7-foot-8 Sturgess honing game at NAIA school
Paul Sturgess snares an offensive rebound between two defenders, attempts a dunk but misses, grabs the rim and gets whistled for a technical foul. But wait. His coach, Bob Bolen, has an issue with the referee. "How is that hanging on the rim?" Bolen said. "His feet were on the ground." At 7-foot-8, Sturgess is the tallest college player in America, transferring for his junior season to tiny Mountain State University. The word Sturgess would like you to focus on is "player" - not "tallest." He's heard all the jokes, felt all the stares. He says his health is just fine and at age 22 he hasn't experienced the chronic knee, foot or leg problems that have beset other super-big men. It's basketball development he's working on. Sloughing off during two seasons at junior colleges in Melbourne and Cocoa, Fla., landed him a few credits short of a chance at an NCAA Division I scholarship. "I was on the beach a lot," Sturgess said. So the Big Brit with the baby hook shot is polishing his game as a backup center at one of the top NAIA Division I programs. Exactly how far that work takes him remains to be seen. Sturgess is averaging 10 minutes per game for the unbeaten Cougars, who have three national championship game appearances this decade, winning the 2004 title. The backup to leading scorer Nick Aldridge, a former NCAA Division I player, Sturgess has appeared in seven of the Cougars' nine games and is averaging 3.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocked shots. "We've been working with him from day one trying to become more agile," Bolen said. "It's a little hard for him to move. His skill level is fine. His coordination level is fine. His skill level is fine." Sturgess often gets double teamed and would like to put 15 pounds onto his 310-pound frame. He wants as much game exposure as possible but realizes Bolen has to balance decisions on playing time with team needs. "I guess I've got to do things on the court to warrant the attention," Sturgess said. "Whenever I get in, I'm doing good things. It's just I need to get more playing time to build up my credentials more. I've got to earn that more. So I'm going to work hard to do what I can to earn the coach's trust. He knows when I play I do good things, but obviously we've got (NCAA) Division I players." Growing up in Loughborough, England, Sturgess shared his country's love of soccer and was big into golf - he can hit a 360-yard drive with custom-made clubs - but his high school didn't offer the sport. He started playing basketball at age 14 when he was 5-6. His first major growth spurt occurred a year later. Between age 16 and 17, he shot up a foot. When he graduated high school at age 18, he was 7-2. Sturgess, who wears a size 21 shoe and has hands that make a basketball look like a grapefruit, was assured the growth was natural and not his pituitary gland-gone-haywire. "I was kind of worried about it," Sturgess said. "I had checks with the doctors and they told me I was going to be like 7-foot-11. But I think I've stopped now." His father is 6-9 and his mother is 5-5. He has an 18-year-old sister who's 5-6. Sturgess turned down offers to play professionally in Europe in order to finish out his college career and perhaps get a shot at the NBA. Bolen found out about Sturgess through one of his former junior college teammates. Sturgess liked the similarities between southern West Virginia and his home in England, the mountainous scenery and imperfect weather. "I was getting tired of the sunshine 24-7," Sturgess said. "I know that's hard to believe, but it was driving me crazy to walk down the street, sweating and all that. That was kind of annoying." It also used to annoy him when people would take photos of him without asking, but not now. "I don't really let things get to me no more," Sturgess said. "It used to be when I was younger I didn't like people asking me stupid questions. But now I've grown into it and accepted it like this is going to happen for the rest of my life." Things like leaning down when going through a doorway so he doesn't hit his head. Things like sleeping on a university-issued queen-size bed. "I'm not really one to make a fuss about my height," Sturgess said. "I'll be comfortable no matter what." Although crowds at home games have been sparse, Sturgess gets a generous ovation whenever he enters the lineup. Outside the arena, he's pretty popular, too, and Tall Paul has learned to take it in stride. Bolen recalled seeing Sturgess deal with strangers during a recent road game at West Virginia University. "I think he's dealt with it for so long that he's really good with people," Bolen said. "Every convenience store he stopped in, every restaurant, people are constantly asking for pictures." His status among big people means nothing to him. Last summer he passed on a chance to go to London to get measured for a list of Britain's tallest men. "I'm not interested in that side of things," Sturgess said. "I just want to play basketball."