Journeys With Gheorghe The tallest player in NBA history teaches me how to be short.

A few weeks ago, I saw Gheorghe Muresan prowling the aisles of the MCI Center. The 7-foot-7 Romanian is a “suite ambassador” for the Washington Wizards—something like an emissary between the world of the tall man and the world of the short man. It’s a busy job. When you were once the tallest player in the NBA, the world of the short man includes every human who isn’t Manute Bol.

Like Muresan, I know what it’s like to look down on people. I was the tallest kid in fifth grade, the tallest kid in 10th grade, and the tallest guy in college without a letter jacket. When people ask me, “Do you play basketball?” what they really mean is, Justify your existence, you gangly bastard. I have nothing to justify. I’m 6-foot-6, and I can’t dunk. I didn’t play on the high-school team. My greatest roundball moment came as a reserve on a JCC intramural squad: I scored at least two points in a key game against Touro Synagogue.

Muresan did play basketball growing up in Triteni, Romania. He actually got pretty good at it, averaging 14.5 points per game as a center for the Washington Bullets in 1996, but recurrent back and knee injuries forced him to leave the NBA four years later. I’m all too familiar with such tall-man ailments. My balky back has sent me to two different physical therapists before the age of 25. The physical similarities don’t end there. Both Muresan and I also have enormous noses and unintelligible voices.

After trying his luck in Hollywood, the My Giant star settled down with his wife and two young sons in a town house in Crofton, Md. The 34-year-old Muresan now runs the Giant Basketball Academy, a hoop school based in Rockville that holds clinics and summer camps for 8- to 14-year-old kids. Mures an also gives personalized private lessons to wannabe ballers for $40 per half-hour.

If anyone can teach me how to play basketball, it’s my Eastern European soul mate. So I call Muresan and ask for an hour-long tutorial. He calls back later in the afternoon to say he’s booked a court for a half-hour—he’s not sure that I’ll be able to run for a full 60 minutes. Now, that’s a coach who knows his player!

I report to the Rockville SportsPlex an hour early to watch Muresan boss around some elementary-school players. Ten or so kids stand under one hoop; a red-haired girl’s official camp T-shirt billows below her knees. As Muresan lopes toward the elementary-schoolers, he keeps getting bigger, bigger, impossibly bigger. On the sidelines, two parents gape at his basketball-swallowing fingers. “It’s a toy—it’s a marble in his hand,” one says.

Muresan bellows encouragement as the kids chase each other around the court: “Shot, shot, shot, shot, shot! Yes!” and “You see that defense? That is good defense right there!” When a 4-foot-tall girl takes her turn, Muresan jumps in front of her. He dribbles with his right hand, the ball cresting a foot above the girl’s head as it yo-yos back into his palm. Then he switches to the left—the killer crossover. The tiny defender gives chase, but it’s too late. Mures,-an rumbles toward the goal, and she’s hidden behind a wall of windmilling limbs.

As the campers file out, Jason Friedman, an 8-year-old from Rockville, gives me his review. “He’s like three times the size of me,” he says. There’s also the language barrier: “His voice sounded Russian or something.”

I take off my sweat shirt, step onto the court, and stretch my atrophied arms. Muresan tosses me a ball and asks me to shoot a couple. I grab it, spin it around in my hands, hold it in front of my face, and push it toward the basket. As soon as the shot caroms off the rim, he grabs my arm and swings it back and forth. This is my “line.” Muresan tells me to hold the ball to the right of my waist, cock it to the right of my right shoulder, and release with my right elbow just above the top of my head.

I shoot again. The ball dies 3 feet left and 3 feet short of the hoop. Muresan says we should try another drill.

The advantage of shooting off the backboard, he says, is that when you miss, the ball usually comes right back to you. I aim for the square in the center of the glass backboard, but my depth perception is a bit off—the ball keeps rattling out or falling off the back side of the rim.

One awkward shot skips wildly onto another court. Muresan lumbers over, leans down to grab it, jumps an inch or two off the ground, and slams the ball through the hoop. A small child runs out of the way.

Muresan alternates between physical education—correcting the wayward course of my bony shoulders via manual intervention—and cheerleading—every time I remember to snap my wrist, I get a “Very well!” His favorite pedagogical technique is the historical re-enactment. I learn the principles of the fadeaway shot by helping act out a mid-’90s game between the Bullets and the Houston Rockets. I play the dual role of Bullets teammates Rex Chapman and Kenny “Sky” Walker. Muresan, who’s playing the part of Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon, gets trapped along the baseline by Rex/Sky/me. He steps back and shoots a high archer that bounces backward off the front of the rim. Muresan tells me, lest I misinterpret the lesson, that “when he shot it, it went in.”

Halfway through my tutorial, I’m shooting no better than fake Hakeem. As my field-goal percentage plummets to somewhere around the low teens, Muresan decides he’s Bobby Knight. “Now, I am going to get tough with you,” he says. He orders me to run from side to side, alternately tossing up bankers and straightaway jumpers until I make five shots. When I forget to backpedal to the three-point line after a made basket, Muresan tells me I have to start over again with zero.

As I lean over to catch my breath, I realize that we’re probably never getting to the part about low-post moves and rebound slam dunks. I wanted a basketball lesson because people have always told me I should be able to play. But Muresan doesn’t expect anything from me; to him, I’m just another little man who has to jump to touch the rim. Muresan scoffs when I tell him that I’m 6-foot-6—“more like 6-foot-4 without shoes,” he says. I came here to get some big-man skills. Instead, I’ve started to shrink.

But having my legs cut out from under me is liberating. When I dribble, I dip into a low crouch—gotta stay low to the ground so the long-armed guys can’t swipe the ball. Muresan helps the diminution process by planting himself 6 inches away from my face. “Imagine you are shooting over the Washington Monument,” he says. It’s not the toughest image to visualize. When I complain I can’t see the rim with his belly button right in front of my face, Muresan gets mystical: “I want you to feel it.” I hold the basketball high atop my head and snap off a ceiling-scraping parabola. It goes in. I’m feeling it.

A few minutes later, Muresan looks at his watch. We’ve been practicing for an hour and ten minutes, 40 minutes longer than my scheduled session. Is there time for a quick game of one-on-one? He agrees to play a game to five.

Muresan misses a couple of long jumpers and can’t move around the court fast enough to chase down the rebounds. I hit two running shots to take a 2-0 lead. Muresan takes the ball at the top of the key, takes a couple of slow dribbles to his left, then stretches his left arm over my head. He dunks the ball in my face. “When I play, I play to win,” he explains.

He’s not really playing to win, though, always settling for outside shots rather than backing me into the paint. (His other strategy: pretending to lose track of the score when I go up by two points.) After another rebound, I drive to the right of the hoop, then avoid the blocked shot by ducking under to the left side of the rim. The reverse layup goes in. 4-1. I take the ball to the 3-point line, dribble around for a bit, then chuck one over the Washington Monument. It goes through.

I’m on the baseline, exhausted, with my hands on my knees. Muresan reaches down and grabs my hand, then pulls me against his chest for a full-body hug. I ask if he thinks I have a chance to take my game to the next level. “In basketball, what I try to tell everybody, you can be 5-foot or 7-foot-7—even you could play in the NBA.”

Even me?

Muresan corrects himself. “Well, not now,” he says.CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Jati Lindsay.

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