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January 20, 2019

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Planetary pillar in the post

Ron Kantowski drops by a team tryout to see 7-foot-9, 370-pound Sun Ming Ming of China

Sun Ming Ming

Steve Marcus

Sun Ming Ming, 24, dunks the ball during a tryout for the professional Japanese BJ League on Tuesday at the Tarkanian Basketball Academy in Las Vegas. The league’s marketing director, Jerald Wrightsil, a former U.S. college player said, “He’s got good hands and he plays hard. He gets up and down the floor better than I thought he would.”

Pillar in the post

Sun Ming Ming is a 7-foot-9 basketball player. He is in Las Vegas trying out for the Basketball Japan League, which is hosting a tryout camp. (Length: 2:15)

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  • Wrightsil projects how many players will sign up for the Las Vegas camp.

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  • Wrightsil discusses the quality of playing in Japan.

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  • Wrightsil on whether or not it was difficult to find a good hamburger in Japan.

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  • Former Hawaii basketball star Jerald Wrightsil, marketing director of the BJ League in Japan talks about the 11 years he spent playing in Japan.

One of my favorite basketball quotes is about George McGinnis, the old Indiana Pacer.

“McGinnis’ hands are so big he can palm Sunday,” somebody said.

I don’t know who said it. Maybe Al McGuire, because it just sounds like something the old Marquette coach would say.

But whoever said it has never seen Sun Ming Ming play basketball.

Sun is a walking solar eclipse. He stands 7-foot-9. That’s a lot of inches, centimeters or cun, which is how they measure people — at least most people — in China. Sun Ming Ming is 3 inches taller than countryman Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets. I didn’t think that was possible.

That is until Tuesday, when I watched Sun try out for the BJ League, which is to the Japanese Basketball League what the ABA was to the NBA. Only without the giant Afros and teams with crazy names, like The Floridians. (Although the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix are working on it.)

During the first half of the game at the Tarkanian Basketball Academy, about all Sun did was trot up and down the court. It wasn’t exactly like watching Baryshnikov pirouette. Alexander Wolff, the esteemed basketball writer who owns the Vermont Frost Heaves of the new ABA, one of several minor leagues in which the 24-year-old Sun plays, said the big guy changes direction with the suddenness of a cruise ship.

That is now my second-favorite basketball quote.

Sun must have touched the ball once before getting tired, which is easy to do when you are 7-9 and weigh 370 pounds. Nobody would pass the ball to him. I think they were afraid he might squash the air out of it.

Finally, in the second half, his team put No. 37 in the game. A little guy. Actually, he was probably 6-8, but he looked little standing next to Sun. A grain silo would look little next to Sun, who makes the Great Wall of China look like a picket fence.

Anyway, No. 37 didn’t mind throwing the ball to The Big Guy, who has remarkably soft hands for a man his size. Then I lost sight of it. The basketball looks like an M&M in Sun’s hands.

To prevent a chocolate mess, Sun held the ball high above his head, which is roughly equivalent to cruising altitude for a 747. Three guys on the other team tried to take it from him. It looked like airplanes trying to shoot down King Kong. You don’t guard a guy who is 7-9. You climb him.

Finally, Sun dunked the ball with his left hand. Without jumping. Maybe he was standing on his tiptoes, but he didn’t jump. I’m not sure he can.

“Woo-hoo!” yelled the homeboys and away boys sitting in the bleachers. “Give it to The Big Man.”

The next time down the floor, Sun set up in low post. He looked like the Washington Monument with arms. Sun backed his man down, dribbled once and flipped the ball through the net with his left hand. For a brief moment, he looked like a dancing bear. A real big dancing bear.

If Sun were capable of doing that one out of every three times down the court, maybe he could play in the NBA. Heck, Will Perdue spent 13 years in the NBA and has four championship rings. He also moved like a cruise ship.

“He’s got good hands and he plays hard. He gets up and down the floor better than I thought he would,” said Jerald Wrightsil, the former Hawaii Rainbow who played 11 years in the Japanese pro league before becoming the director of marketing for the new circuit.

“You can’t teach size,” Wrightsil said.

If you could, it would take an Ivy League professor — or Phil Jackson — to coach Sun, who grew up in a small town called Bayan in northern China, near the Russian border. A pituitary tumor caused his tremendous growth spurt and also threatened his life until it was removed a couple of years ago.

“In China, they only told me I had low iron,” Sun said.

After the game, Sun turned down an interview request through Linda Staley, the former Lady Rebel point guard who is the BJ league’s director of international operations. But after he ducked through the door — which gave that expression a new meaning — I followed him into the foyer, where he was very accommodating.

He speaks English better than he moves in the low post. He said he was a little tired after flying in from a camp in Chicago, likes American people, American cities and American gymnasiums, because they are always open. His favorite American food is steak, but he doesn’t eat it that often, because “you need long time to finish steak” and he doesn’t have a lot of time when he’s trying to learn low post moves — and memorize movie lines.

Sun had a small part in “Rush Hour III” in which he picked up Chris Tucker by his collar and threw him across the room like a Frisbee.

I was going to ask if he would have any interest in a starring role in “The Air Up There II” but I didn’t know the Chinese word for “Kevin Bacon.”

Besides, my arm was getting tired from holding my tape recorder over my head. Worse, I was staring directly into Sun’s belly, which is roughly the size of Iowa.

I sure didn’t want to be around when Cedar Rapids began to rumble.

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