The lanky, hunched-over figure looming along the highest row of wooden bleachers tried to keep his cool.
First, he pumped his fist. Then he tugged at his jeans, a pair of pants that fell far short of reaching the ankles of his impossibly long legs. It wasn’t until he rubbed one of his massive hands through his salt-and-pepper hair that Gheorghe Muresan appeared to relax as he flashed the smile that has made him one of the D.C. area’s most beloved sports figures.
On the other side of the basketball court was the object of Muresan’s passion on this early January afternoon — a smaller but still quite tall extension of him clad in a No. 32 St. Andrew’s jersey. His 16-year-old son, George, had just blocked a shot during the second half of a game, only to draw a foul in the subsequent scrum for the ball.
“Stay away from fouls,” Gheorghe bellowed in his native Romanian. “Don’t take yourself out of the game.”
It’s not the first time George has heard this advice from his 7-foot-7 father, and it won’t be the last. During a six-season stint as one of the tallest players in NBA history, including four with the Washington Bullets/Wizards, Gheorghe often ranked as one of the league’s leaders in blocks and fouls.
“I tell you the truth: When I go to his game, I’m more nervous than I used to be going to my games,” Gheorghe said. “It’s not nervous, like stressful nervous; it’s maybe more exciting nervous. . . . I don’t know. I have so much energy that day.”
Gheorghe’s swelling pride and giddy nerves likely have reached new highs this year.
George is a starter for 11th-ranked St. Andrew’s (14-1) during one of the best starts in school history. And as the junior has become comfortable in both his growing body and his father’s larger-than-life shadow, his game has improved, leading several mid-major college recruiters to take notice.
“He doesn’t put me down, and he doesn’t bring me too high up. He just tells me tips,” said George, who averages 5.8 points. “It’s exciting because he’s been to the professionals. He knows what he’s talking about.”
George bears little resemblance in skills and appearance to his father. He’s light on his feet, slim and has range that stretches to the perimeter. And at 6 feet 8, there are times when he isn’t the tallest player on the court.
So even with his father’s NBA pedigree, basketball wasn’t forced upon George as it was his father in 1986, when Gheorghe was a still sprouting, 7-foot 15-year-old in Romania, plucked from his favorite sport of soccer and plopped onto the basketball court. Gheorghe’s height is the result of a pituitary gland condition called gigantism.
“My situation was different. I start basketball because I was tall,” the 43-year-old Gheorghe recalled while sitting in the basement of his Potomac home. “When I start to play, first time I go to team was first time I touch a basketball goal and first time I shoot a basketball.”
George’s introduction to the hardwood came around age 6, when he tagged along at his father’s Giant Basketball Academy, a year-round coed basketball program that holds clinics for youth in the D.C. area. Before Gheorghe birthed the organization in 2004 as a way to stay close to both basketball and his two sons, George hadn’t quite grasped the celebrity built by his father in the NBA and as Billy Crystal’s co-star in the 1998 film “My Giant.”
“When we would go places, people would come up to us and want to take pictures, and when I was little, at first I was confused,” George said.
“But as I grew up and people kept asking about my dad being in the NBA, I said, ‘Oh, that’s why.’ ”
By eighth grade, George already stood 6-1, and the whispers from others grew just the same. Each time George entered a gym or played other sports like lacrosse and soccer, his name preceded him. Ultimately, spectators would fix their eyes upon the tallest kid in the layup line as the one with the famous father.
As George entered high school, the supposed expectations from others left him in limbo over how to embrace his father’s legacy while finding his own identity as a player.
“At first, I kind of felt pressure, but then I thought, this shouldn’t pressure me at all. Other stuff should pressure me,” George said. “I realized my dad was actually helping me out a lot and I need to start taking this in.”
The two will sometimes visit the gym at 5:30 a.m. to work on post moves, defense and midrange jumpers. Since transferring from Churchill to St. Andrew’s before his sophomore year, the extra practice has taught Muresan how to impact the game with his energy on both ends of the floor.
“Anytime you’re the son of a former NBA basketball player, there’s going to be some unrealistic expectations that come with that,” Lions Coach Kevin Jones said. “But [Gheorghe is] not one of the parents trying to come to our practices. He lets us do our job. . . . and all the kids love him.”
Any awe that George’s teammates may feel toward his father is quickly extinguished with humor.
“He always jokes with me about my dunking,” Lions swingman Tyler Stewart said. “He says, ‘You’ve got to get that dunk,’ and ‘Dunk the ball more.’ ”
The younger Muresan often follows suit, like the time he sat one of the Lions’ shorter players on his knee like a ventriloquist, sending good friend and teammate Scotty Matthewman into a fit of laughter.
But when time calls for focus, the Lions know they can rely on their Muresan. With his team clinging to a one-point lead in the second overtime of a Jan. 3 game against St. Albans, the ball swung to George on the right side, just outside the paint. After initially hesitating, he took the shot and watched the ball bounce around and, finally, through the basket to seal the win.
“He trust shot a lot more better than last year. I’m very proud of him. When I miss game, I feel bad,” Gheorghe said. “I tell him all the time, most important is not basketball; just have fun. I don’t want him to be me. He’s way more smarter than I was.”