Up for the challenge

Basketball: Gheorghe Muresan hasn't played for two seasons because of health problems, but the 7-foot-7 center insists it's no stretch to believe he can return to the NBA.

April 22, 1999|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

On approach, the massiveness of his 7-foot-7 body screams intimidation. When he extends his right hand -- with a grasp so wide he can grip the top and bottom of a soda can between his thumb and index finger -- you wonder if a handshake is really a good idea.

Then you watch him on the court just left of the foul line, demanding the ball, catching and shooting in one fluid motion. You can close your eyes and listen to the nets snap -- pop, pop, pop -- and remember his skilled, feathery shooting touch.

Once, Gheorghe Muresan put on such shooting displays at NBA arenas near you. For two straight years with the then Washington Bullets, he was the NBA's most accurate shooter. His league-leading percentage of .604 during 1996-97 was a career best.

These days, he's firing shots at the Sinai WellBridge Clinic gymnasium, where he's undergoing extensive rehabilitation in an attempt to resurrect his career.

What was once believed to be an injured Achilles' tendon was diagnosed last year as compressed nerves, resulting in surgery on a vertebra in June. According to a Wizards team physician, Dr. Richard Grossman, all of Muresan's current physical problems stem from a tumor -- previously removed -- on his pituitary gland.

"He will never be able to get his strength back so that he can function at the level that the organization would like him to," Grossman said.

Still, for the last three months, Muresan has traveled from his Anne Arundel County home to Pikesville four times a week for extensive rehabilitation. Shooting alone in the gym,the man without a team hopes -- no, he vows -- he'll be back.

"When you're not playing, when you're not around the guys it's pretty hard to watch the games," says the 28-year-old Muresan. "But I will do everything I can to get back to playing. I'll be back next season, you'll see."

It's no coincidence that the last time Washington made the NBA playoffs was the last time Muresan played. In 1997, the Bullets, led by Muresan, won their final regular-season game to clinch the last postseason berth.

But even then the physical decline of the Romanian native was taking place. Prior to that game, back spasms had kept Muresan out of two straight games.

By the time he entered the playoff series against the Chicago Bulls, the pain had shifted to the right side of his body. What was then diagnosed as a strained right hip flexor limited his mobility. He played only 70 minutes as the Bullets were swept in three games by the eventual NBA champions.

"I played hurt and it was hard for me to move," Muresan says of the pain he felt in his final games, two years ago next week.

That summer Muresan's ailment shifted to his right foot. Before leaving to shoot the movie, "My Giant," with Billy Crystal in the summer of 1997, Muresan was given a special shoe to wear. When training camp started that fall, what was believed to be a strained right tendon put the starting center on the injured list.

The criticism directed at him was heavy.

"To get hurt during the movie, and don't get hurt doing the basketball -- that's pretty stupid to believe," says Muresan, still clearly perturbed about the remarks. "I felt bad before I shot the movie, at the end of the season. Who said it was from the movie? Maybe someone from the team said something."

Said Wizards general manager Wes Unseld: "The organization never did that. I came out to Las Vegas on the set. We know this is a continual, medical problem. The organization never blamed that on Gheorghe."

Muresan missed the entire 1997-98 season, his last year under contract. Frustrated, he sought a second opinion. The diagnosis came back as a problem with his back, not his foot. He had surgery in June during which an overly large vertebra was shaved, relieving pressure on three nerves that were being compressed.

The mild-mannered Muresan raises his voice slightly as he talks about missing two seasons and one year's pay -- which he feels could have been avoided. As he turns his shirtless torso to show the seven-inch scar on his lower back, he complains about his early medical treatment and a team physician's decision to put his foot in a cast for six weeks.

"I had back problems before I shot the movie," Muresan says. "The Washington Wizards' doctors blamed the tendon, and I didn't have pain in the tendon."

"I don't think he understands the ramifications of his disease, the fact that he had this tumor and his bones grew so quickly," Grossman said. "He is basically losing his nerve through his upper extremities, and to a certain extent his lower extremities.

"He was hoping his back surgery would make him well enough where he could play. But with the combination that's going on, it's a progressive disorder for him."

"I started taking new treatments for my gland problem in December, and I feel 100 percent better," Muresan said. "I take a shot every day, and it works very good. I'm much better than I was last year, three years ago. I'm going to play again."

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