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.”
Forward Chris Webber, acquired from the Golden State Warriors last November, is the Bullets’ superstar, but Muresan is the team’s most popular player. Bullet fans have taken to him because of his work ethic.
“It’s a lot of fun playing with Gheorghe because he’s out there giving his all,” Webber said. “He’s full of energy. I’ve seen him make big strides all year long. He’s coming from (Europe), where they practice twice a week and play once a week, and it’s a different level for him.”
Swingman Juwan Howard, Washington’s No. 1 draft pick, agreed.
“His skills have improved so much,” Howard said. “He not only has a good turnaround jump shot, but he has a hook shot and a sky hook. He’s learning.
“He has a real good feel for the game. He can score well inside. He’s learning, night in and night out. With him, Chris and myself, I feel we can form a great front line.”
Muresan, whose first love was soccer, began playing basketball when he was 14.
“At the beginning, I started playing basketball the first of April, but I couldn’t actually practice with the team until early May because they couldn’t find me any shoes,” said Muresan, who wears size 19.
After averaging 23.4 points and 11.4 rebounds in the 1991 World Junior Championship, he averaged 16.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.2 blocks for Romania in the 1992 European Championship. Muresan signed with Pau Orthez of the French League and averaged 18.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in 1992-93.
When the Bullets picked him in the ’93 draft, team officials thought he would play the 1993-94 season in France, but Muresan insisted on joining the Bullets right away, taking a $150,000 pay cut because of salary-cap restrictions.
“A lot of people wanted me to remain in Europe to play another season or maybe two and then come to the NBA,” Muresan said. “But I told myself that in Europe the conditions aren’t as good as the NBA.
“I’ve seen the way other players in the NBA practiced and I wanted to practice in the same manner. When I first arrived, everything was completely new to me.”
Muresan’s first exposure to America was through TV.
After watching “Barney,” a children’s program starring a purple dinosaur, Muresan drove his teammates crazy by constantly singing the show’s theme song.
Used to food shortages in Romania, he was fascinated by roadside fruit stands. After he had gained five pounds, the Bullets asked what he’d eaten.
“Watermelon,” he replied, cradling an imaginary watermelon in his arms.
Muresan has also had trouble adjusting to driving in America and has had several speeding tickets.
“In Romania, we don’t have the same roads as you do in the United States,” Muresan said. “Speed limit? No problem. In France the speed limit is much higher and you can drive faster. There are too many cars here.”
Muresan doesn’t speak English, so the Bullets had to hire a full-time interpreter, Greg Ghyka, who accompanies him everywhere. Ghyka has become his best friend. He sits behind the bench during games and stands next to Muresan during timeouts.
“The first day we met was when he had his press conference in Washington,” Ghyka said. “He’s fun to work with.”
And Muresan’s teammates are trying to Americanize him.
He showed up for a recent game against the Lakers wearing a designer denim outfit. He greeted a reporter with a soul handshake that he learned from his teammates.
“We’ve got to keep him hip,” Webber said. “Me and Juwan try to get him to listen to a little rap. I don’t know if he likes rap, but he’s got to listen to it.
“I played him a little bit of gangsta rap and a little bit of hip-hop. Whatever I have in the tape deck, he listens to.”
Life has become a bit easier for Muresan since his marriage to Liliana Lazar, also of Romania. Muresan’s bride, who stands 6-1, speaks fluent English.
And that is his next challenge.
“It’s difficult in a game setting,” Lynam said. “In practice, he understands enough that we can converse, but in a game where things are happening so quickly it becomes a little difficult.”
Laker center Vlade Divac, who played five seasons in his native Yugoslavia before joining the Lakers in 1989, knows how difficult it is to adapt.
“He maybe looks like he can play,” Divac said of Muresan. “He has great hands and a nice move down on the low post. When he gets down low, you can’t stop him. Nice touch, very good.
“He’s got experience and he’s got confidence. He has big body. He’s strong.”
And he learns fast.