Gheorghe Muresan, movie star, folded his 7-foot-7 body into a chair outside the Washington Wizards' locker room. In the background, the early arrivals at the MCI Center could be heard laughing at the trailer for his debut film.
There was no celebrity swagger to Muresan, no stars in his big brown eyes. Working with Billy Crystal last summer was a lot of fun, but now it seems a long time ago.Instead, Muresan is apprehensive and afraid. It is 30 minutes to tip-off - his teammates are on the other side of the door discussing assignments and strategy - and the tallest player in NBA history has no idea when, or if, he will be able to suit up again.
"I ask myself, `Why? Why don't I play? Why am I injured?' I can't find out," said Muresan, the frustration evident in a thick Romanian accent.
"I want an answer. Nobody can give me an answer."
The answer has eluded doctors ever since Muresan came home limping after filming the suitably titled "My Giant" in Hollywood, although some teammates were quick to diagnose a case of sacrificing team in pursuit of stardom. The Wizards are trying to make a playoff run without a true center and news that their big man may have damaged himself by not wearing arch supports while filming has left a bitter taste.
"Either you want to be a movie star, or you want to be a basketball player," said forward Harvey Grant. "You've got to realize which one really pays the bills.
Such talk rankles Muresan because his life has revolved around basketball since age 14, when he went to see a dentist who happened to be a referee on the side. The sport has lifted him from a working-class childhood in Triteni, Romania, to the multimillionaire lifestyle of the NBA.
"It's a joke. A lot of people say it's the movie's fault," Muresan said. "It was just one day with no orthotics (arch supports), but before I would do the same. Two summers ago, I was home in Romania, I wore no orthotics for a month" with no ill effects.
Muresan said doctors have been unable to say for sure if the injury was linked to the arch supports or anything else he did while filming the movie.
"A lot of people are talking about my foot like they know (what's wrong)," he said. "But I have no idea."
As Muresan awaits word on his latest series of tests, only one thing seems certain: Whatever the problem turns out to be, it will - like just about everything else in Muresan's life - revolve around a physical condition that has literally made him a freak of nature.
Had the basketball world not discovered him, Muresan would probably be 8 feet tall and blind by now - if he were even alive. Muresan, 27, has acromegaly, a condition caused by a benign pituitary tumor that spurs the excretion of abnormal growth hormone and results in gigantism. Actor and pro wrestler Andre the Giant, who died in 1993 at age 46, was also acromegalic.
There has been no diagnosis that blames Muresan's injury on his condition. But his the condition magnifies any injury in his legs or feet.
Pituitary surgery, arranged by the Wizards after they drafted him in 1993, stopped Muresan's runaway growth and probably saved his life, but he is still an incredible sight close up. He makes a standard size chair look like a foot stool. His nose is bigger than a baby's fist. His protruding jaw is mammoth.
Muresan, a favorite with the Washington fans, averaged 11 points per game while shooting close to 60 percent and blocking 443 shots over four seasons. This was the supposed to be the year he helped the Wizards end a decade of mediocrity by making the playoffs with room to spare, a hope that was dashed when he reported to training camp in September with no strength in his right foot, unable to run or jump.
For most of the season, the diagnosis was a stretched tendon, possibly caused by the lack of arch supports. Muresan wore an immobilizing cast for five weeks and was on crutches until February.
"For three weeks after the cast, it's going pretty good. Improve, improve, but then it goes like this," said Muresan, holding his hand flat. "It stops again. I cannot play. I don't have any power. Never I feel the pain, never. It's just, I don't feel power.
"I was so mad. I was very mad, very upset, depressed. The leg is not more improved, three weeks, not improved."
Muresan went to general manager Wes Unseld, who promised to find the "best specialist in the United States." Expecting some closure, Muresan flew to see the New York specialist and received shocking news: His tendon, thought to be the problem all along, looked fine.
Muresan underwent a barrage of tests two days before the nationwide release of his movie. The Wizards say he is still in their plans, even though his $2.5 million-per-year contract expires at the end of this season. But what if the news from the tests is not good? What would Muresan do if he couldn't play basketball again?
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa," Muresan said. "I don't want to talk about that. I don't think that I cannot play basketball again. I'm depressed that I don't play this season."