- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Gheorghe Muresan must have been the world’s tallest stay-at-home dad, a 7-foot-7 diaper changer who also mowed the lawn and did the plumbing.

That was how the former Washington Bullets center and one-time movie actor — he appeared with Billy Crystal in “My Giant” — spent most of the past few years: being with his wife, tending his two sons and taking care of their home in Franklin Lakes, N.J.

It was a difficult adjustment at first.

Muresan arrived in Washington in 1993 a monumental man of mystery and in a short time became a basketball celebrity. No player in NBA history was taller, a distinction he shared with former Bullets center Manute Bol and one that quickly made him a fan favorite.

But his body wouldn’t hold up under the strain of pro basketball. After six years in the NBA, he played one final, injury-riddled season in exile in France. He retired for good three years ago at the age of 30 because his broken-down body couldn’t take it anymore.

“My legs didn’t get the same power because my back was very damaged. Enough was enough,” said Muresan, who may need a third operation on his back soon. “I had the nicest life in the world until I retired. It was very hard to transition to retire. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do. I did nothing — absolutely nothing — for a year.”

The fallen giant is feeling better these days, and he flashed a quick smile as he ate a California roll at a sushi restaurant downtown. He talked about the pleasures of home life and his plans for the future.

“This is my dream,” said Muresan, a Romanian who spent four seasons with the Bullets. “I had a dream to play in the NBA. Now, my dream is to be around my kids and have fun with them playing basketball.”

And others’ kids, as well.

Muresan is beginning a second career as an entrepreneur in the business of basketball.

He plans to teach the game to youngsters at a chain of basketball schools he is working to set up in the Washington area. The first year-round “academy” is scheduled to open in September.

The idea came to him during his quiet year after retirement, when he was soul searching and contemplating life after the game. In fact, spending time with his 6-year-old son, George, inspired the project. Muresan figured working with George and his other son, 3-year-old Victor, was the perfect post-playing career.

“I want to do this so I can spend more time with my son,” said Muresan, who turned down an offer to coach the Romanian national team to pursue this venture. “He likes to play basketball. I was 15 when I started to play basketball. If I didn’t get that opportunity, I wouldn’t have played in the NBA.

“Maybe I will help somebody get a scholarship or get to the NBA. At the same time, I will be with my kids, having fun on the court. This is the only thing that I know — basketball.”

Muresan could have pursued other opportunities. He dabbled in films with “My Giant” in 1998, and he showed charisma in commercials he made during his playing days. He received feelers to return to Hollywood and was asked to be in a movie in France, but Muresan has little interest in being the world’s tallest thespian.

“No way,” he said. “I want to be in Washington and around kids right now.”

His agent, Bill Sweek, received calls from China inquiring whether Muresan would want to play there and from television producers wondering whether Muresan was available for a small role. However, the opportunities became more scarce as Muresan moved further out of the limelight. Sweek saw the basketball school as a good fit.

“He likes working with young people and is a magnet for young people,” the agent said. “It was tough on him mentally to come to grips with not playing anymore and finding a way to occupy his time. He’s been working around the house, but that gets old.”

Muresan has been researching this project for two years and is negotiating a site for the school, which he sees as an after-school program in which children ages 6 to 15 can get professional instruction and properly learn the game.

“Our goal will be to get them prepared for their high school team,” said Muresan, who will move back to the area this month. “We are going to have practices with the best coaches and nice games for kids. We are going to train kids in speed and agility and all that kind of stuff.”

He is also working on a deal to affiliate his school with the Washington Wizards. Muresan plans to run the basketball side and hire a business manager, describing himself as a “first-grader” in terms of becoming a CEO.

It has been a long trek from his birthplace in Triteni, Romania, to the NBA to Hollywood and, now, to his latest role as a businessman.

Washington drafted Muresan, who was playing in France, with its second-round pick in 1993.

Muresan grew so tall because of a pituitary gland problem — his father was 5-9 and his mother 5-7 — and the Bullets paid for corrective surgery before he arrived in Washington. Muresan said his health, other than his back, now is fine.

He began his time in the United States as a giant curiosity who spoke no English and sat on the end of the Bullets’ bench, yet he immediately became a fan favorite.

“They would cheer for me,” Muresan said. “I would hear them yell, ‘We want Gheorghe. We want Gheorghe.’ [Then-coach] Wes [Unseld] would look at me and call somebody else’s name. It was embarrassing.”

Muresan, who wore No.77 in celebration of his height, became a starter and serviceable player the next season. He was on his way to stardom during the 1995-96 season, when he started 76 games, averaged 14.5 points and 9.6 rebounds, led the league in field goal percentage and was named the NBA’s most improved player.

The next season, he averaged 10.6 points and again led the league in shooting with 60.4 percent. He helped the Bullets to the playoffs — the franchise’s first postseason appearance since 1988 — playing alongside Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Ben Wallace.

Muresan struggled while playing hurt as Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls executed a three-game sweep.

“That was the most fun for me,” Muresan said. “Then I knew all the work I had done had paid off — to be in the NBA playoffs.”

That would be Muresan’s final appearance with the Bullets. He missed the 1997-98 season because of a mysterious injury, which some inaccurately thought occurred in the offseason on the set of “My Giant.”

It was later determined that three nerves in his back had been compressed by his large bones, which affected feeling in both legs.

Muresan’s final year in Washington also took an emotional toll.

“[The public] would call my house and trash talk,” said Muresan, who lived in Crofton, Md. “It was difficult because I was hurt and couldn’t do anything. But [criticism] is part of the way it is. It wasn’t used to that. I had to figure it out.”

He had corrective surgery but was never the same.

Muresan missed almost three full seasons — he played one game with the Nets in 1998-99 but soon after required knee surgery — and never again showed the promise he had in Washington.

Now, he is back in the District with an ambitious new basketball venture.

“In five years, I would like to see a few of the kids be the best players in high school and have lots of locations,” he said. “This is going to be my whole life.”

His fragile 7-7 frame may have taken him away from the game he loves, but his newfound entrepreneurial spirit has brought him back.

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