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answer to the latter question has changed—it is now 7'7" Manute Bol of the Golden State Warriors—but the answer on the outdated card is still Chuck Nevitt.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."