Gheorghe Muresan coaches youth basketball in Northern Virginia

Tracy A. Woodward/THE WASHINGTON POST - Former Bullet Gheorghe Muresan works with students at the Dominion Trail Elementary School in Ashburn in November.

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One of the tallest players in NBA history, now a youth basketball coach, Gheorghe Muresan is still unable to play the role of Goliath. He stands 7 feet 7, but at 42, he’s still a quintessential basketball underdog, and every bit a David.

Early on in Muresan’s second career running the Giant Basketball Academy in Northern Virginia, he encountered a camper who struggled for an entire game to score a point. With seconds to the buzzer, the boy was in tears. Muresan stopped the game, took the boy aside, and stood with him until he made a shot. Then two. Then three.

Afterward, Muresan said, something dawned on him. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, I used to be like this kid.’ ”

Muresan founded the year-round, co-ed basketball workshop in 2004, four years after his NBA career ended. He coaches children as young as 6 on basketball’s fundamentals and teamwork skills, regardless of their playing proficiency. After nine years, he knows what it takes. “You need to give a lot from your heart,” he said.

Muresan sees parallels between the campers and his own basketball origins. He was hardly destined for NBA greatness: Born and raised in the Transylvania region of Romania, Muresan said he “had no idea about basketball” until age 15, when his height — the result of a pituitary gland condition — caught the attention of basketball coaches at his boarding school in Cluj. With six months of practice, the player who describes picking up a ball for the first time as “kind of weird” surpassed his best teammates.

Muresan doesn’t play down the culture shock and insecurities he felt as a 22-year-old basketball novice landing in the United States in 1993, after the Washington Bullets drafted him in the second round, with little more than a dictionary and a cold sweat. He isn’t shy about telling students he missed his first shots as a rookie. And how his work paid off: In the 1995-96 season, his fourth and final one with the Bullets, Muresan was voted the NBA’s most improved player.

The chance to draw such parallels are one reason he loves the job, even on days when practices get chaotic.

Even if you lose a game, “you don’t have to be sad,” he says. “If you don’t lose, you don’t win.”

In 1998 and 2000, in the midst of a series of injuries that would end his NBA career, Muresan’s sons George and Victor were born, kindling a fondness for nurturing children that would serve as the driving force behind his decision to found the academy. Becoming a father, Muresan said, “was the best thing that could happen to me.”

In its nine years, the academy has grown to three leagues, which hold practices and games. Almost 80 kids enrolled in clinics last fall. GBA also offers five-week summer camps that fill quickly. Most practices are held in Virginia public school gyms during off-hours, which helps keep camp tuition low.

One aspect of the academy has remained constant: Muresan wants the camp to serve as a resource for beginners, so his classes are restricted to children ages 6 to 14. Since some campers will pick up a basketball for the first time at his academy, Muresan says, he has selected a handful of assistant coaches from various athletic backgrounds who take GBA’s mission of prioritizing players over points to heart.

“Giving everyone a chance to go in the game and then come out and get high-fives,” regardless of skill level, is a big draw for campers and their families,” says Christopher Iaquinta, a coach at the camp. “And Gheorghe really encourages them and just has a good time.”

Muresan spends an average of 34 hours per week coaching for his academy, on top of serving as a spokesperson for the Wizards. But as he likes to say, “if you enjoy what you do, it’s not work.” And if you give the sport a chance, Muresan adds, it’ll pay you back.

“They clearly know their stuff,” Carey Aquilina said of GBA’s coaches. Aquilina’s two sons, Thomas, 11, and Louis, 9, have been part of the academy for three years. And for Louis, who has mild autism and was discouraged by doctors from playing sports, Muresan is a perfect fit. Aquilina says she has watched her sons build lasting friendships and gain confidence on and off the court thanks to Muresan’s gentle leadership.

“Keep in mind this is a 7-foot guy, so it takes a lot to get down on the kids’ level, literally as well as figuratively,” Aquilina said. “And yet none of them are afraid to be there listening to him, standing there watching him. Because he’s so approachable.”

As the night wound down during a recent practice at Algonkian Elementary School in Sterling, Muresan gathered his players for a final lesson: layups.

In slow motion, he took three large steps to the hoop, paused for a moment, and tossed the ball into the net. “I know you know how to do this,” Muresan reassured the children. “You’ve practiced.”

One by one, eight girls and boys — each with a ball in hand — took three giant leaps into Muresan’s footprints, and took their shots.

For more information about Gheorghe Muresan and the Giant Basketball Academy, visit www.giantbasketball.com.

 
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