KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It says something about the talent of the Mountain State (W.Va.) University basketball team that it has the tallest player in college basketball, and he barely gets off the bench.
It also says a little something about the work in progress that is Paul Sturgess, a 7-foot-8 gentle giant from Loughborough, England.
Sturgess played the final two minutes, 14 seconds of the top-seeded Cougars' romp over Bacone (Okla.) College on Wednesday in the first round of the NAIA Division I Men's Tournament. He did not play in their second-round loss to Southern Polytechnic of Georgia on Friday.
He made the most of his limited opportunity. Sturgess collected two rebounds on defense and after missing his first shot, he threw down a dunk and completed a three-point play by swishing a free throw, much to the delight of the curious fans in attendance.
Then, just for good measure, he blocked a shot at the final buzzer and waved to children from Christa McAuliffe Elementary School in Lenexa, Kan., where he and his teammates visited on Tuesday.
"We played basketball with them, and you could tell they were really amazed by me, so that was fun," said Sturgess, who wears size-21 shoes and can touch the rim while standing on his tiptoes.
Sturgess, 22, deals with stares and gawking on a daily basis, whether it's in arenas, hotels or at convenience stores, where customers buy disposable cameras on the spot and take photos of him.
"You would not imagine the attention he gets, and how hard it must be to deal with it," Mountain State post player Nick Aldridge said, "but he does good for the most part. It's only human nature to get frustrated a little bit, but he really handles it well."
Most of Sturgess' frustration comes from his lack of playing time.
"It's pretty frustrating, but Nick's playing so well, I can't really complain," Sturgess said of Aldridge, a powerful 6-7 senior. "He has a lot more experience than me. If I ever get the chance to play, I go in and do the best I can."
Sturgess was just 5-foot-6 as a 14-year-old and, like most youngsters in England, played soccer. But he went on an amazing growth spurt in high school and when he graduated, he was 7-2. Sturgess reached 7-5½ when he arrived in the United States three years ago and believes he's topped out now.
Sturgess' father is 6-9 and was a cricket player in England, and his mother is 5-9. The family was assured his height was natural and nothing was wrong with his pituitary gland, and he began playing basketball seriously.
"When I was 15, 16, I got picked for the (British) national team, and I realized I could actually use my size to my advantage," Sturgess said, "so I started working hard, and I'm at a good school now, and just waiting for my chance to improve myself."
Sturgess began his college career at Florida Tech and after an unhappy year there, moved on to Brevard Community College in Florida. He had some offers last summer to play professionally in Europe but chose to get his college degree in the United States.
"It would make my mom proud of me to get my degree," he said. "I went to Brevard with the hope of going to NCAA Division I, but I didn't have enough credits, so I chose the best NAIA school."
Mountain State Coach Bob Bolen said Sturgess' time will come.
"He's come a long way," Bolen said. "He just happens to be playing behind a tremendous player in Nick Aldridge. I'm real happy with Paul's development. He has great hands, a nice stroke."
Sturgess is an inch taller than 7-7 Kenny George, who was the tallest college player when he was at North Carolina-Asheville in 2008. And if he fulfills his goal of reaching the NBA in two years, Sturgess would surpass 7-7 Manute Bol and Gheorghe Muresan as the tallest to ever play in the league.
"I've got to get stronger and work on the fundamentals," said Sturgess, "but the NBA is definitely the ultimate goal."
Joe C. Meriweather, the former Kansas City Kings forward, watched Sturgess from courtside and was impressed.
"He's a crowd-pleaser," said Meriweather. "I was surprised how quickly he could run the floor. He seemed to work hard. I looked at him and said, 'Wow, he makes me look small.'"
And Meriweather stands 6-11.
"Compared to him, I'm short," Meriweather joked.
Being 7-8 has its advantages and disadvantages, Sturgess said.
"The best part is the advantage I have in basketball," he said. "But I love getting the attention ... I'm used to everybody looking at me, taking pictures of me. A lot of people know me and like to be around me.
"The worst is showering, having to walk through doors ... driving a car is pretty difficult."
And what about finding a comfortable bed on the road?
"I don't make a big deal out of it," he said. "I just sleep diagonally in a double bed. That's fine with me."