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A Real Bear of a Romanian : Nobody's Laughing at Bullets' 7-Foot-7 Gheorghe Muresan, Probably Most Improved Player in the NBA This Season

April 11, 1995|CHRIS BAKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gheorghe Muresan began exploring Washington almost as soon as he arrived from Romania and signed with the Washington Bullets in 1993.

Fascinated by the nation's capital, Muresan visited the White House, the Capitol and the national zoo, where a strange thing happened.

A huge grizzly bear took one look at the 7-foot-7, 330-pound Muresan and scrambled into its cave.

Thinking it a coincidence, Muresan returned later, but again the bear ran back into its den.

"Every time he saw me, he would go back into his den," Muresan said through an interpreter.

Fans have similar reactions.

"Look at No. 77," a teen-ager said to his companion as they gawked at Muresan before a recent game against the Lakers at the Forum. "He must be 8 feet tall."

Muresan, the tallest player in NBA history, doesn't like being viewed as a freak.

"People always comment," he said. "I'm used to it. You're used to doing your job every day, I'm used to being this tall."

Nicknamed Ghita (GEET-za), which translates to tiny , by his teammates in the French league when he was playing there, Muresan is anything but.

Like the late wrestler, Andre the Giant, Muresan's size is the result of a pituitary gland disorder. Although Muresan was nearly 7 feet when he was 14, his father is only 5-9 and his mother, who died of cancer in 1993, was 5-7.

Doctors removed a benign tumor from his pituitary in the summer of 1993. If Muresan hadn't had the operation, he would have had a life expectancy of 45 and might have gone blind.

The Bullets, who selected Muresan as a project in the second round of the '93 draft, have spent more than $1 million on his medical care.

Awkward and clumsy, Muresan struggled last season, averaging 5.6 points and 3.6 rebounds. But he has steadily improved.

Muresan played at 330 pounds last season but lost 30 pounds last summer while working with Dennis Household, Bullet conditioning coach.

"I always lived with this idea in my head that other people thought I was playing basketball just because of my height," Muresan said. "I wanted to prove that I wasn't playing basketball just because of my height, but that I was good at it. I was always obsessed with that idea."

Perhaps the only NBA player who has a personal running coach, Muresan also improved his footwork and conditioning. He still drags his legs when he runs, but his coordination has improved.

Even so, his vertical leap is measured in inches, not feet.

Bullet General Manager John Nash said, however, that he wouldn't trade Muresan for 7-6 center Shawn Bradley of the Philadelphia 76ers, the second pick in the 1993 NBA draft.

"I took a lot of guff when I said that . . . but that's the way I feel," said Nash, who was general manager of the 76ers before joining the Bullets.

"No pun intended, but Gheorghe has become a huge factor for us."

Jim Lynam, who drafted Bradley as the 76ers' general manager before becoming Bullet coach this season, had been skeptical about Muresan.

"I thought his inability to get up and down the court and his lack of lateral movement would be a huge problem that he couldn't overcome, but I couldn't have been more wrong," Lynam said.

"To be honest, I didn't know the fellow. He's a hard-working guy. I guess he went home for six weeks to Romania last summer, but when he came back, he put in three no-nonsense months, working six days a week with our conditioning coach. It's not a coincidence that he's improved the way he has."

Muresan has made a dramatic transformation this season. Signed to a $5.2-million, four-year contract last summer, he replaced Kevin Duckworth at center after Duckworth ate himself out of a job.

Muresan, with a feather-like shooting touch, has led the Bullets in field goal percentage for two seasons. This season, he has averaged 9.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks and shot 57.3%. After averaging 12 minutes a game last season, he has averaged 22.7 this season.

"He dang sure is a candidate for most improved player," Lynam said after Muresan scored a career-high 30 points in 38 minutes during a 110-98 loss to the Boston Celtics on Sunday. "The biggest and most obvious difference is that he's able to stay in the game. He's playing (more) minutes."

Celtic Coach Chris Ford, who rushed over to shake hands with Muresan after the game, agreed.

"Gheorghe is probably the most improved player in the league this year," Ford said. "(Sunday) was no fluke. He deserves a lot of praise. He's a big force."

Celtic guard Dee Brown thinks Muresan has proved he belongs in the NBA.

"Nobody's laughing at him now," Brown said after Muresan made his first seven shots en route to sinking 13 of 15. "He's nothing fancy, but he's got some skill. He can shoot from the low post. He's not in there just because he's big."

But Muresan thinks he can improve.

"Maybe I played a little more relaxed," he said after his best NBA game. "Maybe I judge myself harder than other people. But I know I can play better."

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