The Air Up There Is Changing

Being among the tallest humans on earth has always come with its challenges, but it used to be a golden ticket to basketball stardom. Not anymore, as Boban Marjanovich, Tacko Fall and all of the game's new era 7-footers are finding out.
photo of David GardnerDavid Gardner@@byDavidGardnerStaff WriterMarch 10, 2019

In the fall of 2017, before beginning the ninth grade, Travon Pearson went to see his pediatrician. The appointment was, for the most part, routine. The doctor strapped a band to his forearm to test his blood pressure and pulse and put a stethoscope to his chest and back to listen to his breath. But when it came time to measure Pearson's height, the doctor's tools fell well short. Eventually, he decided to back Pearson against a wall, climb on a chair and use a pencil to mark the top of his head. Then he got down, put a tape measure on the floor, climbed back up and pulled the line tight. He read the result aloud. Pearson was 7 feet and 2 inches tall.

As a boy growing up in South Carolina, he'd wanted to play wide receiver. But if you can look down on adults' bald spots before you can grow a mustache, basketball almost inevitably becomes part of your life. Pearson has been told he could eventually grow to 7'5", but he could reach the NBA without having sprouted a centimeter more and still be the third-tallest player in the league. The question is, what will the league look like for 7-footers by the time he's ready to go pro?

A couple of decades ago, the NBA's demand for back-to-the-basket 7-footers seemed like it could only be met by an assembly line. Now their path to pro basketball success looks more like a limbo line. "The game has changed," one longtime NBA scout says. "It used to be that if you had three centers on your roster, you wanted two of them to be big bruisers because you needed to go up against guys like [Shaquille O'Neal]. Now you really only need one. So where there were 40 jobs, now there are only 20."

In the pace-and-space era, centers are asked to do far more than tether themselves to the rim for rebounds and layups. They also must be able to sink shots from the perimeter and to keep up with guards on defensive switches. By some measures, they're more effective than ever. But they now function more as a kind of changeup to the dominant fastball that is small ball. "It used to be that if you were 7 feet tall and alive, you'd get a look," one NBA front-office executive says. "Now mere respiration isn't enough. You have to be able to show a whole lot of skills."

To get a better sense of the view from 7 feet, I spoke with three of the tallest players at three levels of basketball—Pearson, 7'6" UCF Knights center Tacko Fall and 7'3" Philadelphia 76ers center Boban Marjanovic. For them, adapting to a changing NBA is but the latest battle in a lifelong war of trying to fit in while standing out.

How many of the 7.5 billion people on the planet are 7-footers? It's a question often posed but rarely answered responsibly. There is no reliable international database for height. After all, our fascination with that mythical 84-inch threshold is arbitrary.

So how many 7-footers are in the United States? This question, too, poses problems. The Centers for Disease Control does collect height data, and we can say reliably that if you're 6'3" or over, you're among the tallest 5 percent of people in the country. And if you assume that height distribution follows a standard bell curve, that would mean there are fewer than 100 7-footers between the ages of 20 and 40 in the U.S. right now. Using this data in 2011, Sports Illustrated circulated a statistic that an American male 7-footer in that age range has a 17 percent chance of playing in the NBA. The contrast to the corresponding statistic for those between 6'6" and 6'8"—0.07 percent—was stark. But it is also probably not true.

In Basketball Reference's database, only 73 players listed at 7 feet or taller have debuted in the NBA since 2008-09. But those heights are, for the most part, measured with players' shoes on. If you conservatively account for that as an extra inch and narrow the results to those listed at 7'1" and taller, only 25 make the cut. Of that group, only four—Luke Kornet, Meyers Leonard, Mitchell Robinson and Roy Hibbert—are Americans. During that same time frame, according to the database compiled by ESPN NBA draft guru Jonathan Givony, 51 Americans listed at 7'1" or taller played in Division I basketball and exhausted or opted out of their eligibility. So even if you're an American 7-footer already playing high-major college basketball, your chances of playing an NBA minute are closer to 8 percent.

The Trail Blazers' Meyers Leonard is one of only four Americans 7'1" or taller to play in the NBA over the last decade.
The Trail Blazers' Meyers Leonard is one of only four Americans 7'1" or taller to play in the NBA over the last decade.Brandon Dill/Associated Press

In short, it takes more than height to reach the NBA. And many of the perils on the path to pro basketball success have nothing to do with the sport itself. "The world ends at about 6'5"," says Robert Bray, a Los Angeles-based spinal surgeon and former team consultant for the Clippers. "You can't fit in a plane seat. You can't drive certain types of cars. You can't buy clothes except for at big-and-tall stores. Standard office desks and chairs are of no use to you. Your accessibility across the board is limited."

Compounding the problem is that this kind of extreme height often comes as a surprise. Pearson's father is 6'10", but Fall's mother and father are 5'8" and 6'0", respectively. And Marjanovic's parents? Asked about them during the first few minutes of his interview with B/R, he said he didn't know. So he called his mom, and after a few minutes of conversation and conversion, it was determined that she and his father are 5'6" and 5'9", respectively.

"Basically, I come from other planet," Marjanovic says. "Like Superman, from Krypton. I don't show my power because I want to play basketball. I will"—and here he makes a whistling flying noise—"fly off when I retire."

For Pearson, growing up in America has meant better access to basic necessities. He can find pants that fit—with a very tight belt—from JCPenney, and he can find shoes of any size online. But for Marjanovic, who was raised in a 3,000-person Serbian farm town, and for Fall, who is from Senegal, the sartorial search was more of a struggle. As a middle schooler, Tacko bought a sewing kit and taught himself to repair the rips and holes in the one pair of jeans that fit him properly. He also learned how to make sandals out of animal skins to accommodate his size-22 feet.

Traveling is trouble, too. When he was playing professionally in Europe, Boban had a strategy for switching to an exit-row seat if the team didn't secure one for him. He'd walk to the exit row and stand as contortedly as he could. Then he'd ask, starting with the passenger in the window seat on one side and moving from person to person across the aisle until someone was sympathetic enough to swap seats. "They would give me like 80 percent of the time," he says. Tacko won't even try to sit in a standard economy seat—"it literally is not possible," he says—and he is also the only person on the Knights who prefers when the team does not charter, because exit-row seats in commercial are the most comfortable for him.

But the biggest battle isn't material. It's emotional. You can't go to the grocery store without being gawked at. You can't go to the mall without being asked incessantly if you play basketball. You can't go in public, period, without having your photo taken by strangers without your permission. "I definitely don't just want to be seen as an attraction," Fall says. "I'm a man of faith. I'm a pretty smart guy. There's more to me than just my height. I'm a human being just like you."

A couple of months after Marjanovic made his NBA debut in San Antonio, Spurs fans chanted "M-V-P" as he shot free throws toward the end of a blowout win against the Suns. After the game, coach Gregg Popovich admonished them not to treat him like "some sort of odd thing." But Boban has learned that the best way to deal with the attention is to embrace it. He doesn't like when people insist on taking pictures of or touching his hands—despite the fact that there is a subreddit devoted to that exact thing—but he enjoys when people stop him for photographs. And he chooses to take the MVP chants as endearment, not harassment. He has played four seasons in the NBA and for four different teams, and it seems that each fanbase has loved him more than the last.

"I'm honest," he says. "I've always been a fan favorite. Everyone wants to shake my hand. People give me high-five. I start to meet my friends like that. I think I have shaken more hands in my life than anyone else."

While it's unclear if the attention the 7'3" Boban Marjanovic receives is in appreciation for his basketball skills, he has come to embrace the fans who cheer his very existence.
While it's unclear if the attention the 7'3" Boban Marjanovic receives is in appreciation for his basketball skills, he has come to embrace the fans who cheer his very existence.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Pearson, too, likes the attention, but mostly because it has just begun. When Pearson goes to a fast food restaurant near his home, the cashier takes one look at him and, before asking for his order, asks where he can watch him play basketball. In less than 30 minutes, three different people try to take pictures of him. "It feels like I'm kind of famous at a young age," he says. "I think it's helping me prepare for when I am really famous—for when I make it to the NBA."

When he first began playing basketball, Marjanovic modeled his game after legendary big men Arvydas Sabonis and Hakeem Olajuwon. In San Antonio, he studied under Tim Duncan. From them he took not only technique, but also an understanding that he can change the flow of the game.

"You say basketball has really changed," he says, "but it hasn't changed in one way: You have to put ball in net. And that will never change. You just do it in different ways. For me the easy way, because I'm tall, is layup. You can still miss some three-point shots. But layups? Maybe only one out of 100. That's why big guys exist. It's our job to protect the paint. It's our job to rebound. And it's our job to get the easy points."

Among those who have logged at least 1,000 minutes in the NBA, Marjanovic is the fourth-most efficient player in history. Last season, he was second in the league in points per touch, and this season, his win shares per 48 minutes is 13th in the league. (Centers comprise most of the 12 players ahead of him.) Research from ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton showed that, in the 2017-18 season, centers had the highest player winning percentage (.560) of any position. The next closest was power forwards at .498. But part of the reason for the rising productivity of centers—pick-and-roll spacing—is also part of the reason they have seen their roles reduced.

"There is probably a heyday in the league where Boban is a no-brainer starter," the front office executive says. "Even now he is absolutely a major-impact guy in the minutes that he plays, but the problem is he only plays a handful of minutes. He's more of an extreme specialist than a star. In the modern era, is that where giants get slotted in?"

Indeed, according to Pelton, in the past three postseasons, 7-foot centers saw a substantially lower share of minutes than they did during the regular season. In the 1990s and 2000s, the opposite trend was true. "I call it the Steph effect," one NBA scout says. "We are really seeing the death of old-school bigs because of small ball. It's not enough to be big. You have to be able to move. You have to be able to run. Your lateral mobility is critical. You have to be quick, quick, quick."

Despite averaging more than two blocks per game and shooting better than 75 percent from the field, Central Florida's 7'6" Tacko Fall is not expected to be drafted this summer.
Despite averaging more than two blocks per game and shooting better than 75 percent from the field, Central Florida's 7'6" Tacko Fall is not expected to be drafted this summer.Alex Menendez/Getty Images

The trend isn't lost on NBA hopefuls like Fall. When he first came to the United States, Fall built his game around the types of players Marjanovic had: Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dwight Howard. But two years ago, when he entered the NBA draft, the feedback he heard from scouts caused him to rethink his style. "They were telling me that the pace of the game has changed," he says, "and they wondered if I could keep up with it."

He withdrew from the draft and returned to UCF to finish his degree and prove his place in the NBA. But scouts have remained skeptical. "Would a guy like Tacko Fall, like, two decades ago be a first-round pick?" the front-office executive asks. "Probably. Is he gonna get drafted at all? Probably not. We're in an era where being big isn't by itself enough."

Now Tacko spends more time studying the so-called unicorns—7-footers who can do some combination of defensive shifting, ball-handling or three-point shooting. For defensive tips, he watches Rudy Gobert, one of the NBA's premier rim protectors. And for offense, he watches a lot of Joel Embiid, a big man who prefers to patrol the paint but has become a reliable three-point shooter because he understands its importance to his team's spacing. In fact, Fall watches the 76ers more than just about any other team, which is why he was so thrilled when Boban was traded to them in February.

It's too soon to draw broad conclusions about Marjanovic in Philadelphia, but the early results are promising. He has averaged career highs in minutes, points and field-goal percentage in seven appearances so far.

"Maybe another time would have been better for me to play," Boban says. "Only I don't live in that time. I live now. Other guys make big decisions, but when I step on the court, I think it is my time. I make every time my time."

If, a few years from now, Pearson's time comes, it won't be because he studied the greats of generations ago like Boban and Tacko did. In fact, Pearson's favorite players aren't big men at all. "I like guards more than big men, to be honest," he says. "I want to play like James Harden or Kyrie Irving."

With just over a minute remaining in a game against the Pelicans on Feb. 25, Marjanovic suffered what at first appeared to be a career-altering injury. In a tangle while trying to collect a deflected pass, New Orleans center Cheick Diallo crashed into Marjanovic's right knee, sending the big man tumbling to the floor. He needed to be carried off the court. Remarkably, Boban limped away with only a mild knee sprain and a bone bruise.

The injury was a reminder of the health perils for the NBA's giants. In 2015, FiveThirtyEight broke down the average NBA minutes played by height and found a huge lack of players listed at 7'1" or taller compared to what you'd expect in a normal distribution. "When you're 7 feet and taller," says Bray, the surgeon, "you can only take so many poundings. If you look at people that size and determine why they did or didn't make it, it isn't going to be 100 percent about talent. Some of them can play, but they can't last through college."

South Carolina ninth-grader Travon Pearson stands 7'2" tall in his family's kitchen.
South Carolina ninth-grader Travon Pearson stands 7'2" tall in his family's kitchen.David Gardner

Fall missed half of last season as he recovered from a torn labrum. He blamed the injury in part on the repeated hits to the shoulder and elbow he sustains from smaller defenders. "I get hacked all the time," Fall says. "Sometimes I even hear an opponent or a coach say something like, 'Go after his knees.' That's the only thing that ever really gets under my skin."

The list of 7-footers who have had their careers curtailed by injuries is long. But what happens to them after basketball? Larry Bird once said that he expects to die young because of his size. And aging can be brutal for bigs. "Being tall is not alone a problem," Bray says. "But being tall and big is. The wear and tear they take on during their careers can lead to immobility in retirement. When you can't move very well but you're used to eating like you did when you played, you get bigger. Everything circles together. Just like when they're playing, big men fall faster and hit harder."

There have been no systematic studies of 7-footers, but for men overall, the average height decreases steadily after age 30. Linking height to overall mortality, though, is problematic because it's so hard to control for the compounding variables. Studies have generally shown an increased risk of cancer as you get taller, but a decreased risk of coronary heart disease.

"At the end of the day, being tall is not a death sentence," says Dr. Travis Maak, an orthopedic surgeon and team physician for the Utah Jazz. "I'm 6'4", and in a biased fashion, I look at being tall as a huge benefit. Other than hitting your head or not being able to fit under the showerhead, I think you can live a pretty normal life."

To Pearson, a normal life is unappealing. He just started playing basketball a couple of years ago, and the end of that journey—much less the end of his life—is almost unimaginable. But the potential health perils he faces have already touched his life.

Two days after Marjanovic's injury against the Pelicans, Pearson underwent a scheduled surgery to open a valve in his heart, which is enlarged. When he first heard the diagnosis, he was afraid he would die. But then he did a Google search on his phone and discovered how common a condition it is for athletes and how it wouldn't prevent him from continuing to pursue a professional basketball career. In fact, in a way, it made him feel like he had more in common with his NBA idols than his high school friends.

The procedure went as planned, and Pearson was home the next day. Before the sun went down, he took his next steps on the path to a professional career for which he feels destined. He grabbed a basketball, walked the half-mile to the court closest to his house and spent an hour shooting three-pointers.

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