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So arises the spectacle that continues to haunt retired players such as Eaton. Since the public almost exclusively sees 7-footers alongside other extremely tall people—and on television, at that—it can become challenging to imagine these men years later, back in the normal population, in real life. "People have been totally desensitized to the idea of size," says Daniel Ivankovich, a 6'11" orthopedic surgeon in Chicago and a former center at Northwestern. "We throw around numbers like '7 feet' all the time. But until we see it up close, we have no idea how big 7 feet truly is."
It is a balmy May afternoon in midtown Manhattan and Kevin Willis strides into the Marcraft Apparel Group offices in Trump Tower, 18 floors above Fifth Avenue. Wearing dark jeans and a satiny blue shirt, Willis, who retired in 2007 after 21 NBA seasons, sifts through a bundle of pinstriped fabric swatches in one room before tagging into a protracted debate about off-the-rack suit jackets in the next. ("Kevin," one Marcraft executive asks, holding up two dark Tommy Hilfiger suits, "what do you think about these lapels?") The whole scene might feel satirical—the 7-foot Willis has never been able to fit into a Hilfiger suit, let alone much of anything sold on the streets below—were it not part of a larger response to the 48-year-old's fashion conundrum.
For 23 years, going back to his days as a Hawk, Willis has run Willis & Walker, an "extended-length" clothing line that will be expanded by Marcraft into a commercial brand for extraordinarily tall men, ranging from Supima cotton T-shirts to tuxedos, later this year. The former All-Star, a fashion and textiles major at Michigan State, already boasts some high-profile clientele: Patrick Ewing (7 feet), Bill Cartwright (7'1"), Shaquille O'Neal (7'1"), David Robinson (7'1"), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (7'3") and Yao Ming (7'6") all wear his jeans, to name a few. "I've outfitted at least four guys on every team that I played on," says Willis, who spent time with eight NBA squads. "Anytime something fits, the first question has been, Do you have another one? Then, Does it come in any other colors?"
Such loyal patronage, Willis admits, stems from both quality and a lack of alternatives. If you're 6'5", locating clothes can be a trial. At 7 feet, you learn how acutely the world's measurements have been altered by the laws of supply and demand. Hall of Fame center Artis Gilmore, who is 7'2" and now working as a special assistant to the president of his alma mater, Jacksonville, purchases the biggest pair of jeans in a store, on average a size-60 waist, and then pays a tailor to alchemize horizontal into vertical. Dryden tells of how, after "five years of searching," he finally found a pair of cargo shorts with a 14-inch inseam. Predictably, they had been discontinued. So he called stores across the country, spending $700 to buy the last 10 pairs in existence. And when Eaton needed to borrow a hunting jacket a few years ago, he knew of only one person that he could turn to in a pinch. He called Bradley, who lives 45 minutes away from him in Murray, Utah, and who owned one that had been custom-fit. "The first time I sent in my measurements," Bradley recalls of ordering that garment, "the factory sent me back a smaller jacket and said, 'This must be what you meant. No person's that big.'"
Finding footwear that fits can be an even more painful pursuit. "People won't stock shoes over size 15," says Bruce Teilhaber, the owner of Friedman's Shoes in downtown Atlanta. "We have more 17s than 8s, so the biggest guys are all mine. And I don't know what I'd do without them." Nor they him. Former Pacers center Rik Smits, who stands 7'4", wore such tight shoes at home in the Netherlands as a teenager that he developed excruciating nerve damage in his feet. In 1962, as an impoverished 12-year-old in Chipley, Fla., Gilmore was so outsized, he says, that he went barefoot for an entire year. Today, both Smits (size 20) and Gilmore (18) are customers at Friedman's—as is every retired player quoted in this story. (As Teilhaber exclaimed on a recent afternoon, "I just sent [7'2" former Jazz center] Luther Wright three pairs of 20s!")
But no matter how many niche businesses emerge to serve big men, complications of fit are guaranteed. "Nothing is ergonomically correct for a 7-footer," says 7'2" James Donaldson, who played center for five teams over 14 years and now runs the Donaldson Clinic, a physical therapy center in Mill Creek, Wash. "I would love, just once, to fill up a hotel bathtub with bubbles and soak in it like a normal-sized person can." But that will never happen. More frustrating—not to mention dangerous—are doorways, which have long been standardized at 6'8", along with ceiling fans, exit signs and steel emergency sprinklers, lying in wait like caltrops. "With those things, you're talking about scalping an individual," says Gilmore. Rare is the pivotman who has emerged unscathed.
Yes, residences can be customized with giant-appropriate luxuries such as boosted countertops. The Atlanta home of four-time Defensive Player of the Year Dikembe Mutombo, who stands 7'2", features the type of taller toilet seats found in handicap bathroom stalls. But because of the inherent costs of personalization and the possibility of having to one day sell to the normal-sized, even Dryden—whose company, Dryden Contracting, has built houses since 2006—has omitted such conveniences from his home. Besides, the money being poured into a 7-footer's ride tends to be strain enough. The most popular vehicles are of the gas-guzzling sort: SUVs, minivans and pickup trucks, often with adjusted seats. For Eaton, it's a massive Ford F-350 pickup, his left knee comically peeking over the driver's side door. Bradley and Dryden drive the same model.
Which is not to suggest that, for the lofty, some critical decisions cannot be height-blind. Just one of the 15 retired 7-footers interviewed by SI reported that his current or most recent significant other cleared 6 feet: McIlvaine, whose second wife, Gwendolyn, a center on North Carolina's 1994 championship women's basketball team, stands at a room-stopping 6'7". (Imagine their kids—all but one of SI's sample of 7-footers had at least one parent who reached 6'2", demonstrating that great height can be partially foreseen.) "At the Houston airport, we once had to have security stop people from videotaping us," laments McIlvaine, now a Marquette basketball radio analyst as well as an online support staffer for Optima Batteries in Milwaukee. Still, during the couple's courtship, McIlvaine realized that being half of perhaps the tallest couple on earth provided something uniquely gratifying. "This is the first time in my life that I've really felt comfortable with somebody," Jim says. "She understands. She understands exactly what it's like."
Exactly what it's like, scientifically speaking, remains something of a medical blind spot. For all of that visibility, no academic studies have ever taken a magnifying glass to the supertall. Indeed, in February, SI posed three basic questions about the nature of 7-footers (population size, factors responsible for height, and health risks) to the membership of the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society. Nearly five months later, SI has yet to receive a single reply. "The reality is, we don't tend to study tall as often as we study small," says Robert Ferry, professor and chief of pediatric endocrinology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. "Dads want their sons to become tall. And the majority of diseases impede growth, hence the lack of experts on tall stature."
The relative life expectancy of a 7-footer is foggy, but scientists do know that a human being's medically optimal height is considerably closer to 6'1" than it is to 7'1". Grow nearer to the latter mark, says John Komlos, an economist who studies height at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, and "health diminishes: back, heart, bones. Mortality rate rises." Adds Gowriharan Thaiyananthan, co--medical director of the Chapman Neurosurgical and Spine Institute in Orange, Calif., and a neurosurgeon who's operated on four 7-footers himself, "Our bodies were not designed to be 7 feet tall. That's like turning a car into a stretch limo: Things work, but it's not what nature decided is our optimal state. You're pushing every organ system to its limit."