His basketball in his first year was played in a reserve role. He lost those 30 pounds. He gained strength through weightlifting. On the court he never really looked out of place. He could shoot. He could pass. He could play. After his rookie season the Bullets sent him to Pete Newell's Big Man Camp and to conditioning coach Dennis Householder. The first season was enough to convince the team to sign him to the large contract. The second season was when the contract began to look like a bargain.
"I'd said on draft day that we hoped that eventually Gheorghe could be a factor in this league," Nash says. "I was misquoted in the paper the next day. The quote said I thought he'd be a 'force' in this league. Well, looking at it now, I don't mind the misquote. I think he can be a force."
At the start of last season, opposing teams reacted to his appearance in the game by sending in smaller, quicker players against him rather than their usual centers. Jim Lynam, who had succeeded Unseld as coach, reacted by taking Muresan out of the game, thinking the situation was bad for the big man. Eventually Lynam realized that it was good for him. He stayed in the game. He began to destroy the shorter, quicker men on offense. By the end of December he was starting. A Big Gheorghe Fan Club had been formed. A life-sized poster had been printed. On a 21-61 Bullet team, he averaged 10 points per game, 6.7 rebounds and 1.74 blocked shots. Better than that, he was still improving at the end.
"I saw definite improvement this year," Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone says, speaking for opposing big men. "He's showed he can score on anybody. There are a lot of people who don't take him seriously, but I think he's a hell of a player already."
"He had a lot of bonuses in his contract," Sweek says. "Reachable bonuses. Well, he reached them all. Minutes, rebounding, field goal percentage, blocked shots. The final one was free throw percentage. I think he needed something like 13 for 16 at the end to make it. We talked about that during the last week of the season. That night he went out, he made nine out of 10 [and ended up shooting 71%]. He finished making every bonus, something like $600,000 extra. That was the kind of year he had."
The question now is how good he can be. Can he be an every-night, 40-minute center? Can he work consistently against the other behemoths of the game? Can he be a big part—in more than size—on a winning NBA team? Lynam, the coach, says he thinks Muresan has a chance to be "something special."
"I was one of the doubters at the beginning at the draft," Lynam says. "I thought he had too many problems, with language and conditioning and foot speed, to overcome. What I didn't know, and I don't think anybody knew, was how hard he would work. He works as hard as anyone I've ever seen."
"I like play basketball," the biggest big man says as he drives the gold Mercedes through the medieval maze of Pau. "I like play basketball a lot. I like play 26 more years, 28 more years, then retire. Hah! I play until I can't play. When I am fatigue, I stop."
His knees are high on either side of the steering wheel. He looks as if he were driving a bumper car at a state fair. Other drivers stare as he passes because his seat is pushed so far back that his large head is obscured by the center post. The car, from the outside, appears at first as if it were driving itself.
His enthusiasm is as big as his body. While the rest of the NBA players are coming out of the hibernation forced by the lockout, stretching and yawning, he is hard at work. Den Helder, the Dutch team, has been dispatched. Ljubljana, the Slovenians, are next. He will be back in Washington on Oct. 6 for the start of training camp. He will be ready to go.