The "have size, will travel" basketball odyssey that's taken 2.37-meter (7-foot-9), 168-kilo (370-pound) Sun Ming Ming from China to the U.S. states of California, Kansas and North Carolina made its latest stop Wednesday in the back room of a Chinese restaurant in this tony Washington, D.C., suburb.
That's where the Maryland Nighthawks of the American Basketball Association, a U.S. minor league, introduced their newest player, a man they're touting as the tallest in the history of professional basketball.
Sun donned a uniform with the number 79 and his new team's owner and coach and a teammate all gushed about his "basketball IQ" and "soft hands."
The 23-year-old who complained the shirt the team gave him was too small was asked what his goals are.
"I hope," Sun said, "I make the NBA some day."
To which Nighthawks owner and ABA chief operating officer Tom Doyle said: "I'm quite sure he will."
Sun hasn't played organized basketball in more than six months, since a brief stint with the Dodge City Legend of the United States Basketball League, another minor American league.
"We will monitor his progress. His name has cropped up, but since he's never really played, I don't know how he can be on our radar," Marty Blake, the NBA's director of scouting, said in a telephone interview. "We would be interested in a player of some repute anywhere in the world, especially one who's 7-9. ... As (former Utah Jazz coach) Frank Layden always said, 'You can't teach height."'
Sun moved from his native China where he played on a second-division team to California about 1 1/2 years ago in hopes of making it in the American pro leagues. His career was delayed last year while he had two operations for a pituitary tumor that led to his extraordinary size but threatened his life.
Sun said those procedures were successful and he's getting into shape. Doyle noted that his big addition needed extra training after taking time away from the court to shoot a fight scene in Jackie Chan's upcoming movie "Rush Hour 3."
"That was very fun," Sun said.
Nighthawks coach William Rankin expects Sun to be able to play about 28-30 minutes a game; his debut comes Saturday. That will also be Rankin's debut with the Nighthawks he was hired about a week ago from a small college team.
Sun has been in town about 1 1/2 weeks, working out daily with Nighthawks guard Randy Gill, who said of his new center: "Every day, somebody's going to get dunked on."
Doyle is big on marketing, and he's hoping to organize an exhibition game with nearly-as-tall-as-Sun former NBA players Gheorghe Muresan and Manute Bol to raise money toward Sun's more than $100,000 (EUR 77,200) in medical bills, reports AP.
Did the Nighthawks want Sun more for his ability to play basketball or to draw crowds (the team averages about 600 spectators in its 1,000-capacity Montgomery College gym in Rockville)?
"There's no question that having Ming here sells tickets," Doyle said. "But there also is no question that having him here is a huge presence in our middle."
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