"7 Feet 7 and 360 Pounds, With Bigger Feet Than Shaq’s" | New York Times
ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The University of North Carolina-Asheville men’s basketball team has perhaps the most effective inbounds play in the country: the Bulldogs’ point guard lofts the ball high toward the basket, and center Kenny George either tips it in or dunks it, without leaving his feet, as his opponents leap in vain.
Some things come easily on the basketball court for George, the tallest player in the country, at 7 feet 7 inches and 360 pounds. Entering the Bulldogs’ game Wednesday night against top-ranked North Carolina, George leads the nation in blocked shots per game (5.4), and he has become a fan favorite here in his junior year. Near the end of a recent overtime victory against Buffalo, George received a standing ovation for his 21-point, 10-rebound, 6-block performance.
“We tried not to go under the basket when he’s in, because it’s useless,” Buffalo Coach Reggie Witherspoon said.
A week later, on Saturday night, George’s dunk with 26.8 seconds left gave Asheville (11-3) the lead for good in a 61-58 victory at South Carolina.
But as with many of the extremely tall basketball players before him — including Gheorghe Muresan, Manute Bol and Shawn Bradley — such size brings serious drawbacks. George’s joints are under considerable stress, and everything from buying shoes to going out with his friends can be difficult.
He is too tall to fit into a driver’s seat, so he does not have a driver’s license and must ask friends for rides. When the semester ends, his father drives 650 miles from Chicago, his hometown, to Asheville so George does not have to squeeze into an airplane seat.
“I don’t hate it, but there are times I wish that I weren’t so tall,” George said.
George grew up on the North Side of Chicago. His parents separated when he was 2 years old, and his father, Ken Sr., received primary custody of his only son. Although George was tall from an early age, he did not become interested in basketball until middle school.
“Basketball wasn’t what I was trying to bring him up to do, it just went in that direction,” Ken Sr. said.
George was on the varsity squad by his sophomore year at the Latin School of Chicago. “He was 6-11, huge for a kid that age, but even then he had exceptionally good control of his body,” said Latin’s coach, Dave VanderMeulen.
George’s body kept growing. By his senior year, his feet had grown beyond size 23, the largest athletic shoe made. In search of a size 25, VanderMeulen appealed to college and N.B.A. teams. Weeks later, Shaquille O’Neal sent several pairs of his size 22’s to Chicago. VanderMeulen shipped them to a New York City shoemaker who cut off the soles and toes and reshaped them into 25’s.
Asheville has a contract with Nike, which makes 12 pairs of size-26 shoes for George. They are the only shoes he wears.
“I suspect his shoe will go into the Hall of Fame because of its size,” said Asheville’s coach, Eddie Biedenbach. George’s wingspan, fingertip to fingertip, is 101 ½ inches, and with shoes on he stands 7-9.
George says he faces no long-term health problems because of his size, but still has his pituitary gland checked by an endocrinologist once a month. “I’d probably still be tall if I didn’t have an overactive pituitary — just not 7-7,” he said.
Gigantism or acromegaly — in which a tumor on the pituitary gland causes an oversecretion of growth hormone — may be the cause of his condition. Dr. Michael Thorner, professor of internal medicine at the University of Virginia, said acromegaly had an incidence rate of three to four cases per million and usually was not diagnosed until after puberty.
“There are basketball players out there who clearly have had acromegaly at some point, but if it’s controlled and treated, they can play and have a normal life expectancy,” Thorner said.
During his senior year of high school, George dislocated his right kneecap and was out for eight weeks. He was academically ineligible his first year at Asheville and lost the entire next season after he dislocated a knee in the preseason, requiring major surgery. Last year was a slow climb toward getting back in shape.
Biedenbach recalled George’s college debut, at Virginia in November 2006, when he had five blocked shots in 15 minutes.
“They didn’t know what to do with him,” Biedenbach said. “But afterward he didn’t play for the next five days because his knees were too swollen and sore.”
This season, George wears braces on both knees as a preventative measure and says his joints have not caused any problems. Averaging about 22 minutes a game — more than double last season’s average — George seems healthier after a summer of intense cardio workouts. Biedenbach is optimistically cautious.
“We have to learn to play with him and without him, because it’s a completely different game,” Biedenbach said. “But of course we’d like to get him the ball more.”
George said he hoped to play professional basketball, but he has other interests — including graphic design, animation, comic books and cartoons. He arrived on campus with storyboards of movie ideas; he has written several short stories and screenplays and said he would like to produce films.
“His physical presence is always noticed, so he cherishes moments of not having that,” VanderMeulen said. “Our team tried to allow him time away from people asking if they can put their hand against his hand or how big his feet are.”
The attention has not abated, but George says he is more comfortable with it because he and his team are playing well.
“When he got here, he wasn’t having too much fun,” his teammate Bryan Smithson said. “But since he’s gotten healthy, he is. It’s great to see, because while he’s a great player, he’s also a great person.”