Dear Mom and Dad:
Tapocketapocketapocketa. That's the sound James Thurber's Walter Mitty heard as he imagined himself piloting a Navy hydroplane, and preparing for delicate surgery, and leading an Allied bombing mission in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. And that was the sound I heard when last July I got caught in my first sandwich pick in the lane at the Indiana Pacers' Walter Mitty tryout camp. Tapocketapocketapocketa.
The distinction here is that Mr. Mitty was daydreaming, and he loved every minute of it. I wasn't daydreaming, and my feelings about the tryout remained ambivalent, even after I had accepted an invitation from Tom Newell, the Pacers' player personnel director, to join some 30-odd NBA Wanna-Be's for a three-day camp in an Indianapolis prep school gym.
That sandwich pick to the contrary, trying out for the Pacers was a legitimate trip. I'm still in passable condition and can shoot from a stationary position. If any of the NBA teams had a crashable roster, this was the one. Indiana has won 22 and 26 games in the past two seasons, respectively.
The Pacers are the only team in basketball to hold such a pretryout tryout. Then again, they're the only team bad enough to stand to benefit from gathering flotsam from sundry Y's and rec centers, backwater colleges and leagues from Australia to Argentina. Indeed, if it hadn't been for what happened last season—Tony Brown survived Mitty Camp I, the ensuing rookie/free-agent camp, veterans' camp, and even was a starting forward for the first 15 games—the Mitty would probably be known as little more than a cheap publicity gimmick.
It is, rather, a little outgrowth of the Pacers' new way of thinking. Only two years ago Indiana was owned by a gentleman named Sam Nassi. Nassi treated the club as if it were his business—he's a liquidator—and sold off and traded away most of his best players. Today the Pacers are owned by a pair of brothers, Herb and Mel Simon, who run the team much as they do their business, which is real-estate development. Someday, the sanguine folk in the Pacers' front office say, the Mitty will have outlived its usefulness. "We'll be absolutely delighted when that day comes," says Bob Salyers, the club's president.
"I'll look for you. You look for me. We can help each other, man." As our first scrimmage began, I overheard one of my teammates, Jeff Simmons, a soldier stationed at nearby Fort Benjamin Harrison, whisper those words to another teammate, James Banks, who was MVP of the NCAA East Regional a few years ago and just missed making the 76ers last fall. Of course, Simmons would be the last thing on Banks's mind during the scrimmages. No one paid attention to the coaches' caveats about making three passes per possession before letting a shot fly.
Nonetheless, we heard again and again how team play and "intangibles" would receive just as much consideration from the Pacer staff as flash and dash. To be sure, heart and hustle had been the very things that made Brown, a 6'6" small forward from the University of Arkansas, so impressive last summer. Like all campers, Brown had a sponsor (Eddie Sutton, his college coach) who anted up round-trip airfare and stood tapocketa $2,000 finder's fee if his man survived the camp and an additional $5,000 if Brown made it to veterans' camp. Brown's success at Mitty I made for a hungry bunch of ballplayers at Mitty II.
I suppose hunger can lead to greed. The big men never kicked the ball out. The guards, well aware that most of the campers stood 6'3" or less, never passed up a chance to stand out. And anyone lucky enough to find himself in the open court with the ball went straight for the hole, a situation in which I was at my most pathetic as a defender.
I didn't get around to launching my first shot until the morning scrimmage on the second day. It came from about 18 feet, left side, off a semi-fast-break feed from Tony McIntosh, a guard out of Fordham. I was wide open. Swish. I recall having gotten back very quickly on defense, in a sprint of self-satisfaction.
My second shot came that afternoon, off the simple motion offense we had been asked to run. I moved up from the baseline on the right side, took a pass just off the foul line and noticed my defender, Luther Burden, laying back. Gotta take it. Burden flashed a hand in my face, too late.
"Can't cut a guy who's shooting 1.000," I told George Irvine, the Pacers' head coach, during a break.
"Wanna bet?" he shot back.
This modest offensive success—my last shot, a short jumper at the next morning's final scrimmage, rimmed out—was doing nothing to get me over two daunting conceptual hurdles. The first was the prospect of sharing the court with players like Banks, ex-NBAer Carl Nicks and former Kentucky and Southern Cal guard Dwight Anderson. This thought led to fear. The second consideration, which obviated the first, was realizing that everyone else's gonads were also, as Newell had put it in his precamp pep talk, "about the size of M&Ms."
Everyone's, I decided, except those of my roommate. He was Charles Perry, a 6'1" guard from Chicago State who wears glasses, except when he plays. Then he wears prescription goggles, hence his nom de hoop, Captain Video. Perry and his VIDEO 12 vanity plates rolled into town just hours before camp. "I figure they got to take me," he told me the first night, just before we turned in. "I mean, they need a shooting guard, and I'm the best shooting guard here. I'm not being egotistical. I'm just being realistic."
This must have been what Thurber meant when he wrote of the "remote, intimate airways" of Mr. Mitty's mind. Thank goodness I've brought my Walkman, I said to myself; I can clamp on the headphones and become Private Audio. But I would soon scold myself for thinking such thoughts, for as we watched the baseball All-Star Game that evening and kept talking, I grew to like Captain Video more and more. We turned off the lights as the last innings of the game droned themselves out on the tube.
Not a minute later, Perry popped up, flicked the light back on and walked over to his suitcase. He pulled out a dog-eared piece of notebook paper.
"My goals," he said in explanation. Then he handed me the paper to read.
At the Indiana Pacers' Walter Mitty Camp, I will average 30 points a game, make 16 assists, six steals and all my three-pointers, and play so well that I will be offered a player contract on the first day of camp. I will Get Paid.
Captain Video didn't Get Paid, he Got Cut, and his size would argue in favor of finishing up his accounting degree. A few other former collegians of note: Chuckie Barnett, a guard from Oklahoma, and Ricky Ross, who had bounced from one college to another—and another, and another—were asked to hit the road, too. Ross was delayed because his sponsor hadn't bought him a round-trip ticket. "What'm I gonna do?" Ross said. "My man only gave me a one-way. I mean, I didn't see me not making it."
We got to keep the standard-issue pair of shoes, socks, practice uniform and jockstrap. It was someone else's job to have our uniforms and ancillary garments washed and waiting two hours before each practice. It's nice having your laundry done for you. It's also nice to have all the Gatorade you can drink, and $25 a day in meal money, and a trainer who looks concerned when you so much as stumble, and someone who calls your room to make sure you know that the van is about to leave for practice. In fact, the atmosphere wasn't unlike that of a nursery. We played, ate and lived with one another, all the while vacillating, childlike, between self-confidence and self-doubt.
Under such circumstances you find out a great deal about the next fellow. Take the second night, when I ate dinner with Andrew Pettis and Jeff Zatkoff, who shared a room down the hall. Until breaking bread with him, I had known Zatkoff only as a wiry 6'10" former juco All-America who lived in suburban Detroit, worked as an engineer at General Dynamics and had complained of being winded during full-court drills. We had barely taken our seats in the restaurant when he pulled out a pack of Winstons. I suddenly understood a little better.
Pettis is a 28-year-old clerk at General Mills in Minneapolis who tabulates cereal coupons that supermarkets send in. He made the biggest mistake of his life at age 15, when he quit the drums to devote more time to his game. He had been playing in a band with his cousin, Morris Day, and another local, a guy named Prince.
After the final workout I staked out the HoJo's lobby, waiting as each camper disembarked from the elevator. Eleven of the 15 survivors were going home. Ike Thornton left for Dayton with his dad; Bill Varner departed, alone, for Pittsburgh. Tracy Ballard, a 7-footer from Mankato State via the bush—i.e., the Australian—league, seemed less disappointed than his agent, Carl Hiteman, who was now facing a five-hour drive back to his home near Akron. A man in a blue T shirt named Ronald O. Akins represented Burden, a guard from St. Louis University, who's not to be confused with Luther (Ticky) Burden, the erstwhile Knick and convicted felon. Burden had played well but not well enough. Akins dispensed business cards reading "R.O.A. DIVERSIFIED. Get on the ROAD to success." This was a dream camp for agents, too.
Each player's ability to accept the Pacers' decision had a lot to do with how adroitly Newell could articulate it.
"But I played tough," Donnell Allen, a 6'8" power forward from UTEP, insisted, upon hearing the bad news.
"You did, Donnell," Newell replied, "but you seem to be a little uncomfortable facing the basket."
"Well, you know, I was at two different colleges and played center at one and power forward at the other
"And you've made great strides facing the basket, putting the ball on the floor."
"And what your game needs is a little more work in that direction."
"Maybe go overseas, get more comfortable facing the basket."
"Come back next year, more comfortable out on the floor."
"That's it," Allen said, nodding now. "Go to Europe. Come back next year."
Nicks and Tony Martin got through, although they didn't survive rookie camp. Bank did; I'll keep you posted.
Even Anderson, who has a reputation for flaunting what in NBA circles is known as a "bad 'tude," was invited back. His rep is not entirely undeserved, as Dwight himself will admit. But Anderson looked to be in great shape. He led the break, made the extra pass, hollered encouragement.
Anderson had put in three seasons in the Continental Basketball Association since leaving Southern Cal sans degree. "CBA's great, man," Dwight told me as we rode the van back from the final workout. "Some great guards there. You gotta come to play every night or you get embarrassed. See what I'm sayin'? [Yes, now I certainly do.] My boy, he won't go to no college. No. I'm sendin' him straight from high school to the CBA. See what I'm sayin'? He don't make the NBA, then he goes to college."
I asked Dwight who this guy Walter Mitty was.
"I don't know, man," he said. "I think he's some long shot who made it one year."
Mom and Dad, I know how much you have invested in putting me through school. But believing that—believing that Walter Mitty was a badass forward with all the moves who came out of nowhere to make the NBA—well, that just may be a notion as full of wisdom as all the book learning in the world.