Tuesday, May 18, 2010

When Chuck Nevitt won a ring


The last five playoff games for the Lakers have been mini-flashbacks to the 1980s, when LA beat up on the rest of the Western Conference while the Eastern Conference superpowers did battle on the other side. 

Monday night's game also brought back memories of those days because of the score - 128-107. During the Showtime run, the Lakers consistently scored 120 to 130 points while trouncing the likes of Phoenix, Portland and Denver. Magic would get 15 assists, Kareem and Worthy would score 25, Mike McGee would add 10 and it'd be so lopsided that even Chuck Nevitt would make a cameo in the final two minutes, but only after the crowd chanted his name and begged Riley to put him in.

Chuck, the 7-5, 217-pound center who probably didn't deserve a roster spot but was a nice guy. I can't imagine Nevitt being on a roster in today's NBA, which makes it even more remarkable he carved out a 10-year career. Ten years. Career numbers: 251 total points, a 1.6 average. He did pull down 1.5 boards per game, which has to be the worst height-to-rebound ratio in NBA history. His career makes no sense, except it seems obvious a series of teams thought a freakishly tall white guy with nice hair might bring in an extra fan or two.

"Come on, kids, the Lakers are in town. It's Chuck!"

His career is unfathomable. In college, at North Carolina State, Chuck averaged 3 points per game in four years. And that number only reached three because of an offensive explosion in 1982, his senior season, when Nevitt tossed in 5.5 points per game. Otherwise he averaged 1.3 as a freshman, 1.6 as a sophomore and 1.9 as a junior. Perhaps NBA execs saw that improvement and thought he might score 6.7 a game in the pros. He averaged 2.4 rebounds in college. As a 7-5 center. He never started a game in the NBA. He shot 58 percent from the free throw line. He did block .7 shots per game, which is...something. But not quite enough to justify a 10-year NBA career. People talk about someone like Shaq or LeBron winning the genetic lottery. But what about Nevitt? Houston took him in the third round of the 1982 draft. In 1983 they took Ralph Sampson, followed by Hakeem in '84. 

If the Rockets had been around in 1935, there's no way they don't draft Robert Wadlow

By all accounts, Nevitt was a great guy and a better teammate - a chemistry guy, quick with a joke. He recognized his good fortune. Sports Illustrated even wrote a lengthy feature on him in 1989. 

But the story did include this section:
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 Chaney, "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, he's not here to be a mascot."

You now have a better understanding of why Don Chaney had a career coaching mark of 337-494. And actually, the assumption that he can't really play was a true one.

Bethany Lutheran College is in Mankato, Minnesota. They were a big rival of Worthington Community College. Growing up we went to a lot of their basketball games. Bethany always put together outstanding game programs, filled with facts and stats. They also included biographical details on each player. Some of them had lines like, "An explosive scorer with great leaping ability." That was a good player. Or, "A dominant defensive player who grabs every rebound." Another good player. Then you'd get the players at the end of the bench, the guys and gals who filled the seats but not the scorebook. The school struggled to find positives for these players. You could recognize them by lines like, "Always has a positive influence on practices." "A great hustle player. Always on time for the team bus." "Fills out a uniform nicely." "Consistently makes left-handed layups in pregame warmups." It had to have been a bit humiliating for the players. Couldn't they have included their high school exploits?

If Chuck Nevitt had played at Bethany - and he actually probably couldn't have played there - his biographical information would have surely included parts of Chaney's quote.

"Not a mascot."
"Reinforces what we're trying to coach."

Despite all that, Chuck Nevitt is a champion. He has a ring. He took up space on the bench for the 1985 Lakers, who defeated the Celtics in six games. As I said, the Western Conference back then was one dominant team and a bunch of other squads jockeying for the right to get beat in the WCF. Houston, of course, broke through in 1981, taking advantage of Magic's hobbled knee and some dissension, and then the Twin Towers (but not the Triple Towers) of Sampson and Hakeem drilled the Lakers in 1986. And if drugs hadn't ruined Houston's chances in 1987 - and if Roy Tarpley had stayed clean for the Mavs - maybe another team could have consistently challenged the Lakers.

Instead you had seasons like 1985. Check out the Lakers playoff scores:
Phoenix: 142-114
Phoenix: 147-130
Phoenix: 119-103
Portland: 125-101
Portland: 134-118
Portland: 130-126
Portland beats Lakers 115-107
Portland: 139-120
Denver: 139-122
Denver beats Lakers - in LA - 136-114. Strange game.
Denver: 136-118
Denver: 120-116
Denver: 153-109 (!)

It was a similar story in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1987 and 1989. They did go to seven games twice in 1988, as they fought their way to the repeat.

But for most of the decade, the Lakers relaxed through May while waiting to play the Eastern Conference champion in June. While the Lakers feasted on their foes, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee and eventually the Bulls beat each other up. Celtic and 76ers fans complained about this back then, and they had a point. Too bad for them. In 1989, of course, the ease with which the Lakers cruised through the West cost them, as Pat Riley worked them hard after they swept through the first three rounds, leading to Byron Scott and Magic's hamstring injuries. I'm still upset with Riley over that.

The West certainly isn't like that today, no matter how dominant the Lakers have been the last few games. The Oklahoma City team that took the Lakers to six games in the first round is better than many of the teams LA faced in the WCF in the 1980s. There's much more depth, with all eight teams winning 50 games. No, it's not like it was in the '80s. The West was pretty bad. How bad? How lopsided were the games?

Chuck Nevitt averaged 5 minutes of action in the 1985 playoffs and played in seven games.

4 comments:

Dad said...

I thought you were going to say the 3rd tower in Houston was Jim Peterson.

Shawn Fury said...

He was the fourth. And Granville Waiters was the fifth.

Tom said...

Chuck has a NBA and a NCAA ring. He made a living for ten years as a professional athlete. I worked with him for a while and you will never meet a more gracious person regarding their former "glory" days. Not a lot of folks can say those things.

I would rather talk to a person like Chuck about basketball than Michael Jordan any day of the week. At least I know that Chuck doesn't begrudge the conversation.

Anonymous said...

I used to pass Chuck in the 'Free Expression' tunnel at State. One day I reached up to give him a high five and he pulled his hand out of his pocket and reached down to slap my hand.