He is the first player on the basketball court on this Thursday
night at the Sporthal de Slenk in Den Helder, Netherlands.
Nothing is ready yet. A couple of kids are still taping a Nike
logo to the center circle. A couple of sportswriters are
plugging in their computers at the press table. The crowd, small
as it will be, has not arrived for the game between the home
team and the visitors from Pau, France. Only half of the
overhead lights are lit. Gheorghe Muresan pretty much has the
place to himself.
He could be an apparition. He is dribbling a basketball. The
ball hits the floor and returns perhaps five feet to his large
hand. He dribbles again. Thump. The normal dribble by a normal
man might travel three feet and then return somewhere around the
waist. This five-foot dribble is the normal dribble by an
abnormal man. Gheorghe Muresan is seven feet, seven inches tall.
He is a wonder. He is, literally, a giant.
His face seems copied from the illustrations of certain fairy
tales, the features drawn in dark lines and set at sharp angles.
His sneakers are size 19. There is an obvious pituitary
strangeness to him, but at the same time a grand, natural
beauty. His size is overwhelming. Angry, he would be a fearsome
sight, capable of covering great distances with each step,
plowing through chairs and tables to extract vengeance on
whatever person or object had caused him displeasure.
He is clearly not angry. He is tame, tame as could be, a half
smile across his face as he works. Every now and then he takes a
shot at the basket. His moves, for a man of this size, are
amazingly fluid. Hook shot, swish. Turnaround jump shot, swish.
He dribbles, he moves, he shoots.
One shot misses, and he closes to the basket for the rebound. He
grabs the ball with two hands, bends softly at the waist,
extends to his fullest height, arms high, ball in his hands at
the top, and he jumps no more than three inches off the floor.
He dunks. The supports to the backboard seem to explode.
Bolts and washers and nuts fly through the air, landing with
assorted pings and pongs. It is a rain of metal parts. Muresan
looks at the scene in embarrassment. What has he done now? The
entire basket support structure still shakes, but the backboard
somehow stays in place. A janitor appears in a hurry to assess
the damage. Muresan bends to talk to him. The janitor is small,
"Excusez-moi," Muresan says politely, directly into the
janitor's ear, in the half-light of this obscure gym.
The home team is in trouble. The visitors from Pau have brought
back the big man, the biggest big man in all of basketball.
"We kept his special big bed for him for two years," says Garard
Bouscarel, director of communications for Elan Baarnais, the
team from the towns of Pau and Orthez, located in the foothills
of the Pyrenees. "It was in storage. We were praying, perhaps,
hoping. We thought he would be back sometime."
"This is not a story about athletics, about sport," says Pierre
Seillant, president of the team. "This is a love story."
For one month, in a time of need, an adopted, oversized son has
returned. Since he left in the summer of 1993, facing serious
surgery and an uncertain future as a what-the-heck second-round
draft choice of the Washington Bullets, Muresan has traveled a
remarkable course. The surgery, to remove most of a benign tumor
on his pituitary gland, was mostly a success, and medication and
radiation keep under control the small piece of the tumor that
could not be touched. The basketball has been an even greater
success. From a rookie season during which he was paid a
nonguaranteed NBA minimum salary of $150,000 and was viewed as a
backup center at best, he is now heading into the second year of
a four-year, $5.4 million contract with guarantees, and could be
the Bullets' starter this season, stuffed between forwards Chris
Webber and Juwan Howard. In little more than two years-three,
actually, including the year he spent in Pau-he has grown in
ways that even a giant could not imagine.
"It has been a metamorphosis," Pau coach Michel Gomez says. "All
these dollars, dollars, dollars. If you could have seen him, the
first time he came here...."
"Have you seen him driving the gold Mercedes we have loaned
him?" Seillant asks. "He could not even drive when he came here
the first time. The clothes? Have you seen all the clothes? When
he came here, I think he had one pair of athletic shoes...."
The shy misfit who first came from Romania in the summer of
1992, nicknamed Ghita (pronounced GEET-za, for "little
Gheorghe," in his native language), a refugee from communism
blinking at the opulence and bright lights of the Western world,
now is a 24-year-old married man, owner of a house in the
Washington suburbs, with a Great Dane named Lucky in the living
room and a Chevy Blazer in the garage. The unconditioned
athletic neophyte with a wide potbelly who couldn't do one
push-up--not one--now has lost 30 pounds and works out two and
three times per day and has played head-to-head against
Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon. The owner of one pair of
shoes now wears the longest, baggiest hip-hop jeans available,
with matching denim jackets and different shoes for every
"I remember walking with him down a street in Stockholm," says
his European-based agent, Kenny Grant of ProServ. "This was at
the beginning. He had nothing. Absolutely nothing. We were
passing all these fancy shops, and I asked him what he would
want if he could have anything in the world. He replied, right
away, 'Gloves.' I had never thought about that. Gloves? Of
course. His hands were freezing. We went to a number of stores,
and finally we found some of those gloves.... Do you know those
gloves that go over another pair of gloves? He was just able to
get the largest pair of those on his hands, like O.J. in the
courtroom. They really didn't fit, but he was the happiest man
in the world. He had gloves."
"The first time he came here, psychologically he was just a kid,
a child," Gomez says. "Physically, he did not accept his size.
The first thing I did--before any basketball--I taught him how to
walk. He walked like an old man, all hunched over. I taught him
to stand straight, to be proud of his height. First, he had to
walk before he could run."
The timing was perfect to bring Muresan back for this moment.
The NBA lockout shut down summer leagues and off-season
conditioning programs in the U.S. The big man, still learning
his craft, needed a place to work out and to play against good
competition. The old friends from Pau needed some immediate
help, faced as they were with a one-month playoff format to
qualify for the European Cup.
"I said, 'Let me make some calls,'" Seillant says. "It was all
surprisingly easy. We have always loved him. He has loved us. It
has never been about just basketball with Ghita."
The big man walks where he learned to walk, drives where he
learned to drive, has money where he had no money. He is being
paid $100,000, plus the use of an apartment and a car, for a
month's work. It is not an unpleasant experience.
"I had three accidents when I was here, learning to drive," he
says. "The first, the car was finished. The second, the car was
in the garage, but not finished. The third, not so bad. Did not
even have to go to the garage." He laughs.
He speaks in basic, serviceable English. He has had an
English-speaking interpreter for two years with the Bullets, but
will travel this season on his own.
His descriptions of his youth are sad, but Muresan doesn't sound
sad when relating them. Is emotion one of the last components to
be added to fluency? Perhaps so. He grew up in the small town of
Tritenii, not too far from the university city of Cluj in
Transylvania. The jackbooted dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaus√ºescu
was in control. Poverty and secrecy were normal.
"There was no chaud...," he says. "No heat," he says, correcting
himself. "There was no hot water. No electricity. Everyone was
given half a bread a day to live. A kilogram of meat a week.
There were vegetables in the summer, but not the winter. Never
bananas. Never oranges. Fish? On Friday."
He lived with his parents and his three brothers and two
sisters. His father, Ispas, worked in a factory that
manufactured electrical wire. Everyone else in the family is
under 6 feet. Ghita, the youngest, was different from the
beginning. He says he really started to grow when he was six,
and by age 10 he was taller than everyone else in his family.
His clothes always were short. Shoes were hard, if not
impossible, to find. By the time he was 14, he was 6'9".
"I never play basketball until I am 14 years old," he says. "I
never know about basketball. My mother took me to Cluj to see
the dentist. He was the dentist for the national basketball
team. He looked at me and asked how tall I was. Then he asked
how old I was. He did not believe I was 14. He called the coach
of the basketball team, and they asked me to stay in Cluj and
play basketball. I stayed that night. I never went home."
He remembers, early, seeing a film of an NBA All-Star Game.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a big game. He remembers thinking that
he should have a hook shot like Jabbar's. He worked on that for
two years, then started to add a jump shot to his repertoire. In
1991, with the Communists out of business, Muresan was ready to
meet the world. He was 20 years old and as tall as he is now. He
played in the Junior World Championships in Edmonton.
"He was the leading rebounder in the tournament, the
second-leading scorer," says Grant, who attended the games. "No
one could stop him at that level. A lot of American colleges
became very interested, but Gheorghe wanted to make some money.
How could you blame him?"
Pau became the place where Muresan was introduced to good food.
Pau became the place where he was introduced to physical
conditioning. Pau became the place where he could breathe freely
for the first time, expand his arms and ambitions to the
fullest, and live. The town is a European basketball hotbed with
a modern 8,500-seat arena. This became the laboratory. Muresan
became the experiment.
"I did things with him that I never did with anyone else," Gomez
says. "I worked with him on the trampoline. Can you imagine
that? The trampoline almost went down to the floor when he
bounced. I worked with him on doing tumbling moves. I wanted him
to have control of his body. We never set up any offense where
he just stood still, which would have been the easiest thing to
do. I wanted him to move. He was very, very slow."
The year went past in a hurry, and as he progressed, Muresan
heard the call of the NBA. "When I am 14, I like to learn
basketball," he explains. "I do that. When I am 16, I like to
play for the national team. I do that. When I am 19, I like to
play in Europe. I do that when I am 20. I come here and I say
that I can't play in NBA, it is too strong, but after a while I
think I can play. I like to play in NBA."
The Portland Trail Blazers seemed more interested than any other
team. A day before the draft they flew Muresan to the U.S. from
Bucharest in owner Paul Allen's private jet, primarily for the
purpose of giving him a full physical with an all-important MRI
test. When he arrived, they discovered that the MRI machine at
the hospital had a weight limit of 300 pounds. Muresan weighed
330. The test could not be performed.
On draft day he gathered with many of the other hopefuls at The
Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich. He was accompanied by Bill Sweek,
another agent from ProServ. Sweek was excited, thinking some
team was going to make a bold first-round pick of this curious
big man. As the draft progressed, however, one name after
another was called until Sweek and Muresan were sitting by
themselves. Sweek was furious. He wanted to have Muresan
challenge Utah Jazz first-round pick Luther Wright to a
one-on-one game, right there, just to prove a point. The Bullets
hadn't been particularly interested in Muresan until the Chicago
Bulls tried to acquire Washington's second-round pick, 30th in
the draft, to pick him. They decided to pick Muresan themselves.
What the heck.
"I do not know any English," Muresan says. "Bill Sweek tells me
what to say. I memorize it."
He put a Bullet hat on his
head. He stood with NBA commissioner David Stern. He stared into
the television camera with a loopy smile.
"I love this game," the big man said.
The idea that Muresan might be better than predicted came almost
immediately. The day after the Bullets held a press reception
with a 7'7" submarine sandwich laid out in his honor, he went to
McKeldin Gym at Bowie State College in Bowie, Md. Manute Bol, a
shade under 7'7" and until then the tallest man to play in the
NBA, was there for a workout.
"You should have seen Manute," Bullet general manager John Nash
says. "He looked startled. I'll bet he had never seen someone
taller than him. They played one-on-one, and right away you
could see that Gheorghe could play. He threw a couple of jump
hooks over Manute, hit a couple of jumpers. You had to say to
yourself, If Manute isn't going to block him, then no one is
going to block him."
Not that there weren't problems. Before Muresan ever played an
NBA game, the operation on his pituitary gland was performed in
Bordeaux, France. It was delicate business, relieving a problem
that could have left him blind. The medication he had to take in
the weeks and months after the operation made him tire easily.
(He still must take medication, injecting himself twice daily.
Though not afflicted with Marfan's syndrome, a potentially fatal
disease affecting some tall people, he does have the same
thyroid condition that led to the death at age 46 of 7'4"
wrestler Andra "the Giant" Roussimoff.)
His earliest gains were mostly social. He learned the words to
buy pizza. He crammed for his driving test. He married his
Romanian girlfriend, 6'1" Liliana Lazar, three months into the
season. He found clothes, clothes and more clothes. He found
shoes at last.
"We went, in Atlanta, to Freedman Shoes," interpreter Greg Ghyka
says. "It's a place where all the players in the NBA go for
large-sized shoes. Gheorghe just became very quiet. You could
see he never had seen anything like this. He must have had 15
boxes of shoes spread out around him before he was finished. I
think he bought seven pairs."
"Freedman Shoes, Rochester Big and Tall Shops," Muresan says. "I
bought a purple suit and purple shoes. I wore them to the game.
Wes Unseld [then the Bullet coach] looked at me and said, 'Here
His basketball in his first year was played in a reserve role.
He lost those 30 pounds. He gained strength through
weightlifting. On the court he never really looked out of place.
He could shoot. He could pass. He could play. After his rookie
season the Bullets sent him to Pete Newell's Big Man Camp and to
conditioning coach Dennis Householder. The first season was
enough to convince the team to sign him to the large contract.
The second season was when the contract began to look like a
"I'd said on draft day that we hoped that eventually Gheorghe
could be a factor in this league," Nash says. "I was misquoted
in the paper the next day. The quote said I thought he'd be a
'force' in this league. Well, looking at it now, I don't mind
the misquote. I think he can be a force."
At the start of last season, opposing teams reacted to his
appearance in the game by sending in smaller, quicker players
against him rather than their usual centers. Jim Lynam, who had
succeeded Unseld as coach, reacted by taking Muresan out of the
game, thinking the situation was bad for the big man. Eventually
Lynam realized that it was good for him. He stayed in the game.
He began to destroy the shorter, quicker men on offense. By the
end of December he was starting. A Big Gheorghe Fan Club had
been formed. A life-sized poster had been printed. On a 21-61
Bullet team, he averaged 10 points per game, 6.7 rebounds and
1.74 blocked shots. Better than that, he was still improving at
"I saw definite improvement this year," Utah Jazz forward Karl
Malone says, speaking for opposing big men. "He's showed he can
score on anybody. There are a lot of people who don't take him
seriously, but I think he's a hell of a player already."
"He had a lot of bonuses in his contract," Sweek says.
"Reachable bonuses. Well, he reached them all. Minutes,
rebounding, field goal percentage, blocked shots. The final one
was free throw percentage. I think he needed something like 13
for 16 at the end to make it. We talked about that during the
last week of the season. That night he went out, he made nine
out of 10 [and ended up shooting 71%]. He finished making every
bonus, something like $600,000 extra. That was the kind of year
The question now is how good he can be. Can he be an
every-night, 40-minute center? Can he work consistently against
the other behemoths of the game? Can he be a big part--in more
than size--on a winning NBA team? Lynam, the coach, says he
thinks Muresan has a chance to be "something special."
"I was one of the doubters at the beginning at the draft," Lynam
says. "I thought he had too many problems, with language and
conditioning and foot speed, to overcome. What I didn't know,
and I don't think anybody knew, was how hard he would work. He
works as hard as anyone I've ever seen."
"I like play basketball," the biggest big man says as he drives
the gold Mercedes through the medieval maze of Pau. "I like play
basketball a lot. I like play 26 more years, 28 more years, then
retire. Hah! I play until I can't play. When I am fatigue, I
His knees are high on either side of the steering wheel. He
looks as if he were driving a bumper car at a state fair. Other
drivers stare as he passes because his seat is pushed so far
back that his large head is obscured by the center post. The
car, from the outside, appears at first as if it were driving
His enthusiasm is as big as his body. While the rest of the NBA
players are coming out of the hibernation forced by the lockout,
stretching and yawning, he is hard at work. Den Helder, the
Dutch team, has been dispatched. Ljubljana, the Slovenians, are
next. He will be back in Washington on Oct. 6 for the start of
training camp. He will be ready to go.
"I go back to Cluj, to Romania, for a month this summer," he
says. "It is beautiful, Romania. The montagnes. The mer. I buy a
house in Cluj. I buy another house for my father. I buy a bakery
for my brothers. There are still many problems in Romania. But
it is getting better. Every day is better."
The imagination can picture his return. He is wearing the jeans
outfit or maybe the purple suit or a red leather Washington
Redskin jacket. His shoulders are back. His walk is proud. The
lessons of travel and success are obvious. No matter where he
is, he now knows he fits.
"I play basketball in Cluj with my old friends and teammates,"
he says. "They still play every Tuesday night in the same gym."
The imagination fills in the blanks. He misses a shot. He grabs
the rebound. He rises again, tall as can be, jumps the three
inches and dunks. The basket shakes. The old gym shakes.
Everyone stands in wonder at the giant's return.
"Oh, no," he says. "These are my friends. I would not dunk. This
is for fun. Against them, I take the three-pointer."
"then no one is."
he was '9".