"How tall are you?"
"Do you play basketball?"
"Some people say I do, and some people say I don't."
November 7, 1994
And so it goes for Chuck Nevitt, oh, about 25 times a day. He answers every question about his height with uncommon civility, and he readily jokes about his playing abilities. He seems to like the view from up there, and he also seems grateful for his view from down there at the end of the Houston Rocket bench, even though he would like to work up a sweat during a game every so often.
Fans may giggle at first sight of his pipe-cleaner physique, but if they watch him cheer his teammates on, watch him highland low-five the ball boys, watch him listen intently to the coach during timeouts, watch him join the crowd in the Wave, they know that Chuck Nevitt is more than just the longest standing joke in the NBA. He is a genuine folk hero.
"I played with the 76ers," says Tim McCormick, the center who stands between Akeem Olajuwon and Nevitt on the Rockets' depth chart, "and Dr. J didn't get as much attention walking through airports as Chuck does." Indeed, when the visiting Rockets were introduced before a recent game against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Forum, Olajuwon was only first runner-up to Nevitt on the applause meter. Once upon a time Nevitt didn't play for the Lakers, and he has a championship ring to prove it.
When the Lakers were in Houston recently, the omnipresent Morganna ran onto the floor before the 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 give Nevitt 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, the other vertical. Said Nevitt of the experience, "We laughed, we loved, and now she's a part of me."
That night Nevitt went out and scored a season-high eight points (four for six from the field) in only six minutes. "Gee," Nevitt said, "if I played the whole game, I would have had at least 60." Nevitt's wife, Sondra, was not jealous of Morganna in the least. "We're actually thinking of hiring her to kiss Chuck on a regular basis," she said.
Nevitt has more nicknames than most regulars: the Human Victory Cigar, for his occasional appearances at the end of winning games, and Chuck E. Cheese, for the mascot robot of a Texas-based pizza franchise. In Detroit, where he didn't play for the Pistons, a different pizza place used to give 12 pizzas to a soup kitchen for every shot Nevitt blocked.
People around Houston honk at his van, which has North Carolina license plates reading 7 FT 5 (Sondra drives a car with 5 FT 10 plates). He has inspired not one, but two Trivial Pursuit questions: "How many inches above seven feet is Chuck Nevitt?" and "Who is the tallest player in the NBA?" The answer to the latter question has changed—it is now 7'7" Manute Bol of the Golden State Warriors—but the answer on the outdated card is still Chuck Nevitt.
He may no longer be 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 has a million of them. "I call him Mr. Improv," says Rocket rookie Derrick Chievous. Of course, you would need a sense of humor if you were 7'5" and trying to get in and out of airplane lavatories all the time.
Utah Jazz forward Thurl Bailey, who used to listen to Nevitt's jokes when they played together at North Carolina State, says, "Chuck says that he gets waived from a team when he runs out of jokes. Well, he's such a great guy that I hope he has enough jokes—and there are enough teams—so that he lasts 16 years in the league."
Nevitt is now in his sixth NBA season, and he's on his third tour of duty with the Rockets, who originally selected him in the third round of the 1982 draft. He has been waived by the Rockets, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Rockets again, the Lakers twice, a team in Forli, Italy, and the San Antonio Spurs. The Pistons didn't pick up the option on his contract after last season. He has also flunked tryouts with the New York Knicks and the Atlanta Hawks. Before this season he averaged 21 games a year, and 5.6 minutes and 1.7 points a game. In other words, in five seasons he scored as many points (177) as Michael Jordan scores in five games.
After Nevitt was waived by the Spurs in October, the Rockets reacquired him to make him their 12th man. The 12th man is a distinct species in the NBA, and the designation usually refers to the guy down at the end of the bench who plays as a second thought in the fourth quarter. It does not, however, mean the guy on the team who's the most expendable; when the Rockets picked up Walter Berry recently, they let guard Tony Brown, not Nevitt, go.
Season-ticket holder Jess Brown is very familiar with the species because his seat in the Summit is catercorner to that of the 12th man. Brown, an Edgar Buchanan look-alike who passes out bubble gum to the players before home games, slaps the 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 one of my favorites, although, to tell you the truth, I ain't sure why he's here."
The Rockets' management has a little more faith in Nevitt than Jess Brown has. Says Ray Patterson, the Rockets' general manager, "He's a much better player than when we first had him. He has a nice touch from the outside, and he runs about as well as any big man I've seen. We think he could be another impact player like Mark Eaton [Utah's 7'4", 290-pound center] if we could put some weight on him."
Ay, there's the rib. Nevitt weighs only 225 pounds. He has a 38-inch waist, which is extraordinary for someone 89 inches tall. He has tried everything, including steroids—he now says taking them in the summer of 1983 was a mistake—to build up his weight, but the meat never sticks to his bones. After one of former coach 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. "I need a summer to get some food into him," says Barr. "But as Chuck says, he eats to live, he doesn't live to eat." Over lunch one day Sondra Nevitt 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 be that tall. "People feel my legs to see if I'm walking on stilts," he says. "One time, at the North Carolina state fair, I pretended I was doing just that by walking real stiff-legged and wiggling my upper body." His height really does strange things to people. Little children have been known to fall over backward trying to look up at his head. People who walk with him develop a habit of ducking sympathetically when they come to doorways or overhanging signs that might test Nevitt's clearance. "It's really funny to see me walking with a group of 10 people," he says, "and everybody is ducking at the same time under objects that are at least a foot taller than they are."
Being that tall, of course, is the reason Nevitt is still in the NBA. But the assumption that he can't really play the game is a false one. The Rockets seem to appreciate his talents. Says head coach Don Chancy, "When we picked Chuck up, we figured he was still a project. But he's much better on the court than I imagined, and I like having him on the bench, because not only does he root for the other guys, but he also says things that reinforce what we're trying to coach. Believe me," emphasizes Chaney, "he's not here to be a mascot."
Ironically, Chaney's respect for Nevitt as a player has meant less action for him during so-called "garbage time" at the end of lopsided games. The coach will sometimes resist the chants of "Nevitt, Nevitt" because he doesn't want the crowd or Chuck to think he's a garbage player. Consequently, in a nine-game stretch 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 a game in the last second with the 76ers trailing by two to block the inbounds pass from 6'11" Mike Gminski, and he did such a good job that Gminski was forced to get the ball to Hersey Hawkins out in three-point range; unfortunately for the Rockets, Hawkins's shot was good. In a game against San Antonio, Nevitt came in for the last four seconds of the Rockets' overtime victory after Olajuwon and McCormick had fouled out. After the game Nevitt accepted the hearty congratulations of his teammates. "Way to go, Chuck," said one Rocket. "You didn't screw up."
"I don't think I'll ever be a regular in the NBA," Nevitt says, "but I do think I can play 15 minutes a night. When I was with the Pistons, there was one stretch when I played a lot. In one game against the Knicks, I scored 12 points, and the best part was when they had to replace Bill Cartwright because I was doing so well. At least I think that's why they took him out. I still dream about being a star someday, but what the hey. I can at least say I dunked on 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 guys you would ever want to meet," says Olajuwon. "Every day is a good day when he is around. I think the crowd sees that; I think that's why they love him so. I'll tell you something else. He can play. He gives me more trouble in practice than any center."
The two of them, Olajuwon and Nevitt, have little ritual one-on-one games during warmups. The first one to five wins, and the loser has to wait on the winner in the intervening minutes before a game—bringing him a towel or water. Nevitt has won only a few times, but that's because Olajuwon is so proud he can't bear to lose. The other day Nevitt had the ball with a 4-3 lead, when Akeem announced they had to get inside for a nonexistent meeting.
Olajuwon, as captain, meets with the referees at center court before every game, and lately he 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 the honorary co-captain. This in itself is funny because Olajuwon, who is from Nigeria, speaks perfectly good English.
"Chuck's just a good guy to have on your ball club," says Patterson. "When I picked him up before the season started, I kidded him that I had to because it was the only way I could get back the money he owed me for wrecking my car a few years ago—the car I lent him skidded in the rain at a stop sign. He and I were so friendly even back then that the players called him Ray Junior. But he's that way with everybody. One of the things I like best about him is the way he handles his height. You know, a lot of big guys resent the public, but Chuck is very comfortable with himself. I have to give his folks a lot of credit for that."
Nevitt grew up in Marietta, Ga., the son of John Nevitt, a 6'7" engineering professor, and Marcia, a 6-foot registered nurse. Chuck's older sister, Lynne, is 6'3", and his two older brothers, Jack and Steve, grew to 6'7" and 6'8", respectively. "I pretty much knew I wasn't adopted," says Chuck.
The Nevitts 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 at the age of 13, and from Feb. 26, 1974, when he was 14, to March 6, 1976, he shot up from 6'2¼" to 6'10¼". Says John, now in his last year of teaching at Southern Tech, "When Chuck was about six feet tall, he was having such bad growing pains that we sent him to an orthopedist, and he told us that Chuck was going to be over seven feet tall." Because of the growing pains, Chuck never did play much basketball as a youngster, though Lynne was a basketball star at Memphis State and Jack played at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala.
"They might have gotten their height from me," says John, "but they sure didn't get their basketball ability from me. I played at Lehigh, but I was pretty bad." As for the Nevitt children's pride in their height, John credits his wife. "She always told them that being tall was a gift and not something to be ashamed of, and that they should hold their heads up high."
While Chuck had to put basketball on hold, he was honing his joke-telling skills. "He was kind of shy at home," says his mother, who is now retired. "So it came as something of a surprise when a woman I worked with told me that her child said Chuck always kept everybody laughing on the school bus."
He didn't play much 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 Chuck entered college, he was 7'1" and 175 pounds, not much wider than a basketball stanchion. His Wolfpack career wasn't particularly notable—he didn't start until his senior year—but his car was. "I had given him my Ford Maverick," 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. I seem to remember that he got in some trouble with the car, and Norm Sloan made him take it home." As Chuck recalls, "I lent the car to one of my teammates, and he made some impolite remarks over the speaker. Coach Sloan did make me get rid of it. One time, when I was driving my dad in the car, he picked up the microphone and said, 'What's this?' I told him, and he got a big kick out of telling cars to move out of the way."
Nevitt wasn't much of a student, either, at N.C. State, although he was an All-America partygoer. During his senior year he worked at a popular bar off campus as a sort of bouncer and ID checker. One night he and the bar's manager tried to liven up a Ladies' Night by performing an impromptu striptease onstage. Nevitt in Skivvies is quite a sight, and unbeknownst to him, his future bride was in the crowd that night. He didn't meet Sondra Childers, though, until a few weeks later, when he kept her ID so she would talk to him. "It was blackmail," she says.
One of the things that impressed Chuck about Sondra was her height. "My mother would never allow me to bring home a girl under 5'10"," he says. "I once dated a girl who was 5'3", and my mother lectured me on all the tall girls who were sitting home alone, waiting for someone taller to come along, and here I was, going out with a girl who was two feet shorter."
As a senior at N.C. State, Nevitt averaged 5.5 points, 4.4 rebounds and two blocked shots a game for coach Jim Valvano, but that's not what the NBA scouts noticed. Jack McCloskey, now the Pistons' general manager, recalls the first time he saw Nevitt 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 to the coach. This guy in the back of the team was leaning way over, listening intently. I thought to myself, 'There's a dedicated player. He's standing on a chair and leaning over to hear his coach.' But when the huddle broke up, there was no chair. I couldn't believe it. He was so big."
The Rockets took Nevitt in the third round of the 1982 draft, and the only reason he went that high was because the player Patterson thought he was going to get in the third round had already been taken. So Patterson turned to assistant coach Carroll Dawson, 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 too much of a project. So they placed him on waivers on Oct. 22, and he was claimed by Milwaukee. Six days later the Bucks gave up on him, and he was a waiver case again.
The Rockets gave Nevitt another chance and re-signed him as a free agent in June '83, but they waived him again in November. Nevitt spent the 1983-84 season playing for the Houston Flyers, an AAU team, in a downtown YMCA, supplementing his income by working at the King Size Company, a clothing store for big and tall men in Houston. Clovis Goodwill, who still works at the store, recalls that Nevitt was a pretty good salesman. "He did O.K.," says Goodwill. "He'd tell the customers these corny jokes, and if he had them laughing, I knew he had a sale. I didn't know he was back in Houston until I turned on the game the other night. I saw him and said, 'I sold clothes with that man.' The real shame of it was 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 also wears size 17 shoes, but that's almost small for someone his size. Most of his clothes are custom-made in Hong Kong, and there is a traveling tailor who services the big guys in the NBA.
Nevitt also had a hard time finding a team he could fit into. In 1984, with the help of an uncle in the printing business, he sent out publicity brochures on himself. On the cover was a picture of Nevitt blocking a shot by 7'4" Ralph Sampson, then at the University of 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 very closely. He's the incomparable Ralph Sampson. But how about the guy hovering over 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 brochure actually intrigued a few clubs. At about this time Nevitt also got a new agent, Keith Glass, whose brother was a coworker of Chuck's mother-in-law in Raleigh, N.C. The Lakers invited Nevitt to camp. Things were looking up—even for Chuck.
But then came some tragic news. The closest of his siblings, older brother Steve, with whom Chuck had shared a bedroom, committed suicide at the age of 28. "Nobody really knows 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 in retrospect. Under the circumstances, Chuck was a real comfort, even though he was hurting as much as any of us. He held up so well. He was like a tower of strength." Since Steve's death, Jack, a sales representative for Procter & Gamble, and Chuck have grown much closer.
After the funeral Chuck reported back to the Lakers. "I don't know if I was consciously trying to make the team to make up for Steve's loss, but I think I knew it was important subconsciously. I just didn't want to give the family any more bad news. I didn't want to have them hear that I was cut," he says. Coach Pat Riley gave Nevitt little chance of making the team at the beginning of camp, but working with assistant coach Bill Bertka, Chuck displayed a toughness nobody had seen before. The Lakers signed him as a free agent in September '84.
They waived him seven weeks later, but they wanted him around to keep Abdul-Jabbar sharp, and in 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 Laker p.r. director Josh Rosenfeld. Nevitt also made appearances in shopping malls, helping to sell Laker tickets. Who could resist buying a seat from a 7'5" ticket seller?
During this period Nevitt tried out for a part in Back to School, the movie comedy starring Rodney Dangerfield. Actually, it was Dangerfield himself who suggested Nevitt be tested for a scene inside, ironically, a big men's clothing store owned by the Dangerfield character. Chuck did not get the part. But then, he was used to being cut.
Even though he wasn't playing, Nevitt had some memorable practices with the Lakers. Once, he nailed Mitch Kupchak, who was just coming back from a knee injury, in the nose with one of those pointy elbows. As Kupchak lay on his back in the trainer's room, Nevitt kept apologizing, "Mitch, I'm so sorry. Mitch, I'm so sorry." Says Kupchak, now the Lakers' assistant general manager, "My nose wasn't bothering me half as much as Chuck was. I finally told him to cut it out."
Nevitt was re-signed by the Lakers in March '85, when Jamaal Wilkes was hurt, and he stayed with the club right through the conference playoffs and the championship series. He actually played in seven playoff games, blocking six shots in just 37 minutes of playing time. So he earned his ring.
The Lakers waived him again the following November. "I guess it was decided he'd been given enough time to develop," says Kupchak. "I remember the day he was cut in Portland. Kurt Rambis and Ronnie Lester and some other guys and I went up to his room to make sure he was O.K. We went up there to cheer him up, and pretty soon he was the one cheering us up.
"But you know, maybe if he wasn't so nice, he'd be a better player. Sometimes I wanted him to get mad, get meaner. It's a double-edged sword. He's a good guy to have on a club because he's so nice, but his niceness makes him expendable."
The Pistons picked up Nevitt a week later. Before Chuck arrived, the Pistons were known as a divisive outfit. But his cheer-leading style soon caught on with both his teammates and the fans. "He'd push everyone to play harder," says Detroit's Rick Mahorn.
As for Nevitt's relationship with the fans, well, there were fan clubs, a write-in campaign for the NBA All-Star ballot and a popular Chuck Nevitt trivia contest on a Detroit radio station. Then there were the 12 pies Buddy's Pizza gave away for every one of his blocked shots. "They didn't lose an awful lot of money on me," says Nevitt. "I remember one time, going down to Buddy's for some publicity pictures. They photographed me making the pizzas and handing them out at the soup kitchen."
Nevitt reached new heights playing in Detroit. During the 1986-87 season he played in 17 straight games when Mahorn was out with a back injury, and in one of those games he scored his career-high 12 points in 20 minutes to lead the Pistons to a 122-111 victory over the Knicks. In one memorable sequence, he slam-dunked over Cartwright; then the next time down the floor, he brought the crowd to its feet with a 10-foot baseline skyhook.
The lowlight of Nevitt's career with the Pistons came during Game 2 of last year's NBA finals in L.A., and it was his own friendliness that got him in trouble. The CBS cameras 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. I didn't want to be rude." When coach Chuck Daly saw their exchange on the game film, he gave Nevitt a lecture. According to Daly, "I said, 'What are you doing? Giving him our game plan? You don't see me talking to Jack Nicholson. Pay attention.' " The funny thing is that usually nobody on the bench is more involved in the game than Nevitt.
The writing was on the wall, anyway, because he had played in only 17 games all season. The Pistons did not invite Nevitt back.
One might have thought an expansion team would pick him up. But Carl Scheer, the Charlotte Hornets' vice-president and general manager, was quoted last July as saying, "Chuck Nevitt is the one guy our entire coaching staff says can't play." That hurt, especially because Nevitt would have liked to play near his off-season home in Raleigh. And Miami didn't want him either.
So he went to Italy last summer for an audition with the team in Forli. "I actually was playing pretty well over there," he says, "but they want their big Americans to score a lot, and I just wasn't used to doing that." He was sent home.
Glass, Nevitt's agent, 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 that Nevitt would fit into the team's plans, so on Oct. 24, Nevitt made the waiver list for the sixth time. "I can't understand why more clubs don't want Chuck," says Glass, whose agency is called, interestingly enough, Glass and Father. "And I'm not just saying that because I'm his agent. I happen to be something of an expert on white centers. I have 43 feet of them: Blair Rasmussen, Mark Eaton, Mike Smrek, Stuart Gray, Greg Kite and Chuck. And I think Chuck is the best shooter of all of them."
Three days after the Spurs waived him, Nevitt got the call from his old mentor, Patterson. He would have to come back to the Rockets, in essence, as a sixth-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 scats when the Rockets can't get enough first-class space.)
Nevitt has surprised the Rockets, and not just with his playing ability. On the road in Portland earlier in the season, Chaney and trainer Ray Melchiorre were approached by a man who said he could improve players' hand-eye coordination by teaching them how to juggle. "Don and I were kind of intrigued," says Melchiorre, "so we told him that there's one guy on the team who would really benefit. We meant Chuck. Then, while we were fooling around with these bean-bags, throwing them all over the place, Chuck walked in. He picked up three of the beanbags and started juggling them like a pro. Well, there went that idea down the drain."
"Sure, I can juggle," says Nevitt. "Sometimes Sondra and I will be shopping in the supermarket, and I'll go into the frozen food section and juggle three tubs of Cool 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 guy juggling Cool Whip."
Nevitt is full of surprises like that. He jumps rope like Sugar Ray Leonard, and he loves to bicycle and to fly stunt kites. He is a wizard at electronics and carpentry. He recently assembled and stained a grandfather clock taller than he is. His musical tastes run to big bands, Nat King Cole and classical. "I drew Chuck'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 Perlman tape. Blew me away. His interests have gotten so wide since he got out of school." Nevitt is even able to do a pretty fair impersonation of Lee Marvin singing Wandrin' Star, from Paint Your Wagon. It is, of course, a particularly apt song for him.
Now, at least, he's feeling at home in Houston. "I'm playing for the first coach who I think believes in me, with a great bunch of guys," he says. "I just hope I can contribute. I feel like a lucky guy." Talk about lucky. A few weeks ago a thief broke into the Nevitts' apartment, and among the items stolen was the championship ring. Nevitt figured he had lost it forever. But then an anonymous caller contacted the Rockets and asked how much he could get for the ring. The caller obviously did not work for Mission Control in Houston: He left his phone number, the police traced it, and the ring, along with a lot of other stolen merchandise, was recovered. And that's pretty much the way Chuck Nevitt's career seems to go. Gone today, here tomorrow.
This is one of 40 classic Sports Illustrated stories to be presented during 1994 as a special bonus to our readers in celebration of SI's 40th anniversary.