Land of the Giant Gheorghe Muresan: The Bullets' center is living large. He was the NBA's Most Improved Player. Children love him, and so do promoters, who appreciate his ability to take a joke.

March 10, 1997|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The line moves briskly inside Calvary Baptist Church, where hundreds of homeless people wait to be fed. As they receive their daily bread, nearly everyone looks toward heaven -- less in thanks, perhaps, than in wonder.

The man doling out the dinner rolls stands 7 feet 7.

"Good Lawd, how's the weather up there?" a gap-toothed woman asks Gheorghe Muresan, the Washington Bullets' center. Muresan, one of the celebrities working the charity event, bobs his head and laughs heartily at that tired old line. "Weather good! Very good," he says.

A thin man wrapped in a tattered gray blanket stares in awe. "God blessed you real good, sir," he says softly, sounding like a Dickens waif.

Muresan goes to the basket, grabs a fistful of rolls -- four of them fit snugly in his hand -- and thrusts them at the man. "You want more?" he asks. "You sure? You want?"

Lynn Bergfalk, pastor of the church, marvels at Muresan. Yet even he can't resist a joke about the Bullets' giant.

Says Bergfalk: "No one in this congregation has ever been closer to God."

Everything about Gheorghe Muresan is XXXXL. His shoes (size 20). His dog, Lucky (a Great Dane). His name (Gheorghe, with those lofty h's).

For his 26th birthday last month, Muresan's wife fixed a turkey. "I don't know if it is his favorite," says Liliana, herself 6-1. "I just wanted something BIG."

On Valentine's Day, Muresan gave his wife "many, many roses." Where did he get them?

"The Giant."

He is the biggest man ever to play in the National Basketball Association, a four-year pro whom the Bullets drafted, knowing the raw-boned, 305-pound Romanian was as big and as mobile as the Sears Tower. But Muresan progressed and, last season, The Stiff showed some stuff, leading the league in field-goal percentage (.584) and winning its Most Improved Player award. Both plaques hang in the study of his high-ceilinged Crofton home.

Impressed with his new-found status, promoters have begun courting Muresan. In recent months, he has done TV spots for Snickers candy, Nike and ESPN, the cable sports network. This summer, Muresan begins work on a movie, "My Giant," with Billy Crystal. And Sports Illustrated wants the biggest Bullet to help kick off its new Saturday morning show for children this fall.

"Gheorghe really connects, especially with kids," says Bill Sweek, his agent at ProServ in Arlington, Va. "There's a fascination about his size, sure, but also an empathy for someone who's obviously doing his darnedest. You see how laborious it is for him to get up and down the court and how happy he is to be playing."

The endorsements exaggerate Muresan's height -- the result of an overactive pituitary gland -- and spoof the image of Gheorghe the geek. One ESPN commercial shows him dancing convulsively with a sports anchorman; in another, a blindfolded Muresan flails hopelessly at a pinata hanging well below his level swing.

The Snickers spot has Muresan hawking his personal cologne -- a takeoff on ads touting Michael Jordan's new scent -- on a home shopping channel. The cologne, we are told, smells like cabbage. Phone operators wait. No one calls. Bored, they break out the candy.

That ad earned Muresan $25,000 and set him apart from his peers.

"Most NBA players have egos that wouldn't allow them to be in such a self-deprecating commercial," Sweek says. "Gheorghe was comfortable with it. He's not irritated being the butt of a joke."

True, Gheorghe?

"Depends, depends," Muresan says. "There is a limit."

Suppose a script called for him to be hit in the face with, say, a chocolate cake?

"Maybe it's OK, maybe not. Maybe I have on good suit, and not want it to get dirty. Or maybe I want to eat this cake."

If Muresan plays the fool, he gets his licks in, too.

"Gheorghe loves to irritate you," teammate Chris Webber says. "He'll be eating ice cream and ask, 'What's that on your shirt?' When you look down, he puts the ice cream in your face.

"He's one of the funniest people I've ever met, and he doesn't even speak English that well."

Muresan can read people in any tongue, acquaintances say.

"He is seen as being naive, unsophisticated and even non-intelligent, in part because of the language barrier," Sweek says. "That's way off. Gheorghe is very intuitive about people. He gives me snippets of truth about specific individuals and their values, and he's right on the money almost all the time."

Muresan tries to mingle. Despite a salary of more than $2.3 million, he lives in a regular suburban neighborhood in Anne Arundel County where the homes are close together -- five, maybe six Muresans apart. He mows the lawn, raises tomatoes, paints the deck. "I love to do this," he says, having grown up poor. "The house is mine."

He's a treat for local kids; it's like having Big Bird around. "He gives us candy, lets us play with his video games -- and he talks to us," says Yiping Cheng, 11, who lives next door. "He's a good neighbor."

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