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The Tall Tales of Six Men Too Big for Basketball

Is it possible to be too tall in a sport that’s designed for tall people? Just take the experiences of Sun Mingming, Neil Fingleton, Paul Sturgess, and more.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

For a 6-foot-1 person like me, it’s both rare and flattering when a stranger asks whether I play basketball. For my friends who are 6-foot-5, this question is expected. People taller than that likely get this enough to prompt eye rolls, and those who are 6-foot-10 or taller might as well print out business cards with their basketball-playing status. That’s what this guy did.

And for the tallest people on the planet, society all but demands they play basketball, even if they don’t like the sport or aren’t particularly good at it. These people might be able to dunk without jumping, but they’re often incapable of competing at the highest level. They generally aren’t fast enough, strong enough, or coordinated enough. In many cases, they struggle with injuries that keep them off the court and with medical conditions that threaten their lives. The blessing they have been given—towering over everyone else—is sometimes more of a curse.

Gheorghe Muresan and Manute Bol were both 7-foot-7, the tallest players in NBA history. We take for granted that they made the NBA, considering their remarkable height. But there have been men as tall or taller than Muresan and Bol who failed to succeed at the sport seemingly designed for them. Here are the stories of six extremely tall men since 2000 who couldn’t make the NBA, or are struggling in their attempt to do so.

Sun Mingming

Sun might not have made the NBA, but he accomplished something far more impressive: In Rush Hour 3, he became the first person ever to win a movie fight against Jackie Chan.

Normally, Chan defeats his on-screen opponents by picking up whatever object happens to be nearby, knocking one person out with it, and then diverting two more assailants into each other before spinning around to catch a knife thrown at, say, Owen Wilson. But not against Sun. It was simply unbelievable to imagine that even Chan could win a fight versus somebody so large.

Unfortunately, in real life, Sun lacks the strength, speed, and stamina shown when he blocks Chan and Chris Tucker’s attacks before lifting both men off the ground simultaneously. Running is hard for him—as a child, he wore shoes too small for his enormous feet, seriously disfiguring his toe bones—and the acromegaly caused by a tumor on his pituitary gland prevented him from manufacturing the proper amount of testosterone, leaving him weak and unable to exert himself for significant periods of time. Before having brain surgery in 2005, his energy level was described by a financial supporter as “like a 60-year-old man.”

Brain surgery is extremely expensive, so despite Sun’s limitations, he played in virtually every independent minor basketball league he could to make money. He played for the Maryland Nighthawks of the American Basketball Association (no affiliation with the ABA of the 1970s) and the Premier Basketball League, which made him part of the tallest basketball lineup in history as a gimmick for ticket sales that were reportedly used to pay Sun’s medical bills. He played for the Grand Rapids Flight of the International Basketball League and the Dodge City Legend of the United States Basketball League, where he scored just 28 points in 23 games.

Performance aside, Sun proved a huge draw for the perennially ignored minor league hoops circuit. All of these teams were doomed and folded within a few years of Sun’s presence on their roster—the IBL and USBL folded entirely. But when Sun played, they attracted huge crowds. Every YouTube video of Sun shows a packed house. People wanted to see the man who made basketballs look like tennis balls. That includes Jimmy Kimmel, whom Sun dunked on.

On the court, Sun had a surprisingly nice shooting touch. Just look at this fadeaway! In the below clip from Sun’s time with the Flight, he drills an 18-footer, dunks without jumping, and calmly absorbs an opposing layup with his hand.

But Sun’s lack of athleticism and mobility made him virtually unplayable at any serious level. A Jazz scout told The New York Times in 2007 that Sun had “a little bit of skill,” but “can’t get up and down the floor.” When NBATV interviewed Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson about Sun before the 2005 NBA draft, Nelson said the giant had “a lot of work to do” and implied that Sun couldn’t even play for a major college program.

Sun played in Mexico and Japan, eventually returning to his homeland for a stint with the Beijing Ducks of the Chinese Basketball Association in 2009. Behind Stephon Marbury, the Ducks won a CBA title while Sun was on the roster in 2012, although Sun failed to hit a field goal during the team’s championship season.

Neil Fingleton

Here at The Ringer, we have two main beats: Holy Cross athletics and Game of Thrones. The intersection of that coverage Venn diagram comes down to a single person: Fingleton, a 7-foot-7 Brit who turned from basketball to acting.

Fingleton moved from his hometown of Durham, England, to Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1997 to pursue his apparent basketball potential. He led Holy Name High School—oddly, coached by future Toronto Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi—to a divisional championship, earning state player of the year honors and an invite to the 2000 McDonald’s All American Game. Facing the best players in the nation, he blocked three shots in 10 minutes.

There was a legit recruiting battle for Fingleton’s services, and he picked North Carolina in 2000. But he was forced to miss his freshman season after undergoing back surgery and wound up playing only one career game for the Tar Heels, missing two shots against Davidson.

Fingleton decided to transfer back to his adopted hometown of Worcester in 2002, but wasn’t much of a factor at Holy Cross. In 2004, he averaged 2.3 points and 1.8 rebounds for a team that went .500 in the Patriot League. The conference’s leading rebounder was 6-foot-5.

He would find more success in acting. Fingleton’s first role was as a suddenly beer-thirsty version of “The Thinker” in a Miller Lite ad. He was cast as the giant in Jack in the Beanstalk. Fingleton soon moved onto more notable roles, battling Keanu Reeves in 47 Ronin and playing the mythically gigantic Fisher King in an episode of Doctor Who.

In Game of Thrones, Fingleton played a giant named Mag the Mighty in Season 4, Episode 9; here he is destroying a bunch of Night’s Watchmen unfortunate enough to have been assigned defend-a-gate-from-a-giant duty. Fingleton also did motion-capture work for Ultron in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Just as Fingleton’s film career was starting to take off, the body that made him a top hoops prospect and standout sci-fi stand-in let him down. He died of heart failure last year at age 36. Heart failure is tragically common among the extremely tall. As an Indiana University professor told Gizmodo after Fingleton’s death, it’s difficult for a heart to pump blood throughout such a large body.

Paul Sturgess

While Sun was an attraction for independent minor leagues looking to boost ticket sales, Sturgess was a flop in the NBA G League, an organization in which player development is more highly valued than gate revenue. But luckily, Sturgess found a place where his potential as an attraction would pay off: From 2011 to 2013, he toured with the Harlem Globetrotters. Billed as “Tiny,” his signature move was the no-jump dunk.

Originally from England, Sturgess sprouted from 6-foot-2 to 7-foot-2 during a growth spurt when he was 16 and 17, ultimately topping out at 7-foot-8. He took up basketball late, thus never becoming a prized prospect. He didn’t get looks from Division I schools, bouncing around Division II Florida Tech to juco Brevard Community College to NAIA Mountain State. I can’t find stats at either of his four-year schools, but at the juco level he averaged 2.3 points per game. His agent cut together a mix of him grainily slamming home dunks in a near-empty arena at Mountain State.

At first, legitimate basketball teams weren’t interested in Sturgess. The Globetrotters “drafted” him in 2011 alongside Lionel Messi—they had previously drafted Sun Mingming, as well as The Ringer’s own Mark Titus—but unlike Messi, Sun, and Titus, Sturgess was interested in playing. The Globetrotters then had Guinness certify him as the tallest pro basketball player in the world—snubbing Sun, who was taller than Sturgess, perhaps as revenge for Sun snubbing the Globetrotters. (Don’t feel bad for Sun; he made the Guinness record book as half of the world’s tallest married couple, with his 6-foot-2 wife, Xu Yan.) So off Sturgess went around the world, posing on top of skyscrapers, riding camels, spinning balls on his finger, and carrying shorter players on his back to dunks.

Sturgess eventually left the Globetrotters for a shot at the NBA. At 26, he signed with the Texas Legends, which hoped he could grow into a “specialist, a guy that comes in, plays 3-4 minutes, affects the game, blocks some shots.” But the Legends also found that Sturgess hadn’t done any real training with the Globetrotters, since their games are staged and they play almost 300 of them per year. He was inflexible, barely capable of lifting his arms straight up over his head. He played in 13 G League games, scoring 11 total points and failing to record a single block.

Later, Sturgess went home to England, signing with the Cheshire Phoenix of the British Basketball League. Competition there is, well, easier.

Easy as that .. Rare assist from @dwatt21 too

A post shared by Paul Sturgess (@psturg78) on

Sturgess seems to be finished with his career playing basketball: His most recent Instagram post expressed joy that somebody had finally gotten him a large enough set of golf clubs.

Robert Bobroczky

Here is a big person getting into a small car.

Bobroczky was 6 feet tall by the time he was 8, and taller than his 7-foot-1 father by the time he was 12. But he is rail thin—at 17, he’s now 7-foot-7 and 195 pounds. The large teenager can shoot a basketball—here he is drilling some midrange jumpers for a YouTube video—but he is too skinny to play competitively. He has been desperately trying to gain weight for much of his life: When he played for a youth club in Italy in 2015, he ate seven times per day, primarily pasta. Now, he eats 4,500 calories per day. It hasn’t worked. He still looks like a stick figure brought to life.

He was recently brought to America to play at the SPIRE Institute, an Ohio training center, but his body doesn’t seem quite ready to play. Someone cut together a highlight mix of his debut, the first one I’ve ever seen in which the highlighted player records zero statistics.

According to a story in The New York Times, a recent Bobroczky dunk in practice was cause for celebration among teammates and coaches unused to seeing the big man assert himself.

He requires medical treatment for scoliosis in his back and hips, and the SPIRE training staff is trying to design exercises the frail teen can perform. Bobroczky’s basketball career is not over, but he seems unlikely to make it big. He hasn’t received any college scholarship offers to date.

Bob Wegner

Perhaps the best thing I uncovered while researching this story is a video of the 7-foot-8 Wegner telling a camera (and also 99.9 percent of the people on earth), “Y’ALL ARE SHORT.”

Born in 1993, Wegner had feet too big for the inkpad used to create baby footprints, and he just kept growing from there. As a result, he needed five surgeries by the time he was 21. At age 9, he broke his hip in a way that’s typically associated with car accidents; in 2013, surgeons operated on his toes, which had curled and grown under his feet. Before the procedure, walking and running had been painful for Wegner.

Yet all along he tried to make basketball work. The New Hampshire native played for Division III Maine–Presque Isle, but scored just seven points in 15 games. According to Sam Fortier, the only sneakers large enough for Wegner were Velcro running shoes that scuffed the team’s court, angering Wegner’s coach. The Lake Michigan Admirals, a team from the Premier Basketball League, took a chance on him in 2014 ahead of a European tour. Here he is in England, clumsily dribbling a ball and bricking an uncontested 5-footer.

While Wegner played during the Admirals’ international tours, he barely saw the floor in the team’s American games. (“According to the stats, I didn’t have any blocks or rebounds or points,” he wrote on Facebook after one game. “I’m pretty sure I had a rebound.”) In 2017, he signed with the Rochester RazorSharks of the same league, also sparsely seeing the court. Later in the year, he joined the Washington Generals, the team that loses to the Globetrotters—unlike with Sturgess, making him a Globetrotter wasn’t quite believable enough.

Last September, Wegner announced on Facebook that he was done with basketball, citing health concerns. “My knees have been hurting after every game that I have played, and that doesn’t make playing basketball fun for me, no matter how much I love the game.”

Kenny George

I firmly believe that George would have made the NBA were it not for health reasons. His career deserves to be remembered for more than just the time he got dunked on by Tyler Hansbrough. Sadly, that is how it is generally remembered, so I have to show you the video of him getting dunked on by Tyler Hansbrough.

George had a double-double (14 points, 11 rebounds) in that 93-81 loss to North Carolina. The full highlight of the game shows him blocking multiple shots in one possession, lumbering down the court, and finishing off an alley-oop. The Tar Heels were the no. 1 team in the AP poll entering that matchup, and went 36-3 and made the Final Four. But they looked helpless against George. The Hansbrough dunk was the exception, not the rule.

When George played high school basketball in Chicago, Shaquille O’Neal sent several pairs of size-22 sneakers to help the growing boy who couldn’t find anything his size at Foot Locker. Unfortunately, George needed size-25 kicks, so George’s family shipped the shoes to someone who enlarged them. George nearly averaged a triple-double as a senior at Latin School of Chicago: eight points, 10 rebounds, and nine blocks per game.

At UNC-Asheville, George missed his first two seasons: He was academically ineligible initially, then he needed knee surgery. But when he finally saw playing time as a redshirt sophomore, he was dominant. He blocked five shots in 15 minutes in his first game against Virginia; he shot 77 percent from the field, which would have shattered NCAA records if he’d played enough to qualify. But he could play only about 10 minutes a game. Asheville went 12-19.

As a junior, though, George was capable of playing almost 20 minutes per game. And with an unstoppable giant on the court about half of the time, Asheville was the best team in the Big South Conference. Look how easy it was for George to score against his regular-sized competition.

Having now watched hours of videos of gangly giants, I am convinced that George was the best extremely tall basketball player of all time. He was strong enough to stand his ground and coordinated enough to wrangle passes and rebounds. He completely changed games when he took the floor. George led college basketball with a 69.6 shooting percentage in 2007-08, and recorded the first triple-double in school history (20 points, 12 boards, 10 blocks) in an 83-71 win over Campbell. In a matchup with VMI, he played for just six seconds; even though he essentially went one-on-five against a team doing everything in its power to stop him from getting the ball and to keep him away from the basket, he hit the game-winning dunk.

Asheville lost in the 2008 Big South tournament, missing out on March Madness. And in the subsequent offseason, George came down with a MRSA infection that ended his college career, led to a partial amputation of his right foot, and forced him to “at one time [battle] for his life.” Wikipedia says that George briefly played in the Czech Republic in 2011, but for the most part, the world hasn’t heard from him since.