The Perils of Being a Very Big Man in the NBA

Credit: Melissa Majchrzak / NBAE / Getty Images

On April 2, the Sacramento Kings announced that they would be calling up D-League center Sim Bhullar, making him the first NBA player of Indian descent. A milestone, yes, but that's not the important part of the story, because the man is 7-foot-5 and weighs 360 pounds. He is the sixth tallest player in NBA history, and with the possible exception of late-era Shaq, the second heaviest player of all-time behind the strikingly pudding-like Oliver Miller, who at just 6-9 kissed off his nine-year career at an astonishing 375 pounds. Not surprisingly, the 22-year-old Bhullar, while not hugely fat, is neither muscular nor lean. Based on his D-League highlight videos, he hardly jumps; it's unnecessary, as he easily swats away any and all shots in his vicinity while flat-footed (he leads the NBDL with 3.4 blocks per game). His offense has the lumbering character of the jerk older guy in your neighborhood you played against as a kid whose game consisted of backing in on you, then pivoting slowly and deliberately, one way and then the other, until he was shooting a point-blank layup (I say "shooting," because laying it in isn't in their DNA).

Somewhat ironically, as with many other big Big Men, the ceiling for Bhullar looks pretty low (the references to him as a "gentle giant" aren't helping his cause). But his weight may actually be an advantage. Real-life stick figures like Manute Bol and Shawn Bradley rarely rise above their novelty, and while Bradley's career numbers look quasi-respectable, there's a reason for all those YouTube compilations of him getting posterized by much smaller, actual basketball players. In any case, watching these guys on the court seems to trigger a kind of childish hilarity and awe, possibly connected with early bedtime readings of Jack and the Beanstalk, or the inordinate appeal of the Guinness Book of World Records Human Body category. In tribute to Bhullar's future contributions to the archive, these are some of our best memories of the NBA's too-tall club.


Manute Bol Goes Off
His form was atrocious, a slightly more graceful version of a drunk uncle's vaunted "jump shot" at the family barbecue, but for one half in 1993, the 7-foot-7 Bol was lighting it up from Steph Curry range. While this may be the only time Curry and Bol's names appear in the same sentence, Bol's performance against the Barkley-Dan Majerle Suns was truly and freakishly impressive. He went 6 for 12 from behind the arc, and disregarded his misses on a level Russell Westbrook would be proud of. Bol would go on to play just 19 games in the next two seasons to close out his 10-year career, taking eight more three-pointers — hitting three.

Yao Ming's Brief, Amazing Career
Ming, at 7-6, is clearly an outlier here: a highly-skilled athlete who succumbed to unrelieved and ultimately debilitating foot injuries by age 28. For a three-season stretch, though, he had a legitimate argument for being the best center in the game. He had a fine shooting touch (he shot 83 percent from the line for his career), good passing instincts, and generally had no business having so much control over so much body.

Chuck Nevitt, Mascot
Chuck Nevitt's role with the 1985 championship Lakers was similar to Brian Scalabrine's with Boston in 2008, except that Scalabrine would, on occasion, competently drain the three. That season, the 7-foot-5 Nevitt became the tallest champion in history, averaging one point in just five minutes a game, but drawing hearty cheers from the Great Western Forum crowd every time he set foot on the court. In the in-game commentary, Hubie Brown mentions that Nevitt was put on "a concentrated weight-lifting program," on which he had gained 25 pounds. He's listed at 217 for his career, which seems extremely light, until you consider that Bol came into the league at 190 (he could bench no more than 45 pounds for ten reps). To put that into some perspective, the admittedly muscular 5-9 Nate Robinson weighs 180.

Mark Eaton: Beast
Equipped with a Paul Bunyan physique (and the beard to match), Eaton was a defensive beast, averaging 3.5 blocks a game and claiming the Defensive Player of the Year award twice during his 11-year career. The 7-foot-4 lefty also holds the single-season record for blocks per game at an astounding 5.6. Which make the times that Jordan and Dr. J went over him all the more exhilarating.

Shawn Bradley Gets Body Slammed
The gangly 7-6 Bradley had the coordination of a newborn colt, but nevertheless was known for throwing nasty elbows and getting repaid in kind — and, on one occasion, receiving an authentic body slam from Pacers forward Mark Davis, who was a foot shorter. Bradley now works a cattle ranch in Utah, and in 2010 lost an election for state rep, but will likely be remembered as the symbolic face of every tall boy who made the high school team, but whose half-skilled presence caused resentment and embarrassment for everyone around him.

Georghe Muresan Will Have Your Love
A hair taller than Bol, Muresan owns the distinction of being the tallest man to play in the NBA. Unlike the other players mentioned here, he suffers from acromegaly, a hormonal disorder that causes extreme growth, distinctive characteristics traditionally associated with the idea of giants (thick-tongued speech, gargoylish facial features), and often, cardiovascular problems and a short lifespan. Fellow sufferers include Andre the Giant and the Dutch actor Carel Struycken, best known for his roles as Lurch in The Addams Family movies and the Giant in Twin Peaks. (Although it hasn't been reported as such, Bhullar seems to display many of the traits common to acromegaly.)

What made Muresan great was that he never shied away from his unusual appearance, dancing awkwardly with Karl Ravech and Kenny Mayne in a 1997 SportsCenter commercial, playing a ventriloquist in Eminem's "My Name Is" video, gamely suffering Billy Crystal's wiseacre act in the movie My Giant, and sitting for an interview for the funny/horrifyingly-titled History Channel documentary Giants: Friend or Foe. Muresan's apparent self-acceptance allowed us to look at him freely, and enjoy his oddities, which is probably why we remember him fondly long after his four year career.

Ralph Sampson Is Not a Sideshow Freak 
An obvious exception to everyone else on this list, Ralph Sampson looks like your classic, athletic power forward — except, at 7-4, he's a good six inches taller. Like many tall and too-tall players alike, Sampson's pro career, stalked by injuries, is generally viewed as a disappointment. But when he was healthy, the 1983 No. 1 draft pick out of Virginia played a fierce and elegant brand of basketball that owed not a little to the improvisatory flights of Julius Erving, and with the addition of Hakeem Olajuwon, Sampson became the taller half of the 1980s Rockets monument-sized front-court duo, appropriately called the Twin Towers.

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Sampson's most dramatic play may have come in the 1986 Western Conference Finals against the Lakers. With one second left on an inbounds play, Sampson caught the pass from teammate Rodney McCray in mid-air and made a finger-flick 12-footer with his back to the basket to send Houston to the championship against Boston. Playing at home in game five, Sampson would set off one of the better brawls in history when he elbowed and then punched tiny Celtics reserve / fight enthusiast Jerry Sichting, and bloodied Dennis Johnson, before being tackled by Bill Walton. An amped-up Houston went on to win the game big, but Sampson never recovered his form in the series, and these flashback Rockets lost to Boston in six. It probably didn't help that hard-drinking point guard John Lucas had recently been suspended for a second positive cocaine test, and that the excellent two-guard tandem of Lewis Lloyd and Mitchell Wiggins (father of Timberwolves rookie Andrew) weren't far behind him. They just hadn’t been caught yet.

Rik Smits's Cool Jam
Known as the "Dunkin' Dutchman," Smits was a cornerstone of those 1990s Reggie Miller-led Pacers, and even for a young Knicks fan, he projected a chic, blasé, mullet cool. From his name (who needs a "C"?), to his effortless step-backs, to the impervious doody-do expression on his face running back down the floor, he seemed to embody some unassailable quality of Dutch-ness, assuming you had never met a Dutchman and had no knowledge of Dutch culture whatsoever. Big guy dunks have a tendency to provoke yawns or worse, but in Smits' hands they were tastefully stylized, mini-events. He held the ball aloft at full extension, high above and sometimes slightly over his head, in a kind of Statue of Liberty pose, and flushed it through with appropriate authority. Like a Dutchman.