C.W. Gusewell


Quite a tall order for humanity

He’s out there. I don’t know where – maybe in some unmapped corner of Siberia or the Amazon or the South Pacific.

But he’s out there somewhere, and some enterprising college recruiter will find him and persuade him to sign a letter of intent. He will show up for the first day of basketball practice wearing his size 45AAA sneakers.

And the game will be forever changed.

I’m guessing he’ll be 10 feet tall, run like a deer and be able to dunk the ball standing flatfooted five feet from the basket.

Sound preposterous?

In 1918, a normal-size infant was born to a family in Alton, Ill. By age 8, he stood 6 feet 2 inches tall and towered over his schoolmates. By age 13, he was 7 feet 4. And at his death his height was only an inch less than 9 feet.

Had he not perished from a foot infection at age 22, there’s no knowing how much more he might have grown.

That lad, whose name was Robert Wadlow, is ranked as history’s tallest documented human being. But as they say in sports, records are made to be broken .

In long ago times – the early decades of the previous century – the life options for persons of extraordinary stature were limited.

Doorways, beds, desks and other furnishings were not made to accommodate them. Often they were described as gentle folk, popular with people who knew them, though their sheer size ruled out ordinary careers.

For many so-called giants and giantesses, the likeliest means of support was to appear in exhibitions, join circus troupes and allow themselves to be displayed in what were unkindly termed “freak shows.”

To read a bit about giantism is to be struck by the courage and uncomplaining good nature with which so many of the afflicted have borne the public scrutiny and sometimes the ridicule brought on by their unwanted exceptionalism.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the present average height for an adult U.S. male is 5 feet 9 inches. So, at a shade under 5 feet 7 and shrinking, I am statistically undersized – though not enough to qualify for carnival employment.

In college I played a little basketball, though mainly I rode the bench. Even then, it was a game for larger boys. Today, if I walked on a floor with college players, I wouldn’t just be small. I’d be a dwarf.

In top university programs there are 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-5 guards.

A power forward under 6 feet 10 is classified as rather small. And any major conference team without a 7-footer or two is thought to be lacking “length.”

Giants today don’t go looking for circus work. They drop out of college to sign for millions and play in the NBA.

So what happens when that 10-footer – Igor or Chang-Won or Lazaro or Okoro – turns up as a newly arrived freshman from wherever, enrolled in some kind of demanding course like Personal Hygiene I, and starts working out with the team?

Do they actually let him play? If there’s one like him, there must be other such specimens where he came from. Sooner or later they’ll show up.

So does the hoop get raised from 10 feet to 15 or 16? And what’s the future for all those poor little 7-footers?

Evolution, whether you believe in it or not, is endlessly at work. Our species is changing. And not all of us end up winners.