At some point during every home basketball game, the Ball State University pep band plays a few bars of the theme from Mighty Mouse in honor of the Cardinals' 5'9" guard, Ray McCallum (no kin of the author). This is appropriate, because McCallum, who was raised only three miles from Ball State's Muncie, Ind. campus, has saved many a day for Ball State during the last four years. Nationally, McCallum may not be the best-known Ball Stater—that distinction belongs to David Letterman, actress Joyce DeWitt of Three's Company or Garfield creator Jim Davis—but in the hearts of the hometowners, who have watched him grow (sort of), McCallum is their big man.
It was McCallum, after all, who put the ball in Ball State. Before he tied on his red cape and became a starter as a freshman in the 1979-80 season, the Cardinals had never been the Mid-American Conference champions; now they've won two straight titles, with McCallum being first-team all-conference both years. This season, with a limited supporting cast, McCallum was, through Sunday, averaging 20.0 points a game, good enough to ensure his third consecutive all-conference selection. With a 9-7 conference record, Ball State won't win the regular-season title again, but the team could qualify for the NCAA tournament, as it did in '80-81, by winning the MAC tournament. And with McCallum's drawing power—5'9" scoring machines still being as rare as 6'10" point guards—the Cardinals must be considered an NIT possibility, too.
McCallum became the MAC's alltime leading scorer on Jan. 29, with 1,850 career points, and he could well surpass that distinction by winning the Frances Pomeray Naismith-Basketball Hall of Fame Memorial Award, given annually to the best senior player who stands less than 6 feet. Should that happen, the city of Muncie may consider changing its name from Middletown, U.S.A. to Home of the Big Little Man; last year's Naismith winner was Nebraska's 5'9" guard, Jack Moore, the former Muncie Central High star who kept McCallum on the bench until he was a senior.
With all the recognition McCallum has brought Muncie, it's not surprising that Feb. 23 was designated Ray McCallum Day by Mayor Alan Wilson. McCallum showed his gratitude by scoring 24 points in a 66-62 victory over Northern Illinois at Ball State's University Gymnasium. (Things didn't go as well on Garfield Day during the football season; the Cardinals lost to Indiana State 17-0, with no help from that fat and lazy cat.)
Last Saturday afternoon McCallum scored 15 points in a 67-64 victory over Central Michigan that was notable for its head-to-head confrontation between McCallum and Central Michigan's Melvin McLaughlin, who at week's end was only 11 points shy of McCallum's conference scoring record. Conceivably, two different players could break the MAC scoring record in the same season. That would be fine with Tony Catanzarite, a Ball State alumnus who was McCallum's grade school guidance counselor and is still his confidant.
"It's in the stars for it to happen," says Catanzarite. "Here's the script. This week, in one of the two final regular-season games, McLaughlin passes Ray to take the lead. But Ball State will get at least one more game because it'll be in the conference playoffs, and Central Michigan [with a 5-11 league record] won't. So Ray goes out and breaks the record again. Can you imagine that? It's storybook, I know, but, look, Ray McCallum is storybook."
But it's not all storybook. "When I was growing up I went to only one Ball State game, with the Boys' Club or something," McCallum says. "I think we left at halftime." McCallum grew itchy on the bench as a junior at Muncie Central while Moore was leading the Bearcats to the state championship. When McCallum got his chance as a senior, he also guided Central to a state championship. But Ray discovered, as Moore had the year before, that the world does not beat a path to your door if your head doesn't brush the ceiling.
Even Ball State ignored McCallum, as it had ignored Moore. Coach Steve Yoder, who resigned after last season to take the head job at Wisconsin, agreed to scout McCallum only after Catanzarite pounded Yoder's ear incessantly during Yoder's visits to Tony's Lockeroom, a restaurant-lounge near the campus that Catanzarite owns. After a few looks, Yoder decided McCallum was the guard he needed, height be damned.
McCallum does play taller than 5'9" because of his long arms and jumping ability. "In Ray's mind he's 6'4"," says Catanzarite. But, strangely, on the court he appears even smaller than he is. For one thing, he's a young-looking 22; he could probably get away with saying he's 14. Second, a strenuous weightlifting program has developed McCallum's upper body and legs, but his musculature is sleek, and he still closely resembles the 18-year-old boy who dropped the bar on his chest the first time he lifted weights at Ball State.
Finally, he appears even smaller than 5'9" because he probably is. "You all had a tape measure on him?" Muncie Central Coach Bill Harrell asks Ball State Associate Coach Bill Hahn. "I never did think he was 5'9"."
"Well, he's almost 5'9"," says Hahn with a smile.
Though he's easily the Cardinals' best ball handler, McCallum plays the off guard position because he's not a great penetrator and needs some help off picks to shoot his jumper, which he can get down from as far out as 25 feet. His accuracy on the jumper—he's a career 50% shooter—has been the key to his point production. But Ball State Coach Al Brown, like Yoder before him, has very few set plays, and consequently McCallum averages only about 14 shots per game; McLaughlin, also an excellent shooter, gets about 17, a more normal total for a scorer.
McCallum falls back on his jumper, so that few of his shots are blocked, and despite a penchant for posting up—which is hopeless because of his size—he doesn't force shots inside when he gets caught amid the big men. He also capitalizes on what he calls the "sneak-in factor." Early in the second half against Northern Illinois, McCallum made a left-handed tip-in when nobody boxed him out; with 3:06 left, he came up with a crucial offensive rebound and drew a foul. Yes, he can jam, and has proved it on a dozen or so occasions in games.
Though his quick hands had helped him collect 167 career steals through last week, which ties the Ball State record, he's a liability in a man-to-man situation because of his size. "Without a doubt, defense will be a problem for Ray if he wants to make it in the pros," says Moore, who was cut by the Kansas City Kings after being drafted in the ninth round last year. "He's not really noted for his defense anyway, and he's played a lot of zone in college. At Nebraska we played all man-to-man, so I learned how to play defense, and it was still tough."
Last week McCallum sipped a glass of Kool-Aid in his apartment and reflected on his NBA chances, saying, "I just hope the right people see me. My whole life, it's been 'You can't play at this level, you can't play at that level.' I want one more chance to play at the next level."
McCallum is amazed at the adulation he gets around Muncie. Unassuming by nature, he took an apartment alone this year to get away from some of the attention. "I can see I'm a role model for a lot of kids," he says. "Not everybody out there is over 6 feet tall. Maybe they see me and say, 'If Ray can do it, so can I.' But all the attention still knocks me out sometimes."
Thirty minutes later McCallum is recognized the instant he enters a restaurant. He signs autographs as his girl friend, Wendy Moore, exchanges pleasantries with a man and his son.
"Thanks," says the man. "You made our day."
A little theme music, please.