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Paul Sturgess grew up in Loughborough, England, a town of 60,000 people north of London. He was, he says, just another English kid who loved soccer. That changed when, at 15, he grew a foot — to a staggering 7-feet tall.
Doctors were concerned. After tests, doctors told the Sturgess family their son wasn’t suffering from a genetic disorder. He was just tall. And that he’d get taller. Sturgess investigated a new sport: basketball.
It Took Weeks To Dunk
"I was natural to it ... good hand-eye coordination," Sturgess said. "I never really tried to dunk until after I was playing for a few weeks. Actually got a dunk in a game. Fans got excited [and I] tried to do it every time, really."
[sidebar title="Legendary Coach Larry Brown's Latest Turnaround" align="right"]Larry Brown has won a championship in the NCAA and the NBA. Now, his much-improved SMU Mustangs are in the NIT. He joined us to discuss the season and his career.[/sidebar]Sturgess was 7-foot-4 when he graduated high school. But the Dukes and Kentuckys of the world did not recruit him. He weighed only 195 pounds. He’d only been playing basketball for a few years. He just wasn’t quick enough for big-time American college basketball. But Florida Institute of Technology offered him a scholarship in 2007.
Sturgess's trip to college was featured in the English documentary “Britain’s Tallest Teens.” In the film, his then-coach Billy Mims was confident that the big man would make it to the NBA.
"I believe Paul was born to be a great basketball player," Mims said. "If he wants to be a pro, he has the size, the ability, the potential to play anywhere in the world he’d like to. Paul could be the next millionaire because of the game of basketball."
But Sturgess played sparingly at Florida Tech and then at a community college in Florida and then at Mountain State University in West Virginia. After college, he signed with the Harlem Globetrotters. Crowds loved him. But he wanted to play in the NBA. During his second year with the Globetrotters, Donnie Nelson, Jr. — the owner of the Texas Legends of the NBA Development League — offered Sturgess a spot on the team. It was a big pay cut, but Sturgess said yes.
"I'm not gonna lie. I was way behind a lot of guys here. I'm one of those guys who’s obviously starting from a low basketball, like background," Sturgess said. "Obviously if I was an NBA [caliber] player, I'd be in the NBA now. So people ... assume being a tall guy, I should be able to get 20 rebounds a night and things like that."
A Work In Progress
Sturgess sat out the Friday night game I attended against the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. He’s just not good enough yet to earn many minutes on the court for the Legends. The Legends blew out the Vipers 146-121.
Today, Sturgess is 7-foot-8 and weighs 330 pounds. (Though he can still get pushed around by shorter, lighter centers because his center of gravity is so high.) Sturgess enjoys the attention that comes with his height, for the most part.
"I have to say that camera phones are my worst nightmare," he said. "People think they’re so slick sneaking pictures and stuff like that. I kinda notice it all the time, but I mean, I'm not going to lie, if I was short and I saw someone like me, I'd probably do the same thing."
At 26, Sturgess is older than many current NBA stars, but he's unfailingly upbeat. He’s got a quote — often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt — tattooed on his arm. It reads, in part, "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."
"There's a lot of people who aren't good enough to play sport ... so they choose to write about it and they think their opinion is the end of the world," he said. "I used to like to read about myself, but now I don't care because whether it's good or bad, either way, I'm going to do what I want to do, and I'm going to keep pushing my goals."
[sidebar title="March Madness, Money Madness" width="315" align="right"]Despite all the improbable bracket-busting in the NCAA tournament, Bill Littlefield says the real March Madness is happening off the court.[/sidebar]
The day after the Rio Grande game, Legends assistant coach Bill Peterson ran Sturgess through drills. Every day, Peterson works with Sturgess one-on-one. If the towering center gets even a little more agile, he could have a long and profitable career.
"He's going to be a specialist — a guy that comes in and plays 3-4 minutes, affects the game, blocks some shots," Peterson said. "I don't think in the past a lot of times people spent a whole lot of time with him. They just look at him and say, 'Oh he's slow. He can't do it.' I'm the kind of person — I look at what you can do, not what you can't do."
Popular With The Short Fans: Kids
Sturgess was a healthy scratch in that night’s loss to the Santa Cruz Warriors. After the game, however, he was the main attraction. Children follow Sturgess like a tail follows a comet. They stare. Take pictures with their cellphones. Get autographs. Right now, this is the most valuable thing he has to offer the Legends.
"Professional sports is all about business, so they're giving to me — they're gonna want something back," Sturgess said. "There's nothing too much like me out there and they're taking the publicity from me and giving back the development [of my skills]. As long as it stays 50/50, I'm very happy with that."
It’s not the career others had imagined for him, but Sturgess is still hoping he can make a career in basketball beyond the D-League. He hopes to be invited to an NBA summer league camp later this year. The Texas Legends’ season ends on April 5.
This story aired on March 29, 2014.
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