They are never quite as clever as they think they are. They are never that subtle, that funny or that original, Mark Eaton has learned. Take this particular stranger—30-ish white male, black-rimmed glasses, purple hoodie—on a Wednesday afternoon at Salt Lake City International Airport. As Eaton, the 7'4" former Jazz center, chats with a Delta attendant at Gate D10 about changing his seat to an exit row, the stranger's strategy plays out in all-too-familiar steps: 1) head straight for Eaton; 2) pretend to be in line behind the two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year; 3) spin around, shoot both arms into the air and smile. Holding the pose now, chin barely above the belt loops on Eaton's soaring khakis, this fellow flier evokes a thrilled tourist at the foot of the Empire State Building.
Before the flash of a coconspirator's iPhone camera goes off, Eaton swivels his head. ("I'm so far up," he likes to say, "that they think I never notice.") The former All-Star blocked 3,064 shots in his NBA career, including a still-record 456 in 1984--85, and right now he would love nothing more than to extend his hand and interrupt another.
Better judgment prevails, however. As in thousands of similar situations before, Eaton allows the picture. Feigned ignorance isn't bliss, but it can sustain a big man's sanity on trips such as this one to Las Vegas. "Though it would've been nice," Eaton whispers, bending down to the ear of the reporter accompanying him, "if that guy had, you know, asked."
Like any 7-footer loosed by the NBA, Eaton's sports afterlife has been by no means premised upon permission. Any sort of enclosed space—the Whole Foods near his home in Park City, the ski lodge at Deer Valley, the Italian restaurant he co-owns in Salt Lake City—is stage enough for a spectacle that must, like the towering 54-year-old himself, be seen to be fully believed. Even with the planet's biggest celebrities (your Oprahs and Biebers) word of their presence must spread before madness ensues. But for men of Eaton's height, famous or not, there is no hiding. Instead, every entrance is followed by a sudden hush and accompanied by a Truman Show--like sensation that everyone is staring at you, discussing you and executing covert schemes to chronicle you without your knowledge. As Eaton, who these days works as a full-time motivational speaker, sums it up, "For us, there is no fading into the mist."
Take your pick of the übertall and ask them what life is like standing high among the masses, without charter flights or other NBA-provided boundaries. Ask 7'2" Robb Dryden, a one-time Georgia center who made it as far as training camp with the 76ers and the Grizzlies in the early 2000s and who now works as a home builder in Enterprise, Ala. "The absolute worst place a 7-footer could ever go is Walmart," says the 32-year-old Dryden, who hasn't set foot in one in years. "You might as well be in a circus sideshow." Or 7'6" Shawn Bradley, at age 39 a Utah cattle rancher and a spokesman for the Children's Miracle Network. "I once did an event with [Hall of Fame quarterback] Steve Young," Bradley recalls. "Steve goes, 'Shawn, I love hanging around you. When I'm alone I can put on a hat and sunglasses and may or may not be recognized. But you always take all the attention.'" Less than two years ago Bradley, a devout Mormon, took his wife and four daughters to volunteer at a leper colony outside Chennai, India. Nonmedical photography is prohibited in that locale, but the colonists begged a doctor to let them borrow his camera, otherwise used to document flesh wounds, in order to snap pictures with the former 76ers, Nets and Mavericks center.
Even Bradley's journey halfway around the world failed to provide refuge from the endless loop of questions, which always features two queries: How tall are you? and Did you play basketball? "That all started when I was in grade school, and it still happens today," says 7'2" Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's alltime scoring leader. "People could be very rude. Sometimes you get to the point where you don't deal with people and you just don't answer." Sometimes, even if you have never been invisible, you can't help but try.
Fact: An actual accounting of 7-footers, domestic or global, does not exist in any reliable form. National surveys by the Center for Disease Control list no head count or percentile at that height. (Only 5% of adult American males are 6'3" or taller.) "In terms of the growth spectrum, 7 feet is simply extreme," explains endocrinologist Shlomo Melmed, dean of the medical faculty at L.A.'s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The term 7-footer is itself a kind of outer limit, a far-off threshold beyond which precise measurement seems superfluous. A 6'4" guard isn't a 6-footer, after all. The curve shaped by the CDC's available statistics, however, does allow one to estimate the number of American men between the ages of 20 and 40 who are 7 feet or taller: fewer than 70 in all. Which indicates, by further extrapolation, that while the probability of, say, an American between 6'6" and 6'8" being an NBA player today stands at a mere 0.07%, it's a staggering 17% for someone 7 feet or taller.
In this century, for the tallest among us, hoops is not just a reasonable hobby but a de facto life imperative. "I'll check up on anyone over 7 feet that's breathing," says Ryan Blake, the NBA's assistant director of scouting. It shouldn't be surprising that the tallest living American-born man, 7'8" George Bell, played college ball (at Biola University in California), made camp with the Clippers in 1988 and suited up for the Globetrotters before taking on his present job as a sheriff's deputy in Norfolk. Or that 7'8" Paul Sturgess, who can clutch a rim without jumping, emigrated from Loughborough, England, explicitly to play basketball and finished his collegiate career at Mountain State University in West Virginia this past season. Or that LSU coaches encouraged 7'2" Andrew Del Piero, once a tuba player with the Tigers' band, to drop his instrument last year and walk onto the varsity basketball team. The rising junior has yet to enter a game, but there he is.
"There ain't but two things you can do at 7 feet," jokes Harry Stanback, whose son, Trevor, is a center at Summit Intermediate School in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., and, already 6'8" at age 13, projected to join the 7-footers' club soon enough. "One of them is play basketball. The other is clean elephant butts."
Today, thanks to pioneers like Bob Kurland (6'10"), George Mikan (6'10"), Wilt Chamberlain (7'1") and Abdul-Jabbar—each of whom forced the collegiate and/or professional ranks to revise their rules in attempts to restrict big man dominance—a 7-footer sticks out less inside the paint than anywhere else in the world, at any point in history. For simple scale, take a look at the relatively lilliputian requirements to join the roughly 3,000 members of Tall Clubs International (phone number: 888-I-M-TALL-2), the biggest social organization of its kind. Male members must stand all of 6'2"; females just 5'10". According to Dave Rasmussen, the club's tallest member at 7'3" and a former unenthusiastic basketball player at Custer High in Milwaukee, the club boasts only a handful of 7-footers worldwide. "Over the years people have asked me to join their tall club," says 7'1" former Bullets, Sonics and Nets center Jim McIlvaine, now 38. "But I'm already in one. It's called the National Basketball Retired Players Association. And our members are taller than theirs."
So arises the spectacle that continues to haunt retired players such as Eaton. Since the public almost exclusively sees 7-footers alongside other extremely tall people—and on television, at that—it can become challenging to imagine these men years later, back in the normal population, in real life. "People have been totally desensitized to the idea of size," says Daniel Ivankovich, a 6'11" orthopedic surgeon in Chicago and a former center at Northwestern. "We throw around numbers like '7 feet' all the time. But until we see it up close, we have no idea how big 7 feet truly is."
It is a balmy May afternoon in midtown Manhattan and Kevin Willis strides into the Marcraft Apparel Group offices in Trump Tower, 18 floors above Fifth Avenue. Wearing dark jeans and a satiny blue shirt, Willis, who retired in 2007 after 21 NBA seasons, sifts through a bundle of pinstriped fabric swatches in one room before tagging into a protracted debate about off-the-rack suit jackets in the next. ("Kevin," one Marcraft executive asks, holding up two dark Tommy Hilfiger suits, "what do you think about these lapels?") The whole scene might feel satirical—the 7-foot Willis has never been able to fit into a Hilfiger suit, let alone much of anything sold on the streets below—were it not part of a larger response to the 48-year-old's fashion conundrum.
For 23 years, going back to his days as a Hawk, Willis has run Willis & Walker, an "extended-length" clothing line that will be expanded by Marcraft into a commercial brand for extraordinarily tall men, ranging from Supima cotton T-shirts to tuxedos, later this year. The former All-Star, a fashion and textiles major at Michigan State, already boasts some high-profile clientele: Patrick Ewing (7 feet), Bill Cartwright (7'1"), Shaquille O'Neal (7'1"), David Robinson (7'1"), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (7'3") and Yao Ming (7'6") all wear his jeans, to name a few. "I've outfitted at least four guys on every team that I played on," says Willis, who spent time with eight NBA squads. "Anytime something fits, the first question has been, Do you have another one? Then, Does it come in any other colors?"
Such loyal patronage, Willis admits, stems from both quality and a lack of alternatives. If you're 6'5", locating clothes can be a trial. At 7 feet, you learn how acutely the world's measurements have been altered by the laws of supply and demand. Hall of Fame center Artis Gilmore, who is 7'2" and now working as a special assistant to the president of his alma mater, Jacksonville, purchases the biggest pair of jeans in a store, on average a size-60 waist, and then pays a tailor to alchemize horizontal into vertical. Dryden tells of how, after "five years of searching," he finally found a pair of cargo shorts with a 14-inch inseam. Predictably, they had been discontinued. So he called stores across the country, spending $700 to buy the last 10 pairs in existence. And when Eaton needed to borrow a hunting jacket a few years ago, he knew of only one person that he could turn to in a pinch. He called Bradley, who lives 45 minutes away from him in Murray, Utah, and who owned one that had been custom-fit. "The first time I sent in my measurements," Bradley recalls of ordering that garment, "the factory sent me back a smaller jacket and said, 'This must be what you meant. No person's that big.'"
Finding footwear that fits can be an even more painful pursuit. "People won't stock shoes over size 15," says Bruce Teilhaber, the owner of Friedman's Shoes in downtown Atlanta. "We have more 17s than 8s, so the biggest guys are all mine. And I don't know what I'd do without them." Nor they him. Former Pacers center Rik Smits, who stands 7'4", wore such tight shoes at home in the Netherlands as a teenager that he developed excruciating nerve damage in his feet. In 1962, as an impoverished 12-year-old in Chipley, Fla., Gilmore was so outsized, he says, that he went barefoot for an entire year. Today, both Smits (size 20) and Gilmore (18) are customers at Friedman's—as is every retired player quoted in this story. (As Teilhaber exclaimed on a recent afternoon, "I just sent [7'2" former Jazz center] Luther Wright three pairs of 20s!")
But no matter how many niche businesses emerge to serve big men, complications of fit are guaranteed. "Nothing is ergonomically correct for a 7-footer," says 7'2" James Donaldson, who played center for five teams over 14 years and now runs the Donaldson Clinic, a physical therapy center in Mill Creek, Wash. "I would love, just once, to fill up a hotel bathtub with bubbles and soak in it like a normal-sized person can." But that will never happen. More frustrating—not to mention dangerous—are doorways, which have long been standardized at 6'8", along with ceiling fans, exit signs and steel emergency sprinklers, lying in wait like caltrops. "With those things, you're talking about scalping an individual," says Gilmore. Rare is the pivotman who has emerged unscathed.
Yes, residences can be customized with giant-appropriate luxuries such as boosted countertops. The Atlanta home of four-time Defensive Player of the Year Dikembe Mutombo, who stands 7'2", features the type of taller toilet seats found in handicap bathroom stalls. But because of the inherent costs of personalization and the possibility of having to one day sell to the normal-sized, even Dryden—whose company, Dryden Contracting, has built houses since 2006—has omitted such conveniences from his home. Besides, the money being poured into a 7-footer's ride tends to be strain enough. The most popular vehicles are of the gas-guzzling sort: SUVs, minivans and pickup trucks, often with adjusted seats. For Eaton, it's a massive Ford F-350 pickup, his left knee comically peeking over the driver's side door. Bradley and Dryden drive the same model.
Which is not to suggest that, for the lofty, some critical decisions cannot be height-blind. Just one of the 15 retired 7-footers interviewed by SI reported that his current or most recent significant other cleared 6 feet: McIlvaine, whose second wife, Gwendolyn, a center on North Carolina's 1994 championship women's basketball team, stands at a room-stopping 6'7". (Imagine their kids—all but one of SI's sample of 7-footers had at least one parent who reached 6'2", demonstrating that great height can be partially foreseen.) "At the Houston airport, we once had to have security stop people from videotaping us," laments McIlvaine, now a Marquette basketball radio analyst as well as an online support staffer for Optima Batteries in Milwaukee. Still, during the couple's courtship, McIlvaine realized that being half of perhaps the tallest couple on earth provided something uniquely gratifying. "This is the first time in my life that I've really felt comfortable with somebody," Jim says. "She understands. She understands exactly what it's like."
Exactly what it's like, scientifically speaking, remains something of a medical blind spot. For all of that visibility, no academic studies have ever taken a magnifying glass to the supertall. Indeed, in February, SI posed three basic questions about the nature of 7-footers (population size, factors responsible for height, and health risks) to the membership of the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society. Nearly five months later, SI has yet to receive a single reply. "The reality is, we don't tend to study tall as often as we study small," says Robert Ferry, professor and chief of pediatric endocrinology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. "Dads want their sons to become tall. And the majority of diseases impede growth, hence the lack of experts on tall stature."
The relative life expectancy of a 7-footer is foggy, but scientists do know that a human being's medically optimal height is considerably closer to 6'1" than it is to 7'1". Grow nearer to the latter mark, says John Komlos, an economist who studies height at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, and "health diminishes: back, heart, bones. Mortality rate rises." Adds Gowriharan Thaiyananthan, co--medical director of the Chapman Neurosurgical and Spine Institute in Orange, Calif., and a neurosurgeon who's operated on four 7-footers himself, "Our bodies were not designed to be 7 feet tall. That's like turning a car into a stretch limo: Things work, but it's not what nature decided is our optimal state. You're pushing every organ system to its limit."
When college and professional teams evaluate such players, they screen for height-connected pathologies like Marfan syndrome (a connective tissue disorder, the detection of which ended the basketball career of 7'1" Clarence Holloway at Louisville in 2008) and gigantism (a condition usually related to a tumor that causes the pituitary gland to overproduce growth hormone). Both diseases, while rare, can result in fatal heart malfunction. "Anyone who's 7 feet tall should be evaluated for a growth disorder," Melmed warns. Gigantism, for instance, is especially scarce—there have been only 100 or so reported cases in the United States—but the NBA has employed several players afflicted with the condition, including former Bullets and Nets center Gheorghe Muresan (7'7"), 2004 Jazz first-round draft pick Pavel Podkolzin (7'5") and Josh Moore (7'2"), a onetime Clippers center.
Then there are orthopedic issues, the kind of structural weaknesses one would expect from an aging stretch limo. It would be one thing to build a mammoth, perfectly symmetrical car. (Dwight Howard, 6'11", is the preferred model for orthopedists.) "But most big men are not proportioned the way most little men are," says Thomas Schmalzried, a 6'10" orthopedic surgeon in Los Angeles and a former Stanford center who includes himself in that group. The wearing down of one's lower back, knees and feet looms as a distinct risk. "In terms of degenerative issues, it looks like 7-footers may be ahead of the curve for what you'd expect for their age," Thaiyananthan says.
Eleven ex-players in SI's survey testified to having some kind of major knee, foot or back problem while playing or in retirement. Smits, for one, has had all three. Although doctors did repair the nerve damage to his feet with a series of four surgeries, Smits's left leg began to go numb a couple of years ago. MRIs eventually revealed the culprit: a pair of cracks in one of the hingelike joints that link his vertebrae, requiring intensive back surgery in November 2009. By now, Smits—who also had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and bone chips removed from his left ankle as a player—sounds remarkably dispassionate about the medley of plates, screws and bone grafts holding his body together. On some level, Smits, who now weighs roughly 270 pounds, the same as during his playing days, figures it makes logical sense: "It's a lot of weight we're lugging around."
Walt Lowe, the Rockets' team physician and chairman of orthopedic surgery at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, specifically warns of stress fractures stemming from abnormally rigid, high-arched feet—the type of shoddy shock absorbers which ended the season, and maybe the career, of his most famous patient, Yao Ming. "That's what you're worried about when your owner calls you up and says, I'm thinking of taking this 7'6" guy," Lowe says. "It seems to get the best of the really huge guys before their mid-to-late 30s." Continuing the automobile analogy, 35-year-old former 76ers and Nets center Todd MacCulloch, who had a chronic foot condition, remembers that a podiatrist once described his 7-foot frame as "a Hummer body on Toyota Tercel feet."
But despite the examples of Yao and Ralph Sampson (7'4", three knee surgeries) and 23-year-old Greg Oden (7 feet, four straight seasons truncated by knee problems), there remain equally glaring exceptions. Three of the NBA's top five alltime leaders in games played are 7-footers: 7-foot Robert Parish (1,611 games, first), Abdul-Jabbar (1,560, second) and Willis (1,424, fifth). "People say, You're 7 feet, you're going to break down," Willis says. "But I don't buy into that. No one can tell what's going to happen."
THE PRINCIPAL reason for Eaton's Salt Lake--to-Vegas flight is a speaking engagement where he will deliver a heartfelt, hourlong oration that he has spent the last four years whittling down and committing to memory. It is the story of how his career was born. Eaton was 21 and unskilled back then, a washout who loathed basketball following a stint spent nailed to the bench at Westminster (Calif.) High. Upon graduation he had fled to the Arizona Automotive Institute in Phoenix, only returning to Southern California to pursue a career as an auto mechanic. Every stranger Eaton encountered at the mall and at the supermarket continued to ask whether he played basketball. In response, he simply stopped going to the mall and to the supermarket.
It was at a tire store near Anaheim that Tom Lubin, then an assistant basketball coach and chemistry professor at Cypress College, spotted Eaton one April afternoon in 1977. The kid rebuffed Lubin's intro—"Not interested, no thanks"—but the coach, smitten with such height, came back again and again in the subsequent months, no matter how many times Eaton tossed the junior college's brochures into the bottom drawer of his tool box. By the end of visit number 15, at long last, one of Lubin's pitches stuck. "Tom convinced me that my height, which I had considered to be my biggest liability, could be my greatest strength," Eaton recalls. "But I had to let go of every idea of who or what I could be."
For a 7-footer, so few of whom come naturally to the game to begin with, this notion has always sounded enticing. Before Eaton there was Donaldson, an insecure 300-pound junior at Sacramento's Luther Burbank High, who only agreed to start practicing with the basketball team under one condition: every window of the gym had to be covered with newspapers so that classmates couldn't stare. After Eaton came Mutombo, so visually unsettling as a teen that townspeople in the Congolese villages that he passed through would run away upon seeing him, swearing that he was a phantom. He would be dragged to the hoop by his oldest brother, Ilo, during his senior year at Kinshasa's Institute Boboto. After Mutombo came the 7'2", 16-year-old Bradley, who would cry himself to sleep at the Nike/ABCD camp in Princeton, N.J. "What am I doing here?" he would ask himself after hours of taunting from the crowd. Only a fellow camper's private pep talk finally convinced him that he belonged. And so on, and so on. As Eaton says, contemplating his own development, "It's a bit of a miracle, isn't it?"
Eaton is posing this question to Artex Risk Solutions, an Illinois-based insurance outfit, on an early spring afternoon, deep inside the Aria Resort & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip. The ballroom spotlight's halo is too small, leaving his face in semidarkness. The path to letting go of his old self, Eaton explains to the crowd, was far from certain: He would learn an array of basic post moves from Lubin at Cypress, then transfer to UCLA, where again he played sparingly, only to catch on with the Jazz as a fourth-round flier in 1982. According to Lubin, who became Eaton's mentor, one of the first things his pupil needed was to know that Lubin wasn't there to make fun of him. Trust was paramount. Eaton needed to believe that an imperative to do one thing with his life, and one thing only, would turn out to liberate rather than oppress.
And that it would. Since retiring, both Bradley (who, last November, was a losing candidate in the race for a seat in the Utah House of Representatives) and Donaldson (who lost Seattle's mayoral race in 2009) have become aspiring politicians, of all things, willing subjects of even more intense public scrutiny. Mutombo, whose foundation is devoted to building hospitals in Africa, took the newly created job of NBA global ambassador upon retirement in '09, sending him off on an international round of functions and meet-and-greets. "When I retired, I thought my popularity would go down," Mutombo admits. "And yet it's only gone up and up."
In spite of all the attention, growing old without having succumbed to basketball in the first place somehow seems a more terrifying alternative. "It's difficult to even look at that possibility," Gilmore says, echoing his 7-foot brethren. Educated guesses from these former players as to how they would be employed today—forklift driver (Donaldson), physician (Mutombo), mechanic (both Smits's and Eaton's backup plan)—all hint at a less contented, less confident, less compensated existence. "I know a few men, 7-foot or close to it, who get bombarded with the same treatment and questions all day that I do," Donaldson says. The difference? They don't have the luxury of a backbone installed by the NBA, a business which long conditioned them to so much spectacle, to never quite fading into the mist.
In Vegas, after his speech is done, Eaton positions himself behind a folding table. There's a stack of evaluation forms to distribute, a grey handheld credit-card machine and a cardboard box containing 8-by-10s, posters and DVD copies of his speech, all available to purchase. Eaton will gladly autograph each item with his new personal slogan, play big!
But the most popular item does not cost a cent, even though virtually everyone in the room will end up getting one. Eaton's policy here is long-standing and by design: Want to take a picture with the big man? It's very simple. All you have to do is ask.
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