Gheorghe Muresan, Large and in Charge : Basketball: Second-round draft choice of the Washington Bullets is no small find at 7-7 1/2 and 315 pounds.
His given name is Gheorghe, but he is introduced by the name Gitza, which is what they call him in France. Gitza means “Little George.” It’s like calling the biggest guy in your neighborhood “Tiny” except that not a whole lot of neighborhoods on Earth have anybody who stands 7 feet 7 1/2 inches tall.
Forget being an inch or so taller than Shawn Bradley, Gheorghe Muresan is half a foot taller than Wilt and nearly four inches taller than the late Andre The Giant. Gitza weighs 315 pounds. He blames, make that credits, an overactive gland. The size of his breakfast would confirm that. French toast and bacon piled eight inches high on one plate, omelettes on another. A third plate appeared to belong to his girlfriend, Lilliana Lazar, a tall, striking woman with reddish hair, but the food from it wasn’t finding her fork.
There had been precious little sleep in the previous hours that led to this glorious Thursday morning for Gitza, for Lilliana, for his American basketball contacts Bill Sweek and Ken Grant, for Susan Dines the interpreter and for Gitza’s homey Mihai Ferent, who’d made the trip overseas to be a part of something special. The champagne and tears hadn’t stopped flowing until the wee hours after the Washington Bullets used a second-round pick in the NBA draft to select Muresan, a 22-year-old Romanian who played last season in France and speaks little English beyond, “I love this game.”
One day eight years ago, a toothache sent him looking for a dentist. The Doc, who is said to have moonlighted as a referee, took one look at a 14-year-old giant settling into his chair and started making phone calls. He played for Cluj University, making the Romanian equivalent of $15 a week, sleeping on two dormitory sized beds in an “L” shape. Last year, in the French League, was his first time having the benefit of professional coaching. Team Pau Orthez paid him $300,000, part of which Gitza used to buy his parents -- retired laborers is how he described them -- a house, their first dwelling with running water and electricity. Asked how he would describe his family’s circumstances, he used a word which Dine translated as “underprivileged.” That word might also apply to his basketball circumstances. Until going to France, he’d never seen a jump rope and couldn’t do a push-up. But if you’re 7-7, can walk and raise your arms without stumbling, the NBA scouts will find you.
The Hawks, Bucks and Bulls expressed major interest. Then the Trail Blazers got involved. They’d enjoyed a relationship with Grant, a 20-year veteran of basketball in Europe from player to coach to scout, who’d helped deliver the late Drazen Petrovic from then-Yugoslavia. The Trail Blazers said they’d send a private jet.
So after playing an 8 p.m. game Saturday in a small town in Hungary, Muresan rode a bus 17 hours to Bucharest, then took the Trail Blazers’ jet 16 hours through Iceland and Minneapolis to Portland where he worked out with longtime NBA veteran Wayne Cooper. He flew to Detroit Tuesday, worked out for the Bucks, took a physical for the Hawks. On draft day, Wednesday, the Bulls worked him out. The Bullets, Sweek and Grant say, never said a word until draft day. Muresan couldn’t care less. He is ready to hire somebody to teach him English. “He has already learned the cuss words,” Grant said.
American kids, kids like Chris Webber and Shawn Bradley, say all the time that reaching the NBA allows them to fulfill childhood dreams. Nobody doubts them. But being drafted for them is largely about shoe contracts, agents, slotting, playing time. Only 20 minutes after being traded to Golden State, Webber was telling Don Nelson he wanted to play power forward, not center. The honeymoon ends right about the time David Stern announces the next pick.
Gheorghe Muresan, though, is in heaven. We’re talking about someone who left home at 14 to get a job and support his family, which includes three brothers and two sisters. The NBA isn’t a goal for European players, it’s an obsession, particularly in the wake of the Dream Team’s 1992 European tour. Culturally, it’s reminiscent of the United States. The poorer the town, especially in Eastern Europe, the more passion you’ll find for professional basketball. Grant and Sweek find houses where people have spent every penny they have for an antenna or satellite dish. Inside, huge groups gather to watch NBA games. Live, 3 a.m.
Muresan says he’s hoping to play right away but that’s where there’s a fork in the road in all probability. For starters, the French League isn’t even one of Europe’s top two leagues, so it’s tough to get an absolute handle on the 18.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per game he averaged in France last season. There’s his limited English (beyond cuss words, which come to think of it could get him through a season at Georgetown or Indiana). NBA scouts say he’s got good hands and a couple of really nice offensive moves, which would be a couple of more than 7-6 Manute Bol ever developed.
And there’s the issue of footspeed. Muresan doesn’t have any. An hour before the draft, when he walked down a corridor of The Palace of Auburn Hills, an NBA scout said, “That’s him coming toward us. That’s as fast as he moves, right there. Mark Eaton looks like Carl Lewis next to him.”
This is what Europe is for. Italy or Spain, though, not France. Grant and Sweek were already down to the nitty-gritty with a team in Spain before all this pre-draft hopefulness put things on hold temporarily. Dino Radja is coming to play with the Celtics after three years in Europe. Toni Kukoc, about to join the Bulls, played four seasons professionally in Europe.
Drafting a player like Muresan in the second round isn’t a risk to the Bullets, even though it makes them easy targets for Manute/Muggsy/Muresan jokes. Plenty of big men have gone from the draft board to the NBA graveyard. Does the name Earl Jones mean anything to you?
By 9 a.m. of the morning after probably the most exciting night of his life, a car had come to pick up Gheorghe Muresan and take him back to Europe from his first visit to the United States. His world is spinning. He takes two huge bites of French toast. A smile crosses the largest face you can imagine and you can’t help but think of Richard Kiel, Jaws in the Bond movies. Could it be possible this mountain of a man will one day wear a Bullets uniform? “I feel fine,” Gitza said. “I am awaiting anxiously to start.”