"How tall areyou ?"
"Do you play basketball?"
"Some people say I do and some people say I don't."
And so it goesfor Chuck Nevitt, oh, about 25 times a day. He answers every question about hisheight with uncommon civility, and he readily jokes about his playingabilities. He seems to like the view from up there, and he also seems gratefulfor his view from down there at the end of the Houston Rocket bench, eventhough he would like to work up a sweat during a game every so often.
Fans may giggleat first sight of his pipe-cleaner physique, but if they watch Nevitt during agame, watch him cheer his teammates on, watch him high-and low-five the ballboys, watch him listen intently to the coach during timeouts, watch him jointhe crowd in the Wave, they know that Chuck Nevitt is more than just thelongest standing joke in the NBA. He is a genuine folk hero.
"I playedwith the 76ers," says Tim McCormick, the center who stands between AkeemOlajuwon and Nevitt on the Rockets" depth chart, "and Dr. J didn't getas much attention walking through airports as Chuck does." Indeed, when thevisiting Rockets were introduced before a recent game against the Lakers in theForum. Olajuwon was only first runner-up to Nevitt on the applause meter. Onceupon a time. Nevitt didn't play for the Lakers, and he has a championship ringto prove it.
When the Lakerswere in Houston on Jan. 31, the omnipresent Morganna ran onto the floor beforethe opening tip-off to give Kareem Abdul-Jabbar one of her famous kisses. Then,as she ran off the court, she stopped at the end of the Rocket bench to giveNevitt a buss. The fans went crazy, and no wonder. There, face-to-face—well,sort of—were two of anatomy's greatest wonders, one of them horizontal, theother vertical. Said Nevitt of the experience. "We laughed, we loved, andnow she's a part of me."
That night Nevittwent out and scored a season-high eight points (4 for 6 from the field) in onlysix minutes; the other bussee, Kareem, had six points in 18 minutes."Gee," Nevitt said. "If I played the whole game, I would have hadat least 60." Nevitt's wife, Sondra, was not jealous of Morganna in theleast. "We're actually thinking of hiring her to kiss Chuck on a regularbasis," she said.
Nevitt has morenicknames than most regulars: the Human Victory Cigar, for his occasionalappearances at the end of winning games, and Chuck E. Cheese, for the mascotrobot of a Texas-based pizza franchise. In Detroit, where he didn't play forthe Pistons, a different pizza place used to give 12 pizzas to a soup kitchenfor every shot Nevitt blocked. People around Houston honk at his van, which hasNorth Carolina license plates reading 7 FT 5 (Sondra drives a car with 5 FT 10plates). He has inspired not one, but two Trivial Pursuit questions: "Howmany inches above seven feet is Chuck Nevitt?" and "Who is the tallestplayer in the NBA?" The answer to the latter question is now 7'7"Manute Bol of the Golden State Warriors, but the answer on the outdated card(Sports, professional basketball category) is still Chuck Nevitt.
He may no longerbe the tallest man in the league, but Nevitt is certainly the tallest juggler,clothing salesman, carpenter, stripper, Nat King Cole fan, aspiring actor,bicyclist and jokester. Ah, the jokes. He's got a million of them. "I callhim Mr. Improv," says Rocket rookie Derrick Chievous. Of course, you wouldneed a sense of humor if you were 7'5" and trying to get in and out ofairplane lavatories all the time.
Utah Jazz forwardThurl Bailey, who used to listen to Nevitt's jokes when they played together atNorth Carolina State, says, "Chuck says that he gets waived from a teamwhen he runs out of jokes. Well, he's such a great guy that I hope he hasenough jokes—and there are enough teams—so that he lasts 16 years in theleague."
Nevitt is now inhis sixth NBA season, and he's on his third tour of duty with the Rockets, whooriginally selected him in the third round of the 1982 draft. He has beenwaived by the Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, the Rockets again, the Lakers twice, ateam in Forli, Italy, and the San Antonio Spurs. The Pistons didn't pick up theoption on his contract after last season. He has also flunked tryouts with theNew York Knicks and the Atlanta Hawks. Before this season he averaged 21 gamesa year, and 5.6 minutes and 1.7 points a game. In other words, in five seasonshe scored as many points (177) as Michael Jordan scores in five games.
After Nevitt waswaived by the Spurs in October, the Rockets reacquired him to make him their12th man. The 12th man is a distinct species in the NBA, and the designationusually refers to the guy down at the end of the bench who plays as a secondthought in the fourth quarter. It does not, however, mean the guy on the teamwho's the most expendable; when the Rockets picked up Walter Berry recently,they let guard Tony Brown, not Nevitt, go.
Season-ticketholder Jess Brown is very familiar with the species because his seat in theSummit is catercorner to that of the 12th man. Brown, an Edgar Buchananlook-alike who passes out bubble gum to the players before home games, slapsthe hand of the 12th man as he comes back to his seat after every timeout."I've known a lot of them over the years," says Brown. "Chuck's oneof my favorites, although, to tell you the truth, I ain't sure why he'shere."
The Rockets'management has a little more faith in Nevitt than Jess Brown has. Says RayPatterson, the Rockets' general manager, "He's a much better player thanwhen we first had him. He has a nice touch from the outside, and he runs aboutas well as any big man I've seen. We think he could be another impact playerlike Mark Eaton [Utah's 7'4" center] if we could put some weight onhim."
Ay, there's therib. Nevitt weighs only 225 pounds. He has a 38-inch waist, which isextraordinary for someone 89 inches tall. He has tried everything, includingsteroids—he now says taking them in the summer of 1983 was a mistake—to buildup his weight, but the meat never sticks to his bones. After one of formercoach Bill Fitch's notorious Rocket training camps, Nevitt was down to 207."I looked like a poster child for world hunger," he says. The Rockets'strength coach, Robert Barr, has been working to put muscle on Nevitt. "Ineed a summer to get some food into him," says Barr. "But as Chucksays, he eats to live, he doesn't live to eat." Over lunch one day SondraNevitt says she is perplexed. "I swear he eats four or five meals a day.He's just so tall." She looks over at her husband's plate and says,"Chuck, finish those french fries."
Off the court,gawkers refuse to believe that Nevitt, who has a pleasantly normal face, can bethat tall. "People feel my legs to see if I'm walking on stilts," hesays. "One time, at the North Carolina state fair, I pretended I was doingjust that by walking real stiff-legged and wiggling my upper body." Hisheight really does strange things to people. Little children have been known tofall over backward trying to look up to his head. People who walk with himdevelop a habit of ducking sympathetically when they come to doorways oroverhanging signs that might test Nevitt's clearance. "It's really funny tosee me walking with a group of 10 people," he says, "and everybody isducking at the same time under objects that are at least a foot taller thanthey are."
Being that tall,of course, is the reason Nevitt is still in the NBA. But the assumption that hecan't really play the game is a false one. The Rockets seem to appreciate histalents. Says head coach Don Chaney, "When we picked Chuck up, we figuredhe was still a project. But he's much better on the court than I imagined, andI like having him on the bench, because not only does he root for the otherguys, but he also says things that reinforce what we're trying to coach.Believe me, he's not here to be a mascot."
Ironically,Chaney's respect for Nevitt as a player has meant less action for him duringso-called "garbage time" at the end of lopsided games. The coach willsometimes resist the chants of "Nevitt, Nevitt" because he doesn't wantthe crowd or Chuck to think he's a garbage player. Consequently, in a nine-gamestretch from Dec. 27 to Jan. 16, Nevitt collected seven DNPs (did not plays).In the other two games, he played a grand total of five seconds. He came into agame in the last second with the 76ers trailing by two to block the in-boundspass from Mike Gminski, and he did such a good job that Gminski was forced toget the ball to Hersey Hawkins out in three-point range; unfortunately for theRockets, Hawkins's shot was good. In a game against San Antonio, Nevitt came infor the last four seconds of the Rockets' overtime victory after Olajuwon andMcCormick had fouled out. After the game, Nevitt accepted the heartycongratulations of his teammates. "Way to go, Chuck," said one Rocket,"you didn't screw up."
"I don'tthink I'll ever be a regular in the NBA," Nevitt says. "But I do thinkI can play 15 minutes a night. When I was with the Pistons, there was onestretch when I played a lot. In one game against the Knicks, I scored 12points, and the best part was when they had to replace Bill Cartwright becauseI was doing so well. At least I think that's why they took him out. I stilldream about being a star someday, but what the hey. I can at least say I dunkedon Bill Cartwright. And I once blocked a shot by Dr. J."
The real Dream,Olajuwon, is perhaps Nevitt's biggest fan. "He is one of the nicest guysyou would ever want to meet," says Olajuwon. "Every day is a good daywhen he is around. I think the crowd sees that, I think that's why they lovehim so. I'll tell you something else. He can play. He gives me more trouble inpractice than any center."
The two of them,Olajuwon and Nevitt, have little ritual one-on-one games during warmups. Thefirst one to five wins, and the loser has to wait on the winner in theintervening minutes before a game—bringing him a towel or water. Nevitt has wononly a few times, but that's because Olajuwon is so proud, he can't bear tolose. The other day Nevitt had the ball with a 4-3 lead, when Akeem announcedthey had to get inside for a nonexistent meeting.
Olajuwon, ascaptain, meets with the referees at center court before every game, and latelyhe has been taking Nevitt with him. "What are you doing here, Chuck?"the head ref will ask him. "I'm here to translate for Akeem," says thehonorary cocaptain. This in itself is funny because Olajuwon, who is fromNigeria, speaks perfectly good English.
"Chuck's justa good guy to have on your ball club," says Patterson. "I think he'llbe with us next year too. When I picked him up before the season started, Ikidded him that I had to, because it was the only way I could get the moneyback he owed me for wrecking my car a few years ago—the car I lent him skiddedin the rain at a stop sign. He and I were so friendly even back then that theplayers called him Ray Junior. But he's that way with everybody. One of thethings I like best about him is the way he handles his height. You know, a lotof big guys resent the public, but Chuck is very comfortable with himself. Ihave to give his folks a lot of credit for that."
Nevitt grew up inMarietta, Ga., the son of John Nevitt, a 6'7" engineering professor, andMarcia, a 6-foot-tall registered nurse. Chuck's older sister, Lynne, is6'3", and his two older brothers. Jack and Steve, grew to 6'7" and6'8". "I pretty much knew I wasn't adopted," says Chuck. TheNevitts still have a detailed growth chart on one of the walls in their home,and Chuck also keeps his own miniature chart in his wallet. He hit 6 feet atthe age of 13, and from Feb. 26, 1974, when he was 14, to March 6, 1976, heshot up from 6'2¼" to 6'10¼". Says John, now in his last year ofteaching at Southern Tech, "When Chuck was about six feet tall, he washaving such bad growing pains that we sent him to an orthopedist, and he toldus that Chuck was going to be over seven feet tall." Because of the growingpains. Chuck never did play much basketball as a youngster, though Lynne was abasketball star at Memphis State and Jack played at Huntingdon College inMontgomery, Ala.
"They mighthave gotten their height from me," says John, "but they sure didn't gettheir basketball ability from me. I played at Lehigh, but I was prettybad." As for the Nevitt children's pride in their height, John credits hiswife. "She always told them that being tall was a gift and not something tobe ashamed of, and that they should hold their heads up high."
While Chuck hadto put basketball on hold, he was honing his joke-telling skills. "He waskind of shy at home," says his mother, who is now retired. "So it cameas something of a surprise when a woman I worked with told me that her childsaid Chuck always kept everybody laughing on the school bus."
He didn't playmuch at Sprayberry High in Marietta, but his height interested a few schools,especially N.C. State, which was then coached by Norm Sloan. By the time heentered college. Chuck was 7'1" and 175 pounds, not much wider than abasketball stanchion. His Wolfpack career wasn't particularly notable—he didn'tstart until his senior year—although his car was. "I had given him my FordMaverick," recalls Lynne, who now teaches English at Pope High in Marietta,"and he had taken out the front seat so that he could drive from the back.He also rigged up this microphone in the car, with a speaker on the roof. Iseem to remember that he got in some trouble with the car, and Norm Sloan madehim take it home." As Chuck recalls, "I lent the car to one of myteammates, and he made some impolite remarks over the speaker. Coach Sloan didmake me get rid of it. One time, when I was driving my dad in the car, hepicked up the microphone and said, 'What's this?' I told him, and he got a bigkick out of telling cars to move out of the way."
Nevitt wasn'tmuch of a student, either, at N.C. State, although he was an All-Americapartygoer. During his senior year he worked at a popular bar off campus as asort of bouncer and ID-checker. One night he and the bar's manager tried toliven up a Ladies' Night by performing an impromptu striptease on stage. Nevittin skivvies is quite a sight, and unbeknownst to him, his future bride was inthe crowd that night. He didn't meet Sondra Childers, though, until a few weekslater, when he kept her ID so she would talk to him. "It wasblackmail," she says. One of the things that impressed Chuck about Sondrawas her height. "My mother would never allow me to bring home a girl under5'10"," he says. "I once dated a girl who was 5'3", and mymother lectured me on all the tall girls who were sitting home alone, waitingfor someone taller to come along, and here I was, going out with a girl who wastwo feet shorter."
As a senior atN.C. State, Nevitt averaged 5.5 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2 blocked shots a gamefor coach Jim Valvano, but that's not what the NBA scouts noticed. JackMcCloskey, now the Pistons' general manager, recalls the first time he sawNevitt in college. "I was scouting another player at an N.C. State game.During a timeout, I always watch the huddle to see how the players relate tothe coach. This guy in the back of the team was leaning way over, listeningintently. I thought to myself, 'There's a dedicated player. He's standing on achair and leaning over to hear his coach.' But when the huddle broke up, therewas no chair. I couldn't believe it. He was so big."
The Rockets tookNevitt in the third round of the 1982 draft, and the only reason he went thathigh was because the player Patterson thought he was going to get in the thirdround had already been taken. So Patterson turned to assistant coach CarrollDawson, the only one in the organization who was then high on Nevitt, and said,"You can have your big guy." But the Rockets decided Nevitt was toomuch of a project. So they placed him on waivers on Oct. 22 and he was claimedby Milwaukee. Six days later, the Bucks gave up on him and he was a waiver caseagain.
The Rockets gaveNevitt another chance and re-signed him as a free agent in June of '83, butthey waived him again in November. Nevitt spent the 1983-84 season playing forthe Houston Flyers, an AAU team, in a YMCA downtown, supplementing his incomeby working at the King Size Company, a clothing store for big and tall men inHouston. Clovis Goodwill, who still works at the store, recalls that Nevitt wasa pretty good salesman. "He did O.K.," says Goodwill. "He'd tellthe customers these corny jokes, and if he had them laughing, I knew he had asale. I didn't know he was back in Houston until I turned on the game the othernight. I saw him and said, I sold clothes with that man.' The real shame of itwas that nothing in the store fit Chuck."
For the record,Nevitt has a 42-inch inseam, a 16-inch collar and a 41-inch sleeve. He alsowears size 17 shoes, but that's almost small for someone his size. Most of hisclothes are custom-made in Hong Kong, and there is a traveling tailor whoservices the big guys in the NBA.
Nevitt also had ahard time finding a team he could fit into. In 1984, with the help of an unclein the printing business, he sent out publicity brochures on himself. On thecover was a picture of Nevitt blocking a shot by 7'4" Ralph Sampson, thenwith Virginia. On the first inside page was this caption for the cover photo:"If you don't recognize No. 50, you don't follow pro basketball veryclosely. He's the incomparable Ralph Sampson. But how about the guy hoveringover him, blocking the shot? Do you know him? After all, Sampson is 7'4".Not a lot of folks make him eat the ball."
The brochureactually intrigued a few clubs. At about this time, Nevitt also got a newagent, Keith Glass, whose brother was a coworker of Chuck's mother-in-law inRaleigh, N.C. The Lakers invited Nevitt to camp. Things were looking up—evenfor Chuck.
But then camesome tragic news. The closest of his siblings, older brother Steve, with whomhe had shared a bedroom, committed suicide at the age of 28. "Nobody reallyknows the reason," says Jack. "Steve was out of a job, living at home.He was the least athletic one of us. But you only see these things inretrospect. Under the circumstances, Chuck was a real comfort, even though hewas hurting as much as any of us. He held up so well. He was like a tower ofstrength." Since Steve's death, Jack, a sales rep for Procter & Gamble,and Chuck have grown much closer.
After thefuneral, chuck reported back to the Lakers. "I don't know if I wasconsciously trying to make the team to make up for Steve's loss, but I think Iknew it was important subconsciously. I just didn't want to give the family anymore bad news, I didn't want to have them hear that I was cut." Coach PatRiley gave Nevitt little chance of making the team at the beginning of camp,but working with assistant coach Bill Bertka, Chuck displayed a toughnessnobody had seen before. The Lakers signed him as a free agent in September'84.
They waived himseven weeks later, but they wanted him around to keep Abdul-Jabbar sharp, andin case of emergency, so he was given a job in the public relations office."Basically, what Chuck did was get things off the top shelf for me,"says Lakers p.r. director Josh Rosenfeld. Nevitt also made appearances inshopping malls, helping to sell Laker tickets. Who could resist buying a seatfrom a 7'5" ticket seller?
During thisperiod, Nevitt tried out for a part in Back to School, the movie comedystarring Rodney Dangerfield. Actually, it was Dangerfield himself who suggestedNevitt be tested for a scene inside, ironically, a big men's clothing storeowned by the Dangerfield character. Chuck did not get the part. But then, hewas used to being cut.
Even though hewasn't playing, Nevitt had some memorable practices with the Lakers. Once henailed Mitch Kupchak, who was just coming back from a knee injury, in the nosewith one of those pointy elbows. As Kupchak lay on his back in the trainer'sroom, Nevitt kept apologizing, "Mitch, I'm so sorry, Mitch, I'm sosorry." Says Kupchak, now the Lakers' assistant general manager, "Mynose wasn't bothering me half as much as Chuck was. I finally told him to cutit out."
Nevitt wasre-signed by the Lakers in March '85, when Jamaal Wilkes was hurt, and hestayed with the club right through the playoffs and the championship. Heactually played in seven playoff games, blocking six shots in just 37 minutesof playing time. So he earned his ring.
The Lakers waivedhim again the following November. "I guess it was decided he'd been givenenough time to develop," says Kupchak. "I remember the day he was cutin Portland. Kurt Rambis and Ronnie Lester and some other guys and I went up tohis room to make sure he was O.K. We went up there to cheer him up, and prettysoon he was the one cheering us up.
"But youknow, maybe if he wasn't so nice, he'd be a better player. Sometimes I wantedhim to get mad, get meaner. It's a double-edged sword. He's a good guy to haveon a club because he's so nice, but his niceness makes him expendable."
The Pistonspicked up Nevitt a week later. Before Chuck arrived, the Pistons were known asa divisive outfit. But his cheerleading style soon caught on with his teammatesand the fans. "He'd push everyone to play harder," says Detroit's RickMahorn.
As for Nevitt'srelationship with the fans, well, there were fan clubs, a write-in campaign forthe NBA All-Star ballot and a popular Chuck Nevitt trivia contest on a Detroitradio station. Then there were the 12 pies Buddy's Pizza gave away for everyone of his blocked shots. "They didn't lose an awful lot of money onme," says Nevitt. "I remember one time, going down to Buddy's for somepublicity pictures. They photographed me making the pizzas, loading them ontothe cart and handing them out to the people down at the soup kitchen."
Nevitt reachednew heights playing in Detroit. During the 1986-87 season he played in 17straight games when Mahorn was out with a back injury, and in one of thosegames he scored his career-high 12 points in 20 minutes to lead the Pistons toa 122-111 victory over the Knicks. In one memorable sequence, he slam-dunkedover Cartwright; then the next time down the floor, he brought the crowd to itsfeet with a 10-foot baseline skyhook.
The lowlight ofNevitt's career with the Pistons came during Game 2 of last year's NBA finalsin L.A., and it was his own friendliness that got him in trouble. The CBScameras caught him talking to comedian Billy Crystal during the game."Billy just wanted to know a couple of nicknames of guys on the team,"says Nevitt. "Like Toad for Rick Mahorn and Buddha for James Edwards. Ididn't want to be rude." When coach Chuck Daly saw their exchange on thegame film, he gave Nevitt a lecture. According to Daly, "I said, 'What areyou doing? Giving him our game plan? You don't see me talking to JackNicholson. Pay attention.' " The funny thing is that usually nobody on thebench is more involved in the game than Nevitt.
The writing wason the wall, anyway, because he had played in only 17 games all season. ThePistons did not invite Nevitt back.
One might havethought an expansion team would pick him up. But Carl Scheer, the CharlotteHornets' vice-president and general manager, was quoted last July as saying,"Chuck Nevitt is the one guy our entire coaching staff says can'tplay." That hurt, especially because Nevitt would have liked to play nearhis off-season home in Raleigh. And Miami didn't want him either.
So he went toItaly last summer for an audition with the team in Forli. "I actually wasplaying pretty well over there," he says, "but they want their bigAmericans to score a lot, and I just wasn't used to doing that." He wassent home.
Glass, Nevitt'sagent, also happens to represent Larry Brown, coach of the San Antonio Spurs,and Glass talked Brown into giving Chuck a shot. But Brown didn't feel thatNevitt would fit into the team's plans, so on Oct. 24, Nevitt made the waiverlist for the sixth time. "I can't understand why more clubs don't wantChuck," says Glass, whose agency is called, interestingly enough, Glass andFather. "And I'm not just saying that because I'm his agent. I happen to besomething of an expert on white centers. I have 43 feet of them: BlairRasmussen. Mark Eaton, Mike Smrek, Stuart Gray. Greg Kite and Chuck. And Ithink Chuck is the best shooter of all of them."
Three days afterthe Spurs waived him, Nevitt got the call from his old mentor, Patterson. Hewould have to come back to the Rockets, in essence, as a six-year"rookie," and he would have to swallow a $125,000 salary. (Actually,the real hardship for Nevitt was giving up his seniority rights on flights;sometimes he has to fold his frame into coach seats when the Rockets can't getenough first-class space.) Nevitt has surprised the Rockets, and not just withhis playing ability. On the road in Portland earlier in the season, Chaney andtrainer Ray Melchiorre were approached by a man who said he could improveplayers' hand-eye coordination by teaching them how to juggle. "Don and Iwere kind of intrigued," says Melchiorre, "so we told him that there'sone guy on the team who would really benefit. We meant Chuck. Then, while wewere fooling around with these beanbags, throwing them all over the place.Chuck walked in. He picked up three of the beanbags and started juggling themlike a pro. Well, there went that idea down the drain."
"Sure, I canjuggle," says Nevitt. "Sometimes Sondra and I will be shopping in thesupermarket, and I'll go into the frozen food section and juggle three tubs ofCool Whip. I can imagine housewives telling their husbands that night, 'Honey,you wouldn't believe what I saw in the supermarket today. A seven-foot-five guyjuggling Cool Whip.' "
Nevitt is full ofsurprises like that. He jumps rope like Sugar Ray Leonard, and he loves tobicycle and to fly stunt kites. He is a wizard at electronics and carpentry. Herecently assembled and stained a grandfather clock taller than he is. Hismusical tastes run to big bands, Nat King Cole and classical. "I drewChuck's name for Christmas shopping this year," says his sister Lynne."So I asked him what he wanted. He told me he wanted an Itzhak Perlmantape. Blew me away. His interests have gotten so wide since he got out ofschool." Nevitt even does a fair impersonation of Lee Marvin singingWandrin' Star, from Paint Your Wagon. It's a particularly apt song for him.
Now, at least,he's feeling at home in Houston. "I'm playing for the first coach who Ithink believes in me, with a great bunch of guys. I just hope I can contribute.I feel like a lucky guy." Talk about lucky. A few weeks ago, a thief brokeinto the Nevitts' apartment, and among the items stolen was the championshipring. Nevitt figured he had lost it forever. But then an anonymous callercontacted the Rockets and asked how much he could get for the ring. The callerobviously did not work for Mission Control in Houston: He left his phonenumber, the police traced it, and the ring, along with a lot of other stolenmerchandise, was recovered. And that's pretty much the way Chuck Nevitt'scareer seems to go. Gone today, here tomorrow.