When you go to see the world's tallest basketball player, you're paying to watch a guy stand up. Tonight, Sun Ming Ming is sitting down. It's the third quarter, and the 7-foot-9 center is riding the bench with six fouls. One enterprising fan tries to make the best of it. He creeps up behind Sun then puts an arm around the giant's sweaty shoulder. Sun grimaces and pushes him off—no posing for photos during the game. A few steps away, in the gym's back corner, kids gawk at a life-size cardboard effigy. The cutout shows Sun in profile, his eyes cast upward. It looks like he's searching the horizon for a nine-footer, a Goliath to lure away the camera phones.
Sun Ming Ming plays for the ABA's Maryland Nighthawks, a minor-league team based in the D.C. suburbs. Sun's big-man-in-a-small-gym act—the Nighthawks' tiny, rented arena looks like a set for a basketball-themed Gulliver's Travels—is the perfect tonic for a small-time, attention-hungry hoops league. Since its rebirth in 2000, the ABA has tried, and usually failed, to win over fans with wacky rules (a four-point shot), groundbreaking personnel moves (the Nashville Rhythm hired, and fired, thefirst female head coach of a men's pro basketball team), and brute force (the league has had as many as 57 teams at a single time). Sun Ming Ming's Nighthawks debut, which attracted a standing-room-only crowd, proved that even the ABA can't screw up the King Kong marketing strategy. Nothing drives ticket sales like a freak of nature.
What does Sun get out of being enlisted as a basketball sideshow? A little bit of competition and a lot of conditioning work. The 23-year-old Sun, who was born in rural Northern China, grew to 7-feet-8 3/4 inches—almost tall enough to make him the world's tallest man—thanks to an undiagnosed brain tumor. Excess growth hormone turned Sun into a basketball scout's fever dream, a player who can dunk without jumping, but it also left him too sluggish to run around. After two surgeries to remove the tumor, Sun can now train for hours without getting tired. Charles Bonsignore, Sun's American agent, says he now simply needs to "spend as much time on the floor as possible."
Considering that he's spent more time on talk shows than basketball courts the last few years, it's no surprise that Sun is a long way from the NBA. The requisite YouTube highlight videos—including this one, which shows him banking in a series of unguarded layups—are most notable for what they don't show: Sun Ming Ming running. For someone 7-foot-6, the Houston Rockets' Yao Ming is astoundingly quick and agile. Still, Yao was the runaway winner of a recent poll asking pro basketball players to name the slowest player in the NBA. If Yao is a tortoise, then Sun is a giant tortoise. He's not a beanpole like, say, Shawn Bradley, and he struggles to lug his 370 pounds up and down the court. For Sun, the up-tempo ABA is an acid test. If he's going to make it big, he's going to have to keep up with smaller, quicker players.
In his Nighthawks debut, I watch as Sun spends half the game on the wrong side of the court. When the team's point guard—a street-ball star who answers to "White Chocolate"—sprints ahead of the pack, he hangs back, waiting for everyone to reverse course. Once everyone's all together, it's clear that Sun isn't just slow in wide open spaces. On defense, he plays the same role as the windmill on a minigolf course, moving his arms back and forth in a deliberate pattern, making contact with the ball and opposing players whenever they stray into his path. When the ball caroms off the rim, he can't ratchet his arms up fast enough to snare the rebound. And despite weighing nearly 400 pounds, he can't outmuscle players who are a foot shorter and 150 pounds lighter.
On the offensive end, Sun has some moments of brilliance. He dribbles once and swishes a baseline jumper. He rattles the ball down from just past the free-throw line, and he makes a short hook shot. When he holds the ball tentatively instead of firing it up, a teammate yells, "Shoot that big man!" The crowd, though, finds it harder to adjust to the idea of a 7-foot-9 guard. When Sun misses a 15-footer, a woman yells, "Get under the basket!"
Sun's excellent shooting ability is kind of poignant, considering it's the one basketball skill a big man doesn't need. To make himself useful, a humongous center must be able to rebound, block shots, and push guys around in the paint. Sun can't do those things because he's reached the height of diminishing returns. He's probably the first basketball player who's too tall to play basketball.
There are a few enormously tall guys who have proved the doubters wrong. Gheorghe Muresan, who along with Manute Bol is the tallest player in NBA history at 7-foot-7, averaged 14.5 points in 1995-96 and won the league's Most Improved Player award. After retiring because of chronic injuries, he became a basketball teacher in suburban Maryland. When Sun moved to town, Muresan had himself a client.
Muresan knows a lost cause when he sees one: The man once gave me a basketball lesson. But he doesn't think Sun is hopeless. During the Chinese center's second home game, I watch Muresan watch his new pupil. He tells me that he needs to "keep his hands up for rebounds, keep his hands on the ball." In the third quarter, Sun gets the ball in the low post. "Go up! Go up! Go up!" Muresan yells. Instead, Sun passes to a teammate. "He can do a lot of stuff," Muresan says, turning to me. "He's not very athletic, but he has very good ball-handling."
After the game, Sun goes straight for Muresan and extends his hand. Soon after, Muresan slips out the door, and Sun is the only giant in the room. I ask him some stupid questions—"How do you think you played?"—but he laughs and doesn't answer. He's surrounded by autograph seekers and picture takers. The crowd looks up, and he looks straight ahead, over the tops of their heads. Sun signs his name in Chinese characters—on scraps of paper, minibasketballs, a kid's shoe. "I just want to stand next to him," a blond woman announces. She poses with her back facing him, her fingers pointing up.