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.