12 minutes in an 81-46 win over Army.
"Just the fact that Coach put me on varsity at the beginning of the season, I'm along for the ride and hopefully soaking up as much as I can so I'll be ready if he calls me," Lewis said. "I hope my performance will help build the coaches' confidence."
What impressed DeVoe wasn't so much the performances Lewis gave, but the perseverance he showed.
Three days before the Lafayette game, Ronald Lewis Sr. had suffered a stroke.
"Considering those circumstances," DeVoe said, "it's been even more amazing."
It took a reassuring telephone conversation with his mother, and an emotional one with his father, to persuade Lewis to stay at school rather than go home. The elder Lewis, an accountant, is recovering at home.
"I told him that game [against Lafayette] was for him," said Lewis, who is the middle of three brothers. "I figured he was fighting to get through. I would do my job to brighten his day a little bit."
DeVoe and his staff aren't surprised that Lewis has made an impact as a freshman. "He's a poised young man," DeVoe said.
Assistant coach Doug Wojcik remembers a recruiting visit he took when Lewis was a high school senior. Other schools, including Texas, Texas A&M; and Rice, were interested in keeping Lewis closer to home.
"He walked me out to my car and said, 'Coach, this is what I really want to do,' " Wojcik recalled.
It is something Lewis has wanted since his sophomore year in high school, when Chris Crawford went to play at West Point and Wayne Gonzales went to the Air Force Academy. Lewis said his high school was known for sending students to the military academies.
And there was something Brenda Lewis had told her son a long time ago.
"My mom always said, 'Baby, you're born to lead,' " Lewis recalled. "I always believe that in some ways. When we lost a game in high school, I felt it was my fault. This place is about leadership, not only in sports, but in life, too."
While he ragged Lewis unmercifully as the plebe was being followed around one day by a reporter and a photographer, Navy team captain Skip Victor has taken Lewis under his wing. It started when Lewis was assigned to the 21st Company, the same one Victor is in.
"He doesn't let anything affect him," said Victor, a senior. "And now he's finally getting a chance to showcase his abilities."
As with any freshman, there have been moments when Lewis wondered whether he should have gone to a non-military school, where his life as a Division I player would have been less regimented. The thoughts are fleeting.
"I ask myself that every morning," he said. "But the friends I've made here, especially the guys on the team, have made it worthwhile. If you can come in at night cracking a smile, it's worth it."
Pub Date: 2/15/99