By Tim Casey
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In a hallway near the Washington Wizards locker room before a recent game, Gheorghe Muresan ran into team owner Ted Leonsis. The two shook hands. Muresan, always affable, complimented Leonsis on his trim physique, and asked how Leonsis lost so much weight. Exercise and a good diet, Leonsis replied.
To Muresan, the schmoozing came naturally. Muresan, the tallest player in NBA history, is comfortable in his 7-foot-7 frame and cherishes the interactions he has with everyone, from average fans to the most powerful men and women in sports.
For the past few years, Muresan has served as an "ambassador" for the Wizards, the organization that drafted him in 1993 when the Romania native didn't even speak English and didn't think he would ever play in the NBA. He attends all of the Wizards' home games , where he greets fans and corporate sponsors who remember him as one of the league's better centers before injuries derailed his career and forced him to retire in 2000 at age 29. He also does some community service for the team.
"I have the best job in the world," Muresan said. "I love it. I don't like to be [by] myself."
When he's not working for the Wizards, Muresan runs the "Giant Basketball Academy," a company he started several years ago that organizes camps, leagues and clinics for kids in the Washington, D.C. area. He coaches his son's 7th grade AAU team in Maryland, too, teaching the players the lessons he learned in the 1990s competing against likely Hall of Famers Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning.
Muresan was never in their class, but he led the league in field goal percentage twice, won the NBA's most improved player award in 1996 and became an attraction on and off the court because of his size and personality. He appeared in hilarious commercials for Snickers where he pretended to sell cologne and for ESPN where he danced alongside SportsCenter anchors Karl Ravech and Kenny Mayne.
He was even a movie star. OK, "star" may be too strong, but he was one of the leading characters in "My Giant," a 1998 comedy/drama featuring Billy Crystal as a movie agent who travels to Romania and recruits Muresan as an actor. It was a welcome respite for Muresan.
"Before I do My Giant, everything that I do in my life was just basketball, basketball and basketball," Muresan said. "Every second I had in my head was basketball. I wake up to go to the practice. I go to the bed with my thoughts about basketball -- what is next, what do I need to work on, what is the next game I'm going to have to do, what did I do last game? Everything in my mind, every second, was basketball. And my wife."
Muresan paused and laughed.
"When I do the movie, I have something else to think about, too," he said.
Crystal, a longtime Clippers fan, first contacted Muresan in 1994 when the Bullets were scheduled for a trip to Los Angeles. They met for lunch and discussed the script that later became "My Giant." Most of the filming occurred during the summer of 1997, so it didn't conflict with Muresan's NBA season. He worked on the movie for 10 hours a day and played basketball when he had time. Crystal was even more committed, spending up to 17 hours per day on the set.
"I don't know how he do it, man," Muresan said. "I cannot believe this guy was in great shape -- very good shape. But, man, I never seen somebody work so hard. He's somebody. I was very impressed."
Muresan's acting career didn't last long. "My Giant" didn't do well in the box office, and he hasn't appeared in a mainstream movie since. He's open to more Hollywood roles, though.
"If I had other opportunities, I would go," Muresan said. "If not, my life is beautiful. Life doesn't give you a lot of opportunities so you have to take it, right?"
Muresan did just that 20 years ago when the Bullets selected him in the second round (30th overall) of the draft. That February, Washington general manager John Nash read a European basketball magazine and noticed a photo of Muresan standing next to a life-size cutout of Michael Jordan. Nash had never heard of Muresan, but the team's head scout had seen the Romanian play in a tournament in Toronto when he was 18. The scout wasn't impressed with Muresan, who had only started playing basketball as a 6-foot-8, uncoordinated 15-year-old. Nash then made more phone calls, including to Bill Sweek and Kenny Grant, Muresan's agents. Everyone told Nash that Muresan had improved.
Although the Bullets never worked out Muresan, Nash watched film of him and decided choosing him was a low-risk proposition. He thought Muresan would remain with his professional team in France for a few years and then come to the United States. Instead, Muresan signed with the Bullets in August 1993. When he arrived, Muresan worked out at Bowie State University with coach Wes Unseld, a Hall of Fame center. Nash remembers Muresan playing one-on-one against Manute Bol, the only other 7-foot-7 player in NBA history. Muresan had no problem scoring, but he had trouble moving laterally and getting up and down the floor.
After the Bullets drafted Muresan, he underwent surgery to remove a tumor on his pituitary gland and slow his growth, which was caused by acromegaly, a hormonal disorder. During training camp, Muresan gave himself injections to control the gland, leading to nausea.
"He never complained," Nash said. "He never asked out of any kind of drill. He did everything humanly possible. He maximized every bit of his ability."
To help Muresan learn English, the Wizards hired an interpreter, who attended every practice and game. Muresan also made sure to listen to the radio, watch the news every night and interact with teammates. By his second season, Muresan could speak the language and began showing his outgoing, good-natured side.
"I was in the locker room one day," Nash said. "Juwan Howard said to him, 'Gheorghe, what are you doing for Halloween? I need a monster to go trick or treating with.' Gheorghe turned to Juwan and said, 'Hey, Juwan. I need some satellite dishes for my house. Can you lend me your ears?'"
Muresan didn't play much as a rookie. In his second season, when Jim Lynam replaced Unseld as coach, he averaged 10.0 points and 6.7 rebounds, made 58 starts and combined with Howard and Chris Webber in a talented young frontcourt. The next two seasons, Muresan shot an NBA-best 58.4% and 60.4% from the floor, won the league's most improved player in 1996 and started nearly every game.
"He was a very underrated player," Lynam said. "Were it not for his physical issues, he would have been much more prominent in terms of his NBA career. He was a very, very skilled guy for his size."
Said Howard: "If he would have been able to stay healthy, despite the injuries that he encountered, I think he would have had a great future in the NBA. He was starting to be mentioned among the league and also among the fans as one of the better, top centers in the NBA."
In 1997, the Bullets made the playoffs for the first time in nine years but were swept in three games by the Chicago Bulls, the eventual champion. That summer, while Muresan filmed "My Giant," he didn't wear his arch supports, which some teammates complained led to Muresan injuring his right ankle and sitting out the 1997-98 season. Muresan disputes such criticism.
"Either you want to be a movie star, or you want to be a basketball player," forward Harvey Grant told the Associated Press in March 1998. "You've got to realize which one really pays the bills."
Muresan underwent back surgery in June 1998. Nash, the New Jersey Nets general manager at the time, signed Muresan late in the 1998-99 season, but he only appeared in one game. The next season, Muresan had surgery on his left knee, missed nearly two months and averaged 3.5 points and 2.3 rebounds in 30 games. He never played in the NBA again.
"I was trying to catch lightning in a bottle for a second time," Nash said. "He just wasn't capable of doing the same things that he had done previously after the injury."
Still, Nash doesn't regret giving Muresan another chance.
"Trust me when I tell you -- of all the players who ever played for me, he was my favorite," Nash said. "I had great players. I had players with a lot of ability that worked hard, but no one worked harder than Gheorghe or did more with his ability than Gheorghe did."
No matter how much effort Muresan put into his rehabilitation, he knew he wouldn't have a long career. When he underwent back surgery, the doctor told him he would likely only play one more season before having another procedure. The reality of retiring at age 29 wasn't easy, though.
"You know what?" Muresan said. "If I would be right now injured, I would say, 'This is part of the life.' At that time, I was frustrated. It was very hard when you are young. You want to play when you're injured. That is the hardest thing. I work like crazy. One day I feel my work don't give me anything. When you work, you work and you still in the same position, that kind of drives me crazy the most."
After retiring, Muresan lived in New Jersey for a few years before settling in Maryland. He is popular in the region thanks to his "Giant Basketball Academy" and his time playing and working for the Wizards. Before a recent game, several people stopped by to say hello to Muresan, including an old friend.
"Hey Kenny," Muresan said. "Good to see you."
"These are my seats over there," Kenny said. "I've got the third row behind the bench."
"Nice seats," Muresan said.
"I've got season tickets," Kenny said.
"Good work," Muresan said.
"You doing OK?" Kenny asked.
"Very well, thank you," Muresan said. "Good to see you, Kenny."
During games, Muresan doesn't typically sit in an assigned seat. He'll stop by the luxury boxes to speak with the corporate types and also mingle with other fans throughout the Verizon Center. If games are close, he prefers standing by himself in a hallway away from the action. He gets nervous and occasionally loses his cool.
"Sometimes I get crazy," Muresan said, laughing. "You don't want to be close by me."
Muresan isn't afraid to display his humor in any conversation. He was asked if he had any personal or career goals.
"What do I really want to do?" Muresan said. "I want to go fishing in Alaska."
He then turned serious.
"I really want to see my kids grow up and be somebody one day," he said. "I want to spend as much time as possible with them."
Muresan coaches his youngest son, Victor, on the Potomac Valley Classics AAU's 7th grade team. He also watches his oldest son, George, compete for the 10th grade squad. Both boys are normal size and play forward. Muresan has been involved with the program for five years and has left a positive impression for his on-court teaching and mature demeanor when it comes to running the team. He underwent another back surgery in 2002, yet he remains healthy, is in good shape and is able to work with the kids. More important to the program's management, he doesn't have a big ego or only concentrate on Victor's development.
"He's not your typical parent-coach that may play their kid the whole time," Potomac Valley president Andy Stadnik said. "Sometimes his son's not having a good day, so he doesn't get as much playing time as the other players do. Sometimes when you have a parent-coach in a youth sports organization, they sometimes tend to play their kid the most, but not in Gheorghe's case."
Coaching keeps Muresan busy, as does running clinics and camps and helping the Wizards. Twenty years since leaving Europe, he has found a home in the United States. He has assimilated without many problems. After recently talking with a reporter he had never met in person, he turned on the charm like a natural salesman.
"Thank you very much," he said. "I hope you enjoy the game. Have a good time. Cheer for both teams."
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Tim Casey is a freelance sports writer and a former Sacramento Bee sports reporter. He works for HMP Communications, a health care/medical media company.