Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007

Sun-ny outlook

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Normand A. Bernache⁄Special To The Gazette
Maryland Nighthawks center Sun Ming Ming (79) made a big splash in his debut at Montgomery College-Rockville Saturday night. The 7-foot-9, 370-pound import from China towered over 6-8 Raheem Lowery (2) of the Strong Island Sound, and everyone else in the gym.
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not a skeptic at heart — I have faith, about some things. But when I’m told a 7-foot-9 Chinese guy is playing for our local minor league basketball team and has skills ... well, I kind of want to see it to believe it.

Saturday night at Montgomery College-Rockville, the home of the Maryland Nighthawks of the American Basketball Association, 22-year-old Sun Ming Ming (all 7 feet, 9 inches — totally legit — 370 pounds of him), in front of a standing-room-only crowd of almost 2,000, took the court for the hometown team.

Sun’s signing last week by Nighthawks owner Tom Doyle, who is also the chief operating officer of the 45-team ABA, smacked of a publicity stunt. And the lead up to Saturday’s game, Sun’s first with the Nighthawks, had that kind of feel to it. There were the ads in the paper ‘‘The Sun Has Risen From The East”; ‘‘The 7-9 Sensation From China”. Then there were the colorful statements — Doyle said: ‘‘I think that he is going to blow people away with his skill basketball-wise.” And, ‘‘Sun’s skills are tremendous. There hasn’t been a player this big at this young an age that has the skills that he has at this point.” There were the supposed facts — maybe true, maybe not — that Sun is the tallest basketball player ever, and that he’s the second tallest man in the world right now.

Before the game itself Saturday, Ming Ming T-shirts and jerseys were up for sale and the overflow crowd, including several Asian media outlets, anticipated the opening act of Sun’s Nighthawks career.

When he was introduced just before tipoff — he was the only Nighthawk without warm-ups (couldn’t find the right size?) and the only one with his name on his jersey (as if you’d mistake him for the other 7-foot-9 players on the court) — the crowd roared, clearly the largest ovation given to any of the players. The build up had its desired effect; appetites were whetted.

The actual game would tell the tale, however. Was Sun legit? Yes and no.

He started — and interestingly did not jump center at the opening tip — but didn’t finish. Not unexpected for a guy who underwent what has been termed life-saving surgeries to remove a tumor from his pituitary gland 16 months ago — a condition called acromegaly, which contributed to his massive size, but also inhibited his body’s production of testosterone. He played just under 21 minutes (ABA game is 48 minutes) of a 115-110 win over the Strong Island Sound (N.Y.).

Apart from his size, he didn’t stand out, but he scored eight points (4 for 8 from the floor), had four rebounds, three blocked shots and an assist. He hit the first two shots he took in the first quarter: A baby eight-foot turnaround j from the left baseline and (as Nighthawks point guard Randy ‘‘White Chocolate” Gill predicted before the game about Sun: ‘‘Every day, somebody’s going to get dunked on”) he took a pass from Gill and dunked without really leaving the floor.

After eight minutes of playing time, however, Sun was exhausted — sweating profusely and struggling to get up and down the court.

He didn’t play again until the start of the third quarter. But the more he played the more he displayed his knowledge of the game and the more he caught on to what his teammates wanted him to do.

‘‘I’ve seen great players,” Nighthawks head coach Will Rankin said. ‘‘I’ve coached several big men. This is certainly the tallest guy I’ve ever coached. His skills and adaptation are second to none. He picks up stuff very rapidly. His IQ to the game is abnormally high.”

As his teammates grew accustomed to playing with him — imagine the advantages of rolling off a pick set by a literal giant — they began getting him more shot attempts. He drilled a 17-footer from the circle early in the quarter as the Nighthawks, which trailed 62-57 at halftime, reeled in, caught and passed the Sound. He also grabbed a couple of rebounds during the stretch. But again he tired quickly and was the last player up and down the court, sometimes not bothering to go up or down. Then, as if to prove his basketball savvy, he gave a referee a look of disbelief and even stretched his arms skyward — the universal symbol for ‘‘I didn’t touch him” — when he was whistled for a foul, his third, and then went to the bench after six minutes of playing time.

He came back in to start the fourth quarter, as the Nighthawks behind the play of Gill (22 points, 6 assists), forward Andrew Washington (32 points) and forward Hugh Jones (19 points) continued to lead, and made his most impressive move of the night. Taking a pass on the left block, he dribbled a couple of times, then (slowly) whirled into the lane and flipped in a baby hook shot. Impossible to defend, impossible to block. It was a move reminiscent of his countryman, 7-foot-6 Houston Rockets star Yao Ming, and made you think maybe when Gill says, ‘‘I definitely think he can play at the NBA level,” that it could happen.

But the truth is for Sun to even be effective at the ABA level, which is far below the NBA, he’ll have to get in much better shape. He has good form on his shot, he sees the floor well, he seems to have an understanding of the game, but right now, he doesn’t have the ability to move well enough to impact a game. The Nighthawks (12-11 record) played again Monday night at the Wilmington (N.C.) Sea Dawgs, and lost 126-111. Sun scored four points, had one rebound and one blocked shot. He is currently working with local fitness expert John Philbin to increase his strength and conditioning.

So the official Gazette scouting report: Sun has some skills, he’s worth going out to see, and hopefully for his sake he’ll get better and improve all assets of his game, especially his mobility. But as for him making it in the NBA ... well, I kindof want to see it to believe it.