MORAGA — St. Mary's Coach Dave Bollwinkel isn't certain his 7-foot-3, 345-pound center, Brad Millard, is college basketball's biggest player.
"All I know is that there's nobody as big as Brad who is as good," Bollwinkel said.
Take one look at Millard and the "big" is never in doubt. Shake his hand, and he seems to have half of his left over. When he stands next to 7-foot teammate Chris Walls in practice, he makes even Walls look small.
"He was big when he was born--12 pounds 13 ounces," said Millard's mother, Diane. "He just kept growing and was always bigger than other kids his age."
His basketball shoes are size 23 EEEE, prompting Bollwinkel to joke, "When Brad gets a new pair, I take the box home and use it as an extra bedroom."
But being so big can also bring problems. And that doesn't just mean trying to find a comfortable seat on an airplane or bumping into shower heads in hotel bathrooms.
Millard has broken his left foot twice and played only five games the last two seasons.
But if he can overcome those injury problems and have a good senior season, his bankroll might be as huge as he is. Every game he plays without an injury moves him closer to being an NBA first-round draft choice.
Pete Newell, the former coach at California and a guru for basketball big men, nicknamed him "Big Continent" when Millard attended one of Newell's summer camps.
"You're bigger than 'Big Country,' so you have to be a continent," Newell told him, referring to Bryant "Big Country" Reeves, the Vancouver Grizzlies' center.
The next season, as a sophomore in 1997, Millard was selected the most valuable player in the West Coast Conference tournament. He averaged 16.3 points and 8.7 rebounds in the tournament and had a career-high 22 points in the Gaels' championship victory over San Francisco.
In the NCAA tournament, Millard had 16 points, six rebounds, two blocks and two steals against a Wake Forest team led by Tim Duncan, a senior who became the NBA's top draft choice after that season.
After that game, Randy Pfund, the former Laker coach who was scouting for the Miami Heat, walked up to Bollwinkel and said, "You can tell your big man that his life has changed forever."
But it didn't change for the better the next two years.
In warmups before the third game of the 1997-98 season, Millard broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot. He had surgery to put a screw in the bone, and another operation six months later to graft bone from his hip to the fracture.
Then, in practice before the 1998-99 season, Millard broke the navicular bone in the same foot and had to have more surgery. He sat out 2 1/2 months, but came back to play the final regular-season game and two in the WCC tournament.
"The first time it happened, I thought, 'OK, I just have to get on with it,' " Millard said. "But when I was injured again, I started wondering how many times this is going to keep happening to me with my luck. Am I just going to have to forget basketball and get a 9-to-5 job?"
Injuries aren't always simply a case of bad luck when it comes to such big players.
"The bottom line is that when a guy as big as Brad jumps up, he comes down with a lot of pressure on his feet," St. Mary's trainer Chris Jacobson said. "And those muscles are only so strong."
Bollwinkel and Jacobson have been working to reduce the odds of another injury.
"We talk a lot about whether he needs to be in certain drills or not, and we tried to do a lot of his conditioning in the fall on the exercise bike and in the pool," Jacobson said. "It's a lot better for him to be running in the water than on the hard gym floor."
Bollwinkel says Millard does about 60% of what the other players do in practice. But his teammates understand the need for the special treatment, the coach said.
Millard, however, is restless about it. "I'd like to be doing more than I am," he said. "I think Coach is being a little overprotective right now. But I can understand why he's that way after what has happened to me."
The approach seems to be working.
In his first game this season, Millard had 18 points, eight rebounds and nine blocks against Colorado in 28 minutes. Heading into a game Saturday night against UC Irvine in the Bren Center, Millard is averaging 16 points, 9.5 rebounds, 5.0 blocks and 22 minutes per game.
"I was really nervous and a little scared in that first game back," Millard said. "I was really pretty cautious to start off with. I still don't jump into a crowd of people, and I don't go for as many loose balls. I don't think the fear is going to ever totally leave me, but I don't think about it as much now."
Millard said his confidence grows with each game.
"It was difficult sitting out almost two seasons, but the coaching staff and my parents have been very supportive," Millard said.
So has Newell. "He came to my apartment to see me after my first surgery," Millard said. "He stayed for quite a while that day just to talk, and we've developed a friendship. It's nice to feel he's on my side."