The questions don’t come as quick as the stares.
But still they come.
“Do you play basketball?” A popular one.
“How do you sleep at night?” Another one.
“What’s the weather like up there?” Not so much.
At 7-foot-8 (that’s 92 inches), Paul Sturgess has heard it all.
Good thing he has an easy-going manner. It comes in handy.
“Everywhere I go I get stared at, I’m not going to lie about it,” the England native said. “But it doesn’t really bother me. It’s going to happen for the rest of my life. If I shied away from it, what good is that going to do me? I just take it all in stride. I hold my head high, I’m proud of who I am and I’m putting it to good use, really.”
To answer one question, yes, Sturgess plays basketball. The 21-year-old signed with NAIA power Mountain State University recently and will suit up for the Cougars this season.
“We had Paul in two days before he was scheduled to go back (to England),” MSU coach Bob Bolen said. “I think he likes our situation and thinks he can help our team (win a national title).”
Here’s the lowdown on Sturgess:
His height makes him the third- or fourth-largest living person on the planet.
“Third or fourth, but I don’t know officially,” Sturgess said. “Unofficially, I’m the biggest man in Britain. But I just don’t want to go down to the Guinness Book of World Records yet because it’s unwanted attention. I want to focus on basketball. After basketball, maybe I’ll go ahead and see what it can bring, but right now, I’m just focusing on basketball.”
At 7-8, he will be the tallest player to play college basketball.
For that matter, there has never been a 7-8 man in the NBA.
He’s an inch taller than Manute Bol and four inches taller than either Ralph Sampson or Rik Smits.
So the attention doesn’t bother him?
“No, because that’s all good attention,” Sturgess said. “I’m a lot different than everybody else, but I’ve made good of it. So it’s not embarrassing at all.”
Ironically, in a land where soccer is king — Sturgess proudly says he is a fan of the English Premier League’s Chelsea club, while his grandparents support Manchester United — he started playing basketball before his height took off.
“I was in high school and the coach asked me give it a go and I fell in love with it,” Sturgess said. “I was taller than everybody else on my basketball team, but not by a large margin. When I was like 14 or 15 I started to grow and I noticed I was bigger than everybody else. But up until than, I was like normal height. Probably 6-foot, something like that.”
Was he surprised by his rapid accent up the growth chart?
“I took it all as me growing up,” Sturgess said. “But my mom and dad, they were really surprised. My dad is 6-9, but my mom is 5-5, so she’s not big at all.”
It didn’t take him long to get noticed.
“That’s what people assume, that being tall I took basketball as my sport,” Sturgess said. “But I’ve played every sport. I’m really good at a lot of sports, but I picked basketball because, obviously, I am tall and I had already developed skills, so I might as well use it to my advantage.”
He came to the United States a raw talent with super-sized potential. And he ended up at Florida Tech University, a junior college in Orlando. Coach Billy Mims had coached in England.
And it was there he learned a valuable lesson.
“I didn’t realize how important the academic side was,” Sturgess said. “I went out as a freshman and partied and stuff. I thought it was all basketball and partying. From what I saw on TV, I thought it was basketball and go enjoy the parties. I learned the hard way and I’ve really matured since then. I didn’t go overly bad. I was just always fighting with eligibility.
“Last year I did really good.”
Why not Division I, even with raw talent and big potential? The guy is 7-8.
“Coming from England, I wasn’t really developed in the sport such to be well known,” he said. “I didn’t have the exposure to come over here. Knowing what I know now, I probably would have got to Division I from high school. At the time, I didn’t know. Right now, I could easily play Division I. But I made those mistakes too, so it’s held me back. But I’m more than happy where I am now.”
His last season at FTU he averaged 2.5 points and 2.8 rebounds.
Not a big line, statistically speaking. But it isn’t stats that will get Sturgess to his ultimate destiny.
And that is the NBA.
“It’s definitely the NBA,” he said. “That’s the only goal for me, really. I want to graduate and get to the NBA. But you also have to go the extra step. How hard are you willing to work? Over the last couple of years I have realized how much it’s going to take to get there. I’ve got the height, but height only gets you so far. I’ve realized I have to work hard and I am ready to do that now.”
He has already had some professional offers that likely would have rewarded him with a six-figure contract.
“There was a lot of opportunity in Europe for me to play professional basketball,” Sturgess said. “In Spain and France there were teams that were really interested and throwing contracts at me.
“I figured it was best for me to stay in school for at least one more year. I need to get stronger, physically, and I need to be prepared for the lifestyle of being a professional basketball player. I consider myself to not be mature enough to handle all that money and attention. I want to prepare myself because it’s a big step from college to professional and all the money and fame that goes with it.”
Instead, he chose Mountain State, on advice from a teammate.
“One of my teammates (Victor Ogenyei) went to the (Mountain State) Academy and guess he told coach Bolen about me,” Sturgess said. “And I ended up coming here. The team has that winning spirit about them. They’re really developed. Over the past few years they have a winning program.
“On my visit, all three coaches spoke to me and they seemed really, really dedicated to making me better and getting me where I want to be.”
Bolen said that is the goal.
“We’re going to work and do everything in our power to make him the best basketball player he can become,” Bolen said.
What can his teammates expect from Sturgess?
“On defense, I hope they’ll be confident that if (a teammate) gets beaten by their man, I’ll be there,” he said. “I’ll guard the basket and get rebounds.”
“He changes shot on the defensive end and he actually runs well forward to be 7-8,” Bolen said. “He has good touch from 15 feet in and he shoots well. I think our individual workouts with coach (Dave) Barksdale are going to really help him improve. Coach Barksdale is tremendous with post players in his individual workouts.”
Sturgess knows from experience that people will want to see him. Just the novelty of his big presence draws crowd.
“It’s going to draw crowds to the game and that is going to be exciting for the players,” he said. “I do draw crowds because people hear about me and they want to see me play. Or see if I can play.”
“I would think it would create some interest to see the tallest man to ever play college basketball right here in Beckley,” Bolen said. “We’ve won a national championship, we have the best record for a four-year school in the last 10 years; I think it’s about time we create some interest. With what we’ve done, I think the armory should be sold out every game.”
Confident, Sturgess still knows he has to improve.
“I’m not going to say I am one of the best players (at MSU), but I am going to work to be one of the best,” he said. “I think I have some ability and I am confident in the things I can do.”
Daily living, he admits, can be tough. But he doesn’t let it get to him.
“The only thing different is like ducking through doors, getting into cars and those sorts of things, like on airplanes,” Sturgess said. “There’s not much I can’t do. Because if I can’t do it, I’ll try to do it anyway. I really want to learn to drive and obviously that’s a problem because there aren’t many cars big enough for me.”
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