Big Man on Campus
In his college years, Roland Houston played 105 career basketball games for the Rams, averaging 12.8 points and 10 rebounds per game in his senior season. The Rams were ranked nationally two of the four seasons that Houston played, and the team won 20 games in a season more than once.
But Houston, who graduated in 1982 with a degree in communications, was hardly a typical college hoopster. For one, he had his own jazz show on WRIU, the college radio station. “It was terrific,” says Houston, now an assistant coach for George Washington University. “I’m a jazz buff, and I thought my show would add some diversity to the station.”
Houston, 47, a Philadelphia native, also wrote for The Good 5¢ Cigar, the school newspaper. And he did not just pen sports articles; he wrote feature stories on many different topics. “I made it a point to take part in a lot of student activities because I wanted to make sure I had a well-rounded college experience,” he says, minutes before an Atlantic 10 game last season. “I think it’s important to get the entire university experience—you don’t want to be just a jock.”
Houston was an all-city player and honorable mention All-American at Martin Luther King High School in Philadelphia. He admits that the adjustment from Philadelphia to Kingston was a challenging one, but he grew to enjoy his time in the Ocean State. He still keeps in touch with several URI faculty and staff members.
“I love Rhode Island. I try to get there for at least a few days every summer,” says Houston, who lives in Alexandria, Va., with his wife, Lisa, and their daughter Zuri. Lisa Houston’s aunt has a place near Narragansett Bay, and, says Houston, “our daughter spends more time up there than I do. She spends two weeks every summer with relatives.”
At URI Houston was a four-year letterman and three-year starter for the Rams from 1979-82. As a freshman, he played for Coach Jack Kraft. That team was 20-9 and lost to Maryland in triple overtime in the NIT. During Houston’s sophomore year, the Rams had a record of 21-8 and won a spot in the NIT under coach Claude English. In his senior year, Houston was named team captain.
What is his best Rhody memory? “Beating Providence College was a great experience,” he says with a smile.
Houston’s education continued after he graduated from URI. He played pro basketball from 1982-96 in France, Spain, Israel, and Argentina. “URI helped prepare me for Europe by broadening my horizons; it helped me grow,” Houston says.
While in France, he studied French at the Université de Nice. “That was important for me,” says Houston, who knew American players who had no interest in things outside of basketball while overseas—“they were there, but they didn’t speak the language; they didn’t want to learn the culture.” Houston was committed to learning about the culture and language of each country in which he played. As a result, he has become a cosmopolitan man proficient in both French and Spanish.
He also speaks the language of basketball’s big men—the area of the game that is his specialty. He was known as a solid coach with big men during his days at La Salle, where he was an associate head coach and assistant coach from 1999 to 2004.
One of the players that Houston worked with at La Salle was Rasual Butler, who has played for New Orleans/Oklahoma in the NBA. “Coach Houston understands what it takes for young guys to make it to the next level,” says Butler. “He’s a hard worker and a really genuine person. He definitely helped me with my big-man skills. I wasn’t a very good rebounder until coach Houston got there. Once he got there, my rebounding skills went up tremendously—he taught me techniques and skills that I use to this day.”
Today, as assistant coach at George Washington, Houston is heavily involved in recruiting, scouting, and overall day-to-day operations. GW and Houston have made three straight appearances in the NCAA tournament, the longest stretch in school history. Says GW head coach Karl Hobbs, “Roland’s been an incredible addition to our staff. Not only is he a great evaluator of talent and a great recruiter, his development of our big men has been second to none. He is truly one of the best big-man coaches in the country.”
In 2005-06, GW had the best record in the NCAA in regular-season play. During the 2006-07 season, the Colonials placed in the top four in regular-season play in the Atlantic 10 conference, then they caught fire late in the season and won three straight games in the conference tourney in Atlantic City to claim the league crown. The title win came against URI (78-69), which earned the Colonials an automatic spot in the NCAA tournament. GW lost in the first round to Vanderbilt, a team that went on to face Georgetown in the Sweet 16. In all, last season the Colonials were 23-9.
“When coach Houston came to GW, I knew that he would be a great asset to this program,” says former GW standout Pops Mensah-Bonsu, who played in the NBA with Dallas during the 2006-07 season. “He taught me a lot of different things that helped me improve not only my game, but also the way I go about my everyday life.
“When he joined the program, I saw a vast improvement in the way I played basketball, which helped both the team and my confidence. Coach Houston is a great teacher of life, and I just wish I could have played under his tutelage a couple more years—he has been a great coach and even better mentor.”