HOUSTON, HE has a problem.

You likely would not label it as such, however. In fact, you'd probably jump for joy to be saddled with this sort of difficulty.

Mark Houston is called "Stretch" by his basketball coach at Engineering and Science High, C.M. Brown, because only 160 pounds can be found on his 6-5 frame. Even that total might be a stretch.

"I've tried everything to gain weight," Houston said. "Nothing works."

He has gulped down protein shakes. Fed his face with steak and mashed potatoes. Pigged out on junk food. Alas, his weight gains continue to be measured in ounces, not pounds.

"I'm going to start trying again," he said. "I'm going to lift more weights. I need to be stronger."

By coincidence, Houston uttered those words yesterday in the weight room at E & S shortly after the Engineers downed visiting Murrell Dobbins Tech, 53-39, in a Public B game.

A classic, this wasn't. But Houston, a senior center/forward, was a bright spot, thanks to 15 points, 10 rebounds, five blocked shots and three steals.

Nine of those points, an outburst highlighted by a crowd-pleasing dunk, came in the fourth quarter as E & S expanded a 33-24 lead. As he had earlier, Houston showed good court sense, an ability to face the basket and a reasonably feathery shot.

To say this kid makes daily improvement would not be a stretch. Reason? This is only his second season of school competition, and his organized hoops history goes back only one summer further.

Strange but true. Before the summer of 2008, when he finally made a rec-center team in his neighborhood, near Summerdale and Roosevelt Boulevard, he'd always been sliced here, diced there.

"It used to make me angry," said the very soft-spoken Houston. "I always liked basketball. Always wanted to be on teams. But I always got cut.

"I thought I had some skill, but it's tough to keep your confidence when that keeps happening.

"I've grown about 4 inches in maybe the last 2 1/2 years, so that has helped. Still real skinny, though. Just have to live with it for now."

Houston was asked when he began to think that this basketball thing could work out, when he started to believe he could really be a player. He thought for several seconds, then finally responded.

"When I got picked for that first team," he said.

For Houston, this contest featured a personal subplot as, to some degree, he was matched against Jerrell Wright, a 6-7 junior with a respectable local profile.

"I heard Temple's scouting him," Houston said.

Correctamundo! In fact, Owls coach Fran Dunphy was among the spectators.

"I didn't see him. He was?" Houston said.

Yes, so even if Dunphy doesn't view Houston as Temple material, maybe he can mention him to a coaching friend at the appropriate level.

As for Wright, the lefty settled for six points and didn't record his second field goal until a shade under 5 minutes remained. He did claim 12 boards and notched four rejections.

"I had to shut him down," Houston said, "and score as many points [in sensible fashion] as I could."

Houston was the lone Engineer to score in double figures. Five others managed six to eight, though, and another had four. Mini-guards Zachary Spence (playing the point; six assists and three steals) and Bruce Brown (wing; four assists and six steals, and even eight rebounds) were especially effective.

"They were great at getting the ball downcourt and finding open men," Houston said. "They were giving it to me in good spots. I had easy paths to the basket."

Sophomore wing guard Walter Lawrence (14) was the Mustangs' only double digit scorer. Ever-active swingman Basir Fulmore, a transfer from Franklin Learning Center, notched all nine of his points at the line. Khalil Curtis claimed seven rebounds.

Houston, who owns a 2.7 grade point average in the challenging E & S environment, envisions becoming an accountant. He still might grow, too, as his parents, Claren and Mark, are somewhat tall.

Also, they're more than somewhat amazed.

"When they see how much I eat, they're always saying, 'How can you not gain any weight?' " *