SI Vault
Alexander Wolff
October 28, 1985
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.
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October 28, 1985

Want To Play Pro Basketball? The Pacers Give Small Hope To The Tall

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"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.

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