Looking for the next big thing

Nighthawks hope 7-9 player puts team in spotlight

Pro basketball

February 01, 2007|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun reporter

CHEVY CHASE -- As Maryland Nighthawks owner Tom Doyle spoke glowingly of the player he hopes can create buzz for his minor league team and the struggling American Basketball Association, the object of his admiration stood close by, looking down at the assembled media - from way up high.

At 7 feet 9, Sun Ming Ming had no choice in that matter.

The Nighthawks have declared Sun, 23, a native of Bayan, China, the tallest player in professional basketball history. And they plan to unveil their latest project and largest threat Saturday night against the Strong Island Sound at their Montgomery College home court in Rockville.

His teammates already have nicknamed him "Big Homey." William Rankin, the Nighthawks' coach, said he is amazed by Sun's agility, passing skills, aptitude for the game and, of course, the ease with which he can dunk on "whoever."

Doyle, a lawyer and former amateur boxer, freely admits that Sun's signing is about marketing, about getting people to pay for a peek at a true giant in the paint. But during his yearlong courtship of Sun, Doyle said he became attached to the hard-working kid who had life-saving surgery 17 months ago to stop his growth by removing a tumor from his pituitary gland.

Sun, who is used to being noticed - he landed a role in the recently filmed movie Rush Hour 3, with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker - just wants to get back to playing ball. He also is determined to move on to the big time.

"I just want to play in NBA. I don't care what team," said Sun, who wears size-20 shoes, weighs 370 pounds, speaks limited English, and talked mainly through an interpreter yesterday at Mei Wah, the Chinese restaurant where he was introduced.

"I hope to make it big some day," he said. "This I want."

Rankin, who plans to start Sun on Saturday and says he can play effectively for up to 30 minutes as he improves his conditioning, sees Sun carving a path to the big time, sooner than later.

Just watching him practicing with teammates for the past week and working with 7-7 friend and confidant Gheorghe Muresan, a former NBA player, has offered convincing evidence.

"[Sun] is what you call a quick-study athlete," Rankin said. "His IQ for the game is abnormally high. He's got a left- and right-hand hook shot. His skill and adaptation is second to none. He really sees the floor."

The NBA is apparently intrigued.

"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, told the Associated Press. "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.' "

Nighthawks guard Randy Gill, 6-2, who played at Bowie State, said: "I think he has great potential to be successful in the game of basketball. He can definitely play at the NBA level. He improves every day. He's a great passer. It's really hard to find people working as hard at the game as he does. I have to tell him, `Let's go home' [after a long workout]."

Sun said he first picked up a basketball at age "15 or 16." At that point, he was 6-10.

He went on to play for Hei Long Jiang, a junior national team in China. As he continued to grow at an astounding rate, eventually acquiring the gift of being able to dunk without jumping, Sun was diagnosed with acromegaly, a pituitary gland disease that produces excess growth hormones.

Sun has lived in the United States since 2004. After recovering from his surgery, he played sparingly last summer for the Dodge City Legend of the U.S. Basketball League.

Doyle, who also has been named the chief operating officer of the ABA, is trying to stabilize a three-conference league that started the 2004-05 season with 35 teams, tried to expand to 57 this year, but has had numerous teams fold and now consists of 43.

Doyle wants to move the Nighthawks, currently in third place with an 11-10 record in the Central Division of the Blue Conference, to a larger venue. And besides making his team more attractive to fans with the addition of Sun, he wants to help his new big man pay an estimated $135,000 in medical bills.

One idea is to stage an exhibition by forming a temporary frontcourt that would include Sun, Muresan and former 7-7 NBA center Manute Bol. Doyle thinks that could earn a spot in Guinness World Records.

"What became bringing [Sun] over as a basketball player really has become [having] him as an adopted son," Doyle said. "What I learned quickly about this young man is he has tremendous heart and a desire to play this game. He's a great kid, kind of endearing."

gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

Tall Orders

Some of the tallest players to have made it in the NBA:

Player ........................ Height .................. Years

Manute Bol ................. 7-7 ................. 1985-1995

Gheorghe Muresan .. 7-7 ................. 1993-2000

Yao Ming ......................7-6 .............. 2002-present

Shawn Bradley ..........7-6 ............... 1993-2005

Chuck Nevitt ..............7-5 ................ 1982-1994

Slavko Vranes ...........7-5 ............... 2003-2004

Mark Eaton .................7-4 ................ 1982-1993

Rik Smits ....................7-4 ................ 1988-2000

Ralph Sampson .......7-4 ................. 1983-1992

SOURCE: nbahoopsonline.com

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