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A Happy End to a Tall Tale

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Mike Lanier and his twin, Jim, used to live a few miles from me in Michigan. They were 16 years old then, and everybody came around to see them--famous basketball coaches, network television luminaries, everybody. The Lanier brothers are basketball players. They stand 7 feet 6 inches tall. They are the tallest twins in the world.

I can still remember Al McGuire coming by with his NBC camera crew to do an interview with college basketball’s Supercenters of Tomorrow.

“Twice,” Mike Lanier remembered Thursday, stretched out on a sofa in Coach Jim Harrick’s office at UCLA.

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Bill Walton had just put Lanier through a voluntary morning clinic, working him out and wearing him out, so Mike took a nap in Harrick’s office before afternoon practice. He is sitting out this season with the fifth-ranked Bruins, but works with them daily, rehearsing for the future, hoping to have the last laugh on those who took his potential and tore it to shreds.

Mike Lanier’s career isn’t over yet. Only interrupted.

As a sophomore, Mike was two inches shorter than he is today and the starting center for a high school named Brother Rice in the yuppie-heaven Detroit suburb of Birmingham. Beautiful town, Birmingham. Author Elmore Leonard lives there. Isiah Thomas bought his first house there. The U.S. Open golf tournament was held there. Jimmy Hoffa was last seen near there. Lee Iacocca and Aretha Franklin live a mile or two up the road.

Brother Rice is a first-class high school with first-rate athletics. Another set of brothers, Mel and Mike Farr, played football there before attending UCLA. So did lineman Mike Lodish.

The Lanier boys commuted to Birmingham from their home in nearby Troy, not far from the Pontiac Silverdome. They went out of their way to play for Brother Rice.

And ended up regretting it.

After averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds a game as a sophomore, Mike was a star in the making. Freshman year, he strung together three consecutive 25-point games.

He made 62% of his shots. His brother was his backup. They challenged one another in practice. Everything seemed fine, except for the Laniers sensing that the assistant coach didn’t care for them much.

“He rarely spoke to either of us. And when he did, it was usually to scream at us about something,” Mike said.

Otherwise, the closest thing to a problem Mike can remember having was keeping the college recruiters at arm’s length and telling the football coach thanks, but no, he really didn’t want to be a 7-foot 4-inch tight end.

Then, Brother Rice fired its basketball coach. And promoted the assistant.

“I held my head in my hands and went, ‘Oh, no,’ ” Mike said. “My brother, too. We knew it was bad news for both of us. The guy hated us.”

The first thing the new coach did with the world’s tallest twins was bench them. Mike’s playing time was reduced to about 10 minutes a night. The stated reason was that the coach preferred a run-and-gun style, into which the long-limbed Laniers didn’t fit.

Mike didn’t buy it.

He was convinced that the coach knew and liked another boy on the squad better and was determined to let him play. That he didn’t think much either of the twins or their father. That he would show them who was boss.

“It got to the point where I’d be two feet from the basket, waving my arm, and nobody would throw me the ball,” Mike recalled. “After a while you could tell, it was the coach, telling everybody else not to give me the ball. It was weird. It was like he went out of his way to destroy me.

“He’d throw away my letters. I’d get shoe boxes full of letters from college coaches, and he wouldn’t even give them to me. Or I’d go in and ask if anything came for me, and he’d just turn away and say, ‘Yeah, they’re around here someplace,’ and walk away from me. The guy was unbelievable.”

By the time they graduated, the Laniers had been crossed off list after list. Nobody ever phoned. They had become a couple of guys who couldn’t even play for their high school. Rumors spread that they hated basketball, didn’t even want to play. They began to seriously regret not having transferred from Brother Rice.

An assistant coach from Hardin-Simmons, a 2,000-student private school in Texas, came along and invited Mike to give it a try. He had no better offers. Jim, who had made a pact with his brother that they would attend separate universities, seeing as how few teams need two 7-6 centers, chose the University of Denver, an NCAA Division II school for which he is now playing.

And Mike went to Hardin-Simmons, his confidence shot. The coaches there worked with him, let him come back slowly. He appeared in only 14 games as a freshman and averaged two points, admitting: “My game was a mess, and so was my head.”

The following season, Hardin-Simmons started Lanier at center 22 times. He averaged just under seven points, blocked more than a shot a game and was voted the squad’s most improved player. He was happy, because Hardin-Simmons hadn’t given up on him.

But Hardin-Simmons did give up on basketball.

Electing to drop from Division I to Division III and pour more resources into football, the school said goodby to the world of big-time hoops. Lanier went looking for a new place to play.

Dale Brown invited him down to Louisiana State, to do daily battle with Shaquille O'Neal in practice. Lanier also weighed Washington, Washington State, Hawaii. He wanted to be somewhere where he would be wanted. Where he would be well treated, feel welcome. It was high school all over again.

“Take those football players I met when I visited Washington,” he said. “They treated me like dirt. I said, ‘Forget this.’ Who wants to be around people who act like that?”

UCLA’s people did not. Lanier felt comfortable immediately. He signed up for business classes and for basketball. He has bulked up to 295 pounds in a conditioning program and is aiming for 315. At his height, Lanier could carry 315 pounds and still look slim. He turned 21 a few weeks ago, but that doesn’t mean Mike is done growing. He is still growing out. He is still growing up.

Lanier wants to earn a living playing basketball and at the moment still can’t envision himself doing anything else. UCLA is loaded with talent, but the exposure is great and “all I want to do is contribute.”

At a school that gave the world Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton, Lanier simply wants to supply further proof that it takes more than being tall to be great.

There is a college coach who once showed intensive interest in Mike Lanier, then gave up on him, as so many others did. UCLA plays this coach’s team this season, and Mike thinks about him at times.

“I’ll keep working and working to become a better player,” he said, “if only so someday I can stick my finger right up against that guy’s nose and say, ‘Hey, look what you missed.’ ”


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