When college and professional teams evaluate such players, they screen for height-connected pathologies like Marfan syndrome (a connective tissue disorder, the detection of which ended the basketball career of 7'1" Clarence Holloway at Louisville in 2008) and gigantism (a condition usually related to a tumor that causes the pituitary gland to overproduce growth hormone). Both diseases, while rare, can result in fatal heart malfunction. "Anyone who's 7 feet tall should be evaluated for a growth disorder," Melmed warns. Gigantism, for instance, is especially scarce—there have been only 100 or so reported cases in the United States—but the NBA has employed several players afflicted with the condition, including former Bullets and Nets center Gheorghe Muresan (7'7"), 2004 Jazz first-round draft pick Pavel Podkolzin (7'5") and Josh Moore (7'2"), a onetime Clippers center.
Then there are orthopedic issues, the kind of structural weaknesses one would expect from an aging stretch limo. It would be one thing to build a mammoth, perfectly symmetrical car. (Dwight Howard, 6'11", is the preferred model for orthopedists.) "But most big men are not proportioned the way most little men are," says Thomas Schmalzried, a 6'10" orthopedic surgeon in Los Angeles and a former Stanford center who includes himself in that group. The wearing down of one's lower back, knees and feet looms as a distinct risk. "In terms of degenerative issues, it looks like 7-footers may be ahead of the curve for what you'd expect for their age," Thaiyananthan says.
Eleven ex-players in SI's survey testified to having some kind of major knee, foot or back problem while playing or in retirement. Smits, for one, has had all three. Although doctors did repair the nerve damage to his feet with a series of four surgeries, Smits's left leg began to go numb a couple of years ago. MRIs eventually revealed the culprit: a pair of cracks in one of the hingelike joints that link his vertebrae, requiring intensive back surgery in November 2009. By now, Smits—who also had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and bone chips removed from his left ankle as a player—sounds remarkably dispassionate about the medley of plates, screws and bone grafts holding his body together. On some level, Smits, who now weighs roughly 270 pounds, the same as during his playing days, figures it makes logical sense: "It's a lot of weight we're lugging around."
Walt Lowe, the Rockets' team physician and chairman of orthopedic surgery at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, specifically warns of stress fractures stemming from abnormally rigid, high-arched feet—the type of shoddy shock absorbers which ended the season, and maybe the career, of his most famous patient, Yao Ming. "That's what you're worried about when your owner calls you up and says, I'm thinking of taking this 7'6" guy," Lowe says. "It seems to get the best of the really huge guys before their mid-to-late 30s." Continuing the automobile analogy, 35-year-old former 76ers and Nets center Todd MacCulloch, who had a chronic foot condition, remembers that a podiatrist once described his 7-foot frame as "a Hummer body on Toyota Tercel feet."
But despite the examples of Yao and Ralph Sampson (7'4", three knee surgeries) and 23-year-old Greg Oden (7 feet, four straight seasons truncated by knee problems), there remain equally glaring exceptions. Three of the NBA's top five alltime leaders in games played are 7-footers: 7-foot Robert Parish (1,611 games, first), Abdul-Jabbar (1,560, second) and Willis (1,424, fifth). "People say, You're 7 feet, you're going to break down," Willis says. "But I don't buy into that. No one can tell what's going to happen."
THE PRINCIPAL reason for Eaton's Salt Lake--to-Vegas flight is a speaking engagement where he will deliver a heartfelt, hourlong oration that he has spent the last four years whittling down and committing to memory. It is the story of how his career was born. Eaton was 21 and unskilled back then, a washout who loathed basketball following a stint spent nailed to the bench at Westminster (Calif.) High. Upon graduation he had fled to the Arizona Automotive Institute in Phoenix, only returning to Southern California to pursue a career as an auto mechanic. Every stranger Eaton encountered at the mall and at the supermarket continued to ask whether he played basketball. In response, he simply stopped going to the mall and to the supermarket.
It was at a tire store near Anaheim that Tom Lubin, then an assistant basketball coach and chemistry professor at Cypress College, spotted Eaton one April afternoon in 1977. The kid rebuffed Lubin's intro—"Not interested, no thanks"—but the coach, smitten with such height, came back again and again in the subsequent months, no matter how many times Eaton tossed the junior college's brochures into the bottom drawer of his tool box. By the end of visit number 15, at long last, one of Lubin's pitches stuck. "Tom convinced me that my height, which I had considered to be my biggest liability, could be my greatest strength," Eaton recalls. "But I had to let go of every idea of who or what I could be."
For a 7-footer, so few of whom come naturally to the game to begin with, this notion has always sounded enticing. Before Eaton there was Donaldson, an insecure 300-pound junior at Sacramento's Luther Burbank High, who only agreed to start practicing with the basketball team under one condition: every window of the gym had to be covered with newspapers so that classmates couldn't stare. After Eaton came Mutombo, so visually unsettling as a teen that townspeople in the Congolese villages that he passed through would run away upon seeing him, swearing that he was a phantom. He would be dragged to the hoop by his oldest brother, Ilo, during his senior year at Kinshasa's Institute Boboto. After Mutombo came the 7'2", 16-year-old Bradley, who would cry himself to sleep at the Nike/ABCD camp in Princeton, N.J. "What am I doing here?" he would ask himself after hours of taunting from the crowd. Only a fellow camper's private pep talk finally convinced him that he belonged. And so on, and so on. As Eaton says, contemplating his own development, "It's a bit of a miracle, isn't it?"
Eaton is posing this question to Artex Risk Solutions, an Illinois-based insurance outfit, on an early spring afternoon, deep inside the Aria Resort & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip. The ballroom spotlight's halo is too small, leaving his face in semidarkness. The path to letting go of his old self, Eaton explains to the crowd, was far from certain: He would learn an array of basic post moves from Lubin at Cypress, then transfer to UCLA, where again he played sparingly, only to catch on with the Jazz as a fourth-round flier in 1982. According to Lubin, who became Eaton's mentor, one of the first things his pupil needed was to know that Lubin wasn't there to make fun of him. Trust was paramount. Eaton needed to believe that an imperative to do one thing with his life, and one thing only, would turn out to liberate rather than oppress.
And that it would. Since retiring, both Bradley (who, last November, was a losing candidate in the race for a seat in the Utah House of Representatives) and Donaldson (who lost Seattle's mayoral race in 2009) have become aspiring politicians, of all things, willing subjects of even more intense public scrutiny. Mutombo, whose foundation is devoted to building hospitals in Africa, took the newly created job of NBA global ambassador upon retirement in '09, sending him off on an international round of functions and meet-and-greets. "When I retired, I thought my popularity would go down," Mutombo admits. "And yet it's only gone up and up."