We will always be fascinated by giants. Goliath. Bunyan. Wilt. They are like us in all the meaningful ways, just different and rare in the most superficial sense.
Sim Bhullar, the aspiring NBA player from Brampton, is seven-foot-five.
“I was six-foot-five in seventh grade,” he said when he was in Toronto Wednesday for a pre-draft workout with the Toronto Raptors. “I was always taller than the other kids… I’m used to the pictures, the attention, getting stopped all the time. It’s an everyday thing for me.”
And while being unusually huge has its burdens—shopping for size-22 shoes, finding comfortable places to sit or sleep, and minding your head on doorways—sports is the one place where giants have typically fit right in, basketball above all.
When James Naismith set the peach basket at 10 feet he was beginning a long-arms race that seemed set to evolve without end. The closer you were to the basket the easier it was to score, grab rebounds and prevent other teams from scoring. The taller you were, the better.
The founding mythmakers of the NBA were men whose lives would have seemed awkward until basketball made them famous by leveraging their genetic gifts. The league’s first superstar was George Mikan, who towered over the game in the 1950s at six-foot-10. Wilt Chamberlain came along in the 1960s at seven feet and was so dominant the league had to change the rules.
The LeBron James of the 1970s was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had skills that seemed impossible for his size—seven-foot-two. The 1980s continued the evolution of the big man as stars like Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing pushed the boundaries of what someone that tall should be able to do.
The game was changing, but one article of faith remained: Teams always needed size, which explains why both Olajuwon and the ill-fated Sam Bowie—the gifted seven-footer who was eventually undone by injuries—were taken ahead of Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA draft.
But those days are gone. In the NBA Finals the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs are in the midst of a potentially classic rematch with lineups that feature plenty of big men, but none that play big exclusively. The only true giant on either roster is the Heat’s Greg Oden, who was drafted to be a league-changer at seven feet and nearly 300 lb. in 2007, but has never been able to deliver because of injuries. He’s played just five minutes in the playoffs.
Tim Duncan of the Spurs is one of the best players in NBA history, but it’s because of the skills and smarts he has at his size, not his size alone.
Size isn’t the fulcrum on which the NBA game balances anymore.
The increased importance of the three-point line—NBA teams hoisted an average of 226 threes in 1979–80 the year it was implemented, while this past season it was a record 1,766—along with rules designed to keep the paint relatively clear and players driving to the basket suggest that it won’t be changing any time soon.
Which leaves Bhullar in an odd position: potentially too big for basketball.
He’s the son of Punjabi immigrants and height runs in the family. His younger brother, Tanveer, is seven-foot-three. His sister is six-foot-one, and his mother and father are five-foot-10 and six-foot-five respectively.
And Bhullar is an accomplished player, not only huge but with soft hands and a decent shooting touch: He’s the product of the same CIABounce AAU program that has been a pipeline for Canadian talent headed to the NBA. Twice he was most valuable player of the Western Athletic Conference while playing for New Mexico State, and he averaged 10.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.4 blocks in just 26 minutes of playing time per game this past season.
But his chances of being drafted are modest, as the league’s centres, for the most part, are no longer featured on offence but instead required to be agile enough to come out high on the floor to help guard pick-and-rolls and scramble back to the rim to rebound and deter drives to the rim. Think Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls. It will be an issue facing another Canadian big man, seven-foot-two Jordan Bachynski of Calgary, although he’s considered to be a better draft prospect than Bhullar largely because he’s more agile.
In the meantime Bhullar is trying play smaller. In training for the draft the past few months in Las Vegas he’s been focusing on losing weight—he’s down 16 pounds since the end of his college season—and getting fitter and get quicker.
It doesn’t sound like it’s been easy, but the rewards could be significant, not only by simply earning an NBA contract but by being the first player of Indian descent to make it in the world’s best basketball league.
“There are days you want to quit but if you want to make it to the ultimate goal you have to keep grinding,” he says. “You have to think about what you have to gain instead of what you have to lose.”
Tellingly this was his first workout, although he’s got workouts scheduled in Sacramento and Washington coming up. The Raptors weren’t doing it purely as a courtesy, but when Toronto scouting director Dan Tolzman was speaking with the media he spent more time talking about elements of Bhullar’s game that could be challenges—stamina, mobility, quickness—than his obvious strengths.
For Bhullar, however, playing in Toronto would be a dream come true.
“Growing up, coming to the games as a little kid, sitting up there in the Sprite Zone as they called it back in the day,” he said, reminiscing. “Just being able to work out for them was a blessing. It’s a dream that I’m out here.”
Logic would suggest that a basketball player who can grab the rim without leaving the ground would have a huge advantage in making that dream a reality, but the NBA has changed so much that Bhullar-the-giant might be the biggest underdog among the half-dozen or more Canadians hoping to hear their named called on June 26th.
In the modern NBA size doesn’t matter—or at least not nearly as much as it did before.