By Roman Stubbs, photos by Katherine Frey
Robert Bobroczkyi was the last player to emerge from the victorious locker room, arching his neck just enough to fit under the doorway. He put a red hood over his head and made his way through the cinder-block hallways of an unfamiliar arena. He couldn't find his teammates.
Bobroczkyi stood behind a black curtain by the entrance of the gym. He peeked out and could see that people were already gawking. Finally, he spotted his teammates in the stands and made a run for it. Hundreds of people whipped out their phones and began recording, some trying to be discreet, as if they felt bad about filming a 17-year-old who has never had a say in being 7 feet 7 inches tall.
He walked up a section full of students and kept his head down. Little kids, giggling, chased him and formed a line to get his autograph in their tournament programs, which advertised Bobroczkyi as an "attraction" even though he hadn't played a second in the game his team just won. He signed at least a hundred items, nodding after each child thanked him. He shooed away all photo requests from older spectators, refusing to be a trophy on their Instagram and Facebook accounts. Already he has reported three Instagram accounts for using his name and videos of him.
"Hey, Rob, can you go sit somewhere else? We're trying to watch the game," one teammate joked, and Bobroczkyi's face turned red before he let out a laugh. He has been both a medical study and a social-media curiosity for years, but his friends always make him feel normal. He lowered his hood. The line of autograph seekers and photo hounds thinned.
"Good job, Rob," one of his teammates said, patting Bobroczkyi on the shoulder.
A half-hour earlier, Bobroczkyi watched his Spire Academy teammates win the opening game of the Flyin' To The Hoop tournament, which is considered one of the premier high school basketball events in the country. His young coach, Justin Clark, stood protectively beside Bobroczkyi outside the locker room afterward.
"Where did they go?" Clark asked before Bobroczkyi made a break for it, wondering where the rest of his players were sitting. "I just don't want him to get bombarded."
Clark spanned the arena for different routes to reach the rest of the team in the upper deck. This has become normal for the coach, because Bobroczkyi's high school experience is anything but. He's thousands of miles from his family in Romania, and for any teenager that would be difficult enough. But his height exacerbates everything.
The Spire Academy provides specialized training, schooling and living accommodations for high school and postgraduate athletes. It is part of the Spire Institute, a 750,000-square foot facility on an unassuming 175-acre plot about 45 minutes east of Cleveland. Built in 2009, the complex has been christened as a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic training facility, and the small town of Geneva, Ohio, has become a beacon for athletes.
The academy has become something of a basketball factory, saying on its website that it has placed more than 100 players in college programs over the past five years. The prospects have been stockpiled largely by the academy's director, 34-year-old Bobby Bossman, who has built a vast network of relationships with coaches at the college, high school and AAU levels — as well as with agents and middlemen in overseas markets — to recruit players to his programs. Rarely does he stumble upon prospects out of sheer luck.
Bossman was sitting in his office at Spire one afternoon in 2014 when he came across a YouTube video of Bobroczkyi, then 7-3 and 13 years old, playing for A.S. Stella Azzura, an amateur basketball club in Italy that produced Andrea Bargnani, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NBA draft. "Holy Toledo," Bossman said under his breath. He Googled Bobroczkyi's name and learned that he was already one of the tallest players in Europe.
He immediately sent Bobroczkyi a Facebook message, but he didn't initially believe it would lead anywhere. When Bobroczkyi replied, they began an unlikely relationship that continued with periodic messages over the next year. Only then did Bossman begin to peel back the layers of his most fascinating recruiting story.
Bobroczkyi had grown up in a basketball family in Romania. His father, Zsiga, stands 7-1 and played professional basketball as well as on Romania's national team with Gheorghe Muresan, the former Washington Bullets player who at 7-7 is the tallest player in NBA history. That lineage explained Bobroczkyi's infatuation with the sport, and his parents' size — his mother is 6 feet tall — could at least explain his rapid growth early in his preteen years.
But that didn't make it any easier. "I guess when I was small, I focused on the negatives," he said. Bobroczkyi was 6-2 at age 8. By the time he was 12, he had surpassed his father's height. That year at a tournament in Romania he met Muresan, which helped change his perspective about his height.
"I had to look up for the first time," Bobroczkyi recalled.
"Sometimes people make you feel uncomfortable, and sometimes they make you feel comfortable," Muresan said in a phone interview of his advice to Bobroczkyi. "Every day is different. Sometimes you have patience, and sometimes you don't have the patience."
Said Bobroczkyi: "We talked about never being shy, never feeling sorry for ourselves, just accept it, be happy and live with it."
Still, doctors studied Bobroczkyi's rare growth at every turn. They worried about his heart and weight. Bobroczkyi has scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine, and he developed pain in his knees as he grew. At 14, when he was 7-6, his parents brought him to Washington for a week of tests at Children's National Medical Center. Doctors didn't know when he would stop growing. Serious disorders — such as gigantism, caused by excessive release of growth hormones from the pituitary gland; and Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the body's connective tissue — were ruled out.
In free time between tests, his parents would take him to see the monuments in D.C.
"We took the subway for some reason," said Bobroczkyi, who had to crouch just to fit on the train. "I was like, 'Are you serious?' "
He found comfort on the basketball court when he returned to Europe, where his dad taught him back-to-basket moves and sky hooks; that helped Bobroczkyi land a spot with the club team in Italy. He continued to develop his shooting and court vision, but moving with his thin frame was difficult.
Off the court he heard jeers, mostly from tourists when he ventured out into Rome. He reminded himself of a credo his father would recite growing up; that his height "could either be a curse or a blessing — you choose."
"At the beginning, I just tried to ignore it. But then as I grew up a bit and got more mature, I realized that just ignoring it is not necessarily the right solution. You have to be smart about it," Bobroczkyi said. "Not everyone is necessarily polite, and some people have never seen such a tall person before, so it's a normal reaction. Now I try to be more accepting and just smile."
Two years after first hearing from Bossman, Bobroczkyi told him that he wanted to visit Spire.
The benefits for both Spire and the teenager were clear. Spire would inherit the ultimate basketball project, a player with above-average skills whom Bossman believed could eventually help his three high school teams. Spire was also keen on the attention that Bobroczkyi would bring its relatively young program; only 30 humans on Earth are verifiably taller, and having Europe's tallest player, who had already become something of a viral curiosity, certainly couldn't hurt marketing in the social media age.
For Bobroczkyi, the institute would cover the $55,000 annual room and board. It would also complement its basketball training with full medical services, which includes monthly testing at the Cleveland Clinic and access to a sports psychologist.
"If you're 15, 16 years old and you're 7-foot-7, I can't even imagine the day you go through, the way people look at you, what people say. So the mental component was really big for us," Bossman said.
The medical challenges of training such a rare specimen are significant enough. As a sophomore this season, Bobroczkyi has been limited to five to 10 minutes per game, and he is not on the same practice regimen as the rest of the players. He arrived at Spire weighing just 180 pounds and was quickly put on a 5,000-calorie-per-day diet. Spire's medical and training staff are concerned that too rapidly accelerating his weight-gain and training goals could affect his heart. Bobroczkyi has never suffered a major injury playing sports, but his back and his knees are sources of discomfort.
"Nobody has ever trained anyone like him," said Brandon Strausser, a trainer at Spire who had not encountered a 7-foot person until Bobroczkyi. "We've had to keep a very open mind."
They've also had to be creative, as evidenced by a workout in the middle of December. Bobroczkyi cannot put any weight on his back when he squats, so the training staff propped his back up with a medicine ball against a pillar in the weight room, then had him squat as far as his fragile hips allowed. Instead of him working on a hamstring curl machine, they simulated the movement by tying a band to Bobroczkyi's feet and had him extend his leg while lying facedown on the floor. At the end of the workout, as always, he added a few chest lifts, because he dreams of adding muscle.
"I have to gain at least 60 pounds . . . everything is centralized around getting big," Bobroczkyi said. "The biggest struggle [on the court] is getting from point A to point B. Speed."
What hasn't been a struggle for Bobroczkyi is building close relationships at Spire. Between sets during his workout routine in the weight room, he cracked jokes with Strausser, the trainer. They talked about his favorite player, Kristaps Porzingis, and the Ball brothers' move to Lithuania to play professional basketball.
"If you're going from Europe to U.S., you're okay. If you're going from U.S. to Europe, nah," Bobroczkyi said. He finished his session and went back to the locker room to put on his custom-made jeans with the 57-inch inseam; they hung over his size 17 Adidas. Bobroczkyi then walked through the silent hallways of the cavernous facility, ducking through every doorway and around every air vent, before arriving at the cafeteria for dinner with his teammates.
He has done everything in his power to blend in off the court. When Donald Trump held a campaign event at Spire in October 2016, Bobroczkyi was invited to sit in the front row; he declined because he didn't want to obstruct anyone's view. He moved into a new dorm with some teammates this year, and the facility managers moved two beds together so Bobroczkyi could fit comfortably. He took the beds apart and stacked suitcases at the end of one bed so his feet would fit.
But there are some things he can't control.
"I've been looking and looking for you!" Spire's chef said to Bobroczkyi as he arrived for dinner at the cafeteria, stacking his plate with mounds of spaghetti and broccoli. Bobroczkyi took his seat at a special elevated table, then sat on an elevated chair. His teammates sat beside him at a lower table.
Bobroczkyi dropped a protein bar out of his coat and had to get on both knees to pick it up. Grabbing a napkin was less of an inconvenience — he simply extended his arms to grab one, two chairs down. None of his teammates, who have grown protective and accustomed to shooing away photo seekers whenever they go to Cavaliers games or the mall, seemed to notice.
"Rob, we playing Call of Duty tonight?" a player asked. Bobroczkyi shrugged. He still had study hall — he's a straight-A student and fluent in Romanian, Hungarian, Italian and English. Plus, he needed sleep.
"I know he's tall and big, but a lot of people don't know, he's a very, very smart kid. He's very kind," Muresan said. "Everybody wants to talk about how big he is . . . but his heart is bigger than him."
DREAMS AND REALITY
Bobroczkyi has dreamed of playing professionally. "If I make it, my whole country would be proud. Everyone would know me, and it would be a reason to be proud," he said, even though he knows he has a long way just to play more meaningful minutes at the high school level. He still has two years of eligibility remaining, although nobody knows for certain if he will be able to get his body in shape enough to be a college prospect.
He and his teammates stayed for the nightcap of the Flyin' To The Hoop event, which featured 7-3 Bol Bol, one of the country's top college prospects and the son of the late Manute Bol, who stood 7-7 and along with Muresan set the NBA height mark.
In Dayton, Bobroczkyi earned gasps during warm-ups when he hit a few three-pointers and hardly needed to jump to dunk. As his team pulled out a victory over host Fairmont High, the plan was to get him a few minutes of playing time. It never materialized. Bobroczkyi sat at the end of the bench, occupying two chairs to prop himself up as he watched.
After the first night of the tournament was done, he put back on his hood and headed for the exits along with thousands of spectators. It was a frenzy.
"Oh my god! He's a giant!" one kid screamed, and more high schoolers whipped out their phones to document his descent from a staircase to the front door of the arena. It only stopped when Bobroczkyi walked outside into a dumping snowfall. It touched his head first.
"To be able to see the world from up there," he said, "is just different."
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