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White Chocolate, James Thrash and Sun Ming Ming

Having already interviewed 7-foot-9 Maryland Nighthawks signee Sun Ming Ming, his point guard Randy "White Chocolate" Gill and their just-hired-this-week head coach Will Rankin at Tuesday night's Wizards game, I wasn't sure if I'd be disappointed by today's introductory press conference. Well, I wasn't.

For one thing, it turned into a media extravaganza, with real reporters from the AP, Baltimore Sun, USA Today, Washington Times, Comcast, Reuters and others.

For another, someone came up with the bright idea to ask White Chocolate whether the Nighthawks have a nickname yet for Sun, and it turns out that they do. Big Homie. "Because that's what he is," White Chocolate explained.

Also, since Sun has worked out with John C. Philbin of Philbin's Family Fitness, John C. Philbin came by, along with some of his entourage, including Redskins receiver and Philbin's co-owner James Thrash, former Redskin Tre' Johnson and former football player and elite bobsledder Greg Harrell. Just your typical ABA press conference.

From left, athletic trainer John Philbin, wide receiver James Thrash, Meiwah owner Larry La, Sun Ming Ming, Nighthawks owner Tom Doyle, former Redskin Tre' Johnson, Randy "White Chocolate" Gill and former bobsledder Greg Harrell. (By Sports Bog)

Naturally, talk turned to whether Thrash would be suiting up for the Nighthawks.

"Matter of fact, you should come hoop with us," White Chocolate told him.

"No man, you ain't gonna make me look bad," Thrash said.

"I know you can go upstairs," White Chocolate said.

"Dunks and threes, that's all I can do," Thrash said.

(I thought about asking Thrash about his recent contract restructuring, but that's not really my style, messing around with news. In fact, Thrash could tell what my style was pretty quickly. I believed he used the word "clowning" when describing it.)

Furthermore, it was revealed that Sun--who recently returned from L.A., where he was shooting some fight scenes for "Rush Hour 3"--is not actually being paid by the Nighthawks. He's a volunteer player. Whether he remains qualified for the "tallest player in the history of the professional basketball" title that the team has given him, I will leave for someone wiser than I to determine.

Furthermore, team owner Tom Doyle said that not only does he plan to press on with his "Tallest Basketball Lineup in History" quest (first written about in Washington City Paper) featuring Sun, Gheorghe Muresan, Manute Bol and a couple other 7-footers, he also has designs on a "Smallest Basketball Lineup in History" promotion. Or at least a "Smallest Basketball Player in History" promotion. I asked if he had any small prospects.

"My eight-year-old son, but then maybe I'd ruin his eligibility," Doyle said.

It turns out that Doyle coaches his son's team, the Mini Nighthawks, which also features Gheorghe's son. Gheorghe and Sun came to a recent practice, which was the first time Tom had actually seen Sun in person. The Mini Nighthawks are supposed to play on 8-foot rims, but Sun's head was level with the basket.

Check out White Chocolate's ice. (By Sports Bog)

"I said either he's taller than 7-9, or the rims are too low," Tom said.

Anyhow, since there were so many real media persons there, I figure I should try to distribute a few real facts. Sun is 23 years old. He did indeed have a pituitary problem that necessitated surgery over the summer to remove a growth, and again in October to finish the job. All parties this afternoon said his health was fine, and that his conditioning is improving, although it suffered from his recent Hollywood turn.

He's played for a Division II team in China, and played a few games in the USBL last summer, pre-surgery. He'd been on Doyle's radar for more than a year, and ABA Commish John Salley recommended he play for the Nighthawks. He's also been working out regularly with White Chocolate and they're striking up a friendship; "no chopsticks, American, eat fork," White Chocolate told him when they started eating, post-press conference.

Sun will be an immediate starter, beginning this Saturday night, against the Strong Island Sound, a team from Long Island. Following in Gheorghe's footsteps, he'll wear jersey No. 79. Coach Will Rankin said Sun will likely receive in the neighborhood of 28-30 minutes initially, that he's unable to play 48 minutes but that he will certainly be called on to contribute immediately. All parties said this move might have marketing components, but that it also is a sound basketball transaction, and that the plan is for Sun to play with the Nighthawks through the end of this season as a way to rack up competitive basketball minutes.

White Chocolate and Sun, at Meiwah, post-press conference. (By Sports Bog)

"I don't think anybody will be able to check him in the ABA; he's uncheckable in the ABA," said White Chocolate, who said he has to chase Sun out of the gym. "If he's close enough he's gonna dunk it on you, that's no problem. Every day, someone's gonna get dunked on, more than once. He's got skills."

"His skills are tremendous," Doyle said. "Yeah, there's no question that having Ming here sells tickets, but there also is no question that having Ming's presence in the middle is much better for our lineup."

"His skill and adaptation is second to none," Rankin said. "I believe he's going to be one of the franchise players. He's definitely going to turn the game around."

The Nighthawks have been drawing 600-800 for home games, but are expecting closer to a capacity crowd of 1,000 on Saturday night. Sun, occasionally with the help of a translator, said that he likes the city, his coach, his teammates and the owner, and that while he initially hated American food he's adapting. He said he gets asked constantly whether he knows Yao Ming--"too much people ask"--and that he doesn't, since Yao left China before Sun's career got going. He said his goal is to play in the NBA, that he doesn't care for which team, that "I just want to play." He said "Rush Hour 3" would be "very funny, very funny," and that he beats up Jackie Chan in the movie: "Bam, Bam." He was wearing a size XXXXXXL Nighthawks hoodie this afternoon, but he complained that it was too small.

The theme of the press conference was definitely optimism.

"I think he's got a chance to keep growing as a player and continue to get better," White Chocolate said. "I think there's no doubt that I'll be seeing him in the NBA as a very successful player."

(A wise reporter attempted to ask a follow-up about just how much more Sun would keep growing, but it was never answered.)

By Dan Steinberg  |  January 31, 2007; 3:27 PM ET
Categories:  Minor League Basketball  
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