Samuel Deguara is 7'5, Unemployed, And Looking For A Basketball Home
Samuel Deguara is 7'5, 310 pounds, 24 years old, and looking for work. He's still trying to find his place in a changing, globalized basketball marketplace.
Photo by Sam Riches
Samuel Deguara is 24 years old, 310 pounds and 7-foot-5 inches tall. He is the tallest man in his home country of Malta, the Mediterranean archipelago, where, according to a national food consumption survey, the average male is closer to 5-foot-7. He is also the tallest man in Italy, where he signed his first pro basketball contract at age 16. We can assume that he's the tallest person in the Canadian border town, of Thorold, Ontario, which sits about 10 miles from Niagara Falls. That is where Deguara is currently scrolling through an iPad at a restaurant table, reading about Gheorghe Muresan, the former skyscraper of an NBA center and Billy Crystal's towering co-star in the late 1990s dramedy My Giant.
Muresan lasted six years in the NBA before his back, withered by time and punished by both basketball's relentless pounding and his body's own enormity, finally gave out. He twice led the league in field goal percentage and, in his best season, he averaged just under 15 points and 10 rebounds a game, good enough to win the NBA's Most Improved Player award. It is not easy being that big, and Muresan didn't make it look easy. But for a player like Samuel Deguara, to whom nothing has really come easily, Muresan's brief and imperfect career still has the power to inspire.
Deguara has just been cut by his ninth team in nine years. His latest stint, with the Niagara River Lions of Canada's pro basketball league, lasted less than two weeks. Now, an ocean away from home, Deguara is spending the next six months training at a local gym, improving his athleticism, fine-tuning his basketball skills, and strengthening his mind through meditation and yoga. It's a holistic approach, says Dana Heimbecker, the head of athletic development at No Limit Performance, Deguara's gym.
Pro sports are a young man's game and a pitiless business, and Deguara is very young by the standards of almost every profession except the one that he is pursuing. In six months, Deguara, Heimbecker, and Mihai Raducanu, the owner of the gym, will head to a pro camp in Europe to display the collective results of their work in Thorold. What happens there could help launch Deguara's career, or do the opposite.
"If this doesn't work out, he's probably done," says Raducanu, who also works with the Maine Red Claws of the NBA D-League each summer. "I told him, 'If you don't commit now and you don't build yourself up the right way then it's game over.' He knows that."
After being released by the River Lions, Deguara could have signed on with another team in Europe. But despite the advantages his height affords, Deguara has struggled against centers nearly a foot shorter than him in the lower leagues. They are lighter and quicker on their feet, and his weaknesses appear glaring in contrast. This is how he's moved around so much: his size gets him a job, but impatience and expectations and an endless stream of other qualified applicants culminates in a quick exit and another plane ticket, to somewhere else. So, for now, this small Ontario town is home, and Heimberg, Raducanu, and a few others, are something like his family.
"Nobody developed him," Raducanu says. "Nobody helped him get better. He's never had that, which is sad. But we've got him now, and we'll take care of him."
Even as an unfinished product, Deguara has developed a good touch around the basket, gets up and down the floor surprisingly well for his size, and is a consistent free throw shooter. Unlike most players of his height, who tend towards the gangly and gawky, he is solidly built, and still learning his own strength. In 2009, at the U18 European Championships, he averaged 27 points and 24 rebounds a game. He has played professionally in Italy with Benetton Treviso, and in Spain with Baloncesto Fuenlabrada, a first-tier organization. He has been a member of the Maltese National Team since he was 14. And yet Raducanu is right: for all that experience, Deguara's game isn't so much unfinished as barely started.
Raducanu, who is Romanian, was at one time on the same team as Mursean. Deguara, he says, is a better player. "He's faster. He's stronger. He's not as heavy footed as Gheorghe, but Gheorghe had good coaching his whole career. He grew up in good clubs." Deguara hasn't followed the same path. He's known only agents with empty promises, teams that can't pay their bills, coaches who haven't had any faith in his development. Now, Deguara has six months in a foreign country to stay on his feet and undo past missteps.
Back at the restaurant, Deguara lifts his head, his iPad still aglow with Mursean's Wikipedia page. "He's 7-foot-7?" he asks with a hint of disbelief, as if he's newly considering the possibility of not being the largest person in a room. His voice is deep and resonant, both quiet and loud, booming in certain unchecked moments but arriving faintly most of the time, as if speaking softly could somehow mask his size. More than once I lean in closer to hear him. Not this time though. "Wow," he says, lowering the iPad. "That's so fucking tall, man."
The gym is tucked away on a long, straight road lined with nondescript manufacturing buildings and empty parcels of land. It shares space with a fish and tackle business, a custom machinery and automation company, and a software manufacturer. Originally, it was a recreational space for workers in the building, but Raducanu has converted it into a small facility, complete with a locker room, weights, and a half court gym.
I'm not sure where to go when I show up, but then I hear the rapid electronic thudding common to gyms, a remixed Oasis song that someone kindly skips forward. I follow the beat and it leads to Heimbecker, who is shirtless and doing a one-legged squat, a full-body contortion maneuver that makes me fear my own hamstrings might snap just by exposure. Heimbecker played four years of division one soccer at Marshall, and had a short professional stint in Belgium. He specializes in movement—agility, quickness, multidirectional speed. He will lead the majority of Deguara's training.
A lot can change in six months, and Heimbecker is confident that much will. The plan, he says, is not just to round out the edges with Deguara, but to redevelop him. "He trusts us and he knows he's in a good environment where we can get him better," Heimbecker says. "He doesn't want to bounce around anymore."
The entrance to the gym is lined with newspaper clippings of athletes that they've helped, including some National Hockey League and Major League Soccer players, along with college and local high school students. No Limit Performance is in its second year at this location, but the business started in 2008, with Raducanu training one kid in his driveway. Today, top European basketball clubs fly their players over to receive his instruction.
While Heimbecker starts laying colored discs on the floor, markers that Deguara will later sprint and backpedal and sidestep among, the door creaks open and admits someone wearing the largest gray track suit I have ever seen. Deguara then lowers his head and steps fully through the door frame. Upon first meeting, he is, well, very tall. And wide. His frame fills the room; whatever he is or is not as a basketball player, he is a startling reminder of scale. He lifts his chin and motions to the gym. "See?" he says. "My trainers." He's beaming.
Every day, Deguara is here: the first hour with Heimbecker, a second with Raducanu, who, at 6-foot-8, meets Deguara under the basket and begins pushing and poking and prodding at him as he raises up to score. Raducanu is trying to improve Deguara's balance, and, Heimbecker tells me, provoke him. "He's trying to get him a little more violent," he says. "Any professional sport is a cutthroat industry and you've got to utilize your strengths and almost have a chip on your shoulder."
At night, Deguara plays in a local men's league, matching up with Russell Hicks, a 7-footer who played four years at Florida International and was working as a sales associate at hardware store when got invited to the Los Angeles Lakers' training camp in the summer of 2010. Hicks didn't make the Lakers' final roster, and now, back home, he works with Raducanu as an on-call, seven-foot-tall sparring partner.
In the gym, Heimbeck is putting Deguara through hell. Deguara speaks Maltese, Italian, and is learning English, but much of their session is communicated through movement. Heimbecker demonstrates an exercise, Deguara follows. Their time together is spent enduring exhausting looking full-body movements. At one point, Heimbecker lurches forward, putting his weight into heaving a good sized medicine ball at Deguara, who reaches out and catches it effortlessly with one hand. Deguara then lowers into a squat, cradling the medicine ball, before exploding upwards and catapulting the weight overhead. It skims the rafters, before cratering back into the floor.
Deguara takes his first break 45 minutes later. Nothing that he's just endured has looked enjoyable. "This is not for fun," he says, sitting on a courtside bench. "If I wanted to do this for fun I could do it in my own country. We have a plan and it's my only focus right now."
He leans forward, and sweat hits the floor in giant drops. This past summer Deguara was home for two months, one of his longer visits in recent memory. He hasn't been back since. He misses home, he says, but not right now. "Now basketball," he says. "Professionals."
When Deguara first came to the area, as the latest acquisition of the Niagara River Lions, the media coverage cast him as something of an NBA sure shot, a star in the making. He has generated similar headlines since his first pro contract, a nine-year deal that he signed when he was 16. Then he was cut, and he's been getting cut ever since. The attention he receives in each new destination is unsought and unfair, but also inescapable. He's 7-foot-5, and there's no concealing that.
"It's too much talking," he says. "It's very bad to talk before action. I know I'm big. I know I can move. I know I can play. I'm focused on rising. I don't want to bluff or something."
The NBA is a dream, he says, but not one that he wants to talk about.
"I believe in my trainers and they believe in me," he says. "I'm going to do what they tell me. I'm sure I can change everything. I can be better than good."
Soon he is back at it, hopping on one foot, dribbling tennis balls with either hand, getting low, staying balanced. When he was younger, like most kids in Malta, Deguara played soccer. When he grew too large to keep up with his peers, his gym teachers suggested basketball—"they said I could make big money," he says. That same thought has motivated many of the people that have tried to become part of Deguara's career.
"People see a 7-foot-5 guy and latch on," Raducanu says. "And they do different things to benefit themselves, and end up giving Sam bad advice. The industry is really bad when it comes to that."
I ask Deguara if the career uncertainty and globe-trekking and punishing workouts like the one he's just completed have stripped the joy from the sport, if he still likes playing basketball.
"I love it," he says, turning to face me, a ball just barely visible behind the fingers of his left hand. He rises from the bench, ready to get back to work, and finishes: "It's not that I like it. I love it."
Each day, Deguara makes the 15-minute drive between the gym and his apartment in a borrowed Volkswagen Jetta that belongs to Will Brunyansky, a local restaurateur. He also helped Deguara find an apartment, and a king-sized bed.
Malta is known for having 300 days of sunshine and an average temperature of 66 degrees. When Deguara steps out into the gym parking lot, the Jetta, glowing black in the afternoon sun, and with one working taillight, is coated with a layer of ice. Icicles, several inches long, hang from the bumper. Deguara wears a floppy-eared hat and size 22 winter boots, his first-ever pair. Asked to describe his first winter, Deguara replies "skiddy." The boots have helped with that. He folds his body into the car, and I follow him across town, to Brunyansky's cafe.
When we get there, Deguara steps in as if it's home. Enveloped in white, with a ceiling light fixture brushing against his shoulder, he looks something like a herculean angel, who's ready for lunch. Unprovoked, he says, "They believe in me here."
Brunyansky, who had no idea Deguara was stopping by, rushes from the kitchen to greet him and then retreats to prepare a heaping plate of lasagna. At the table, Deguara Skypes with his family. He is the middle child of two brothers. His younger brother is 6-foot-10. His older brother, 6-foot-5. His father, 5-foot-10. His mom, 6-foot-1. His height, he says, comes from his great grandparents. Each of his great grandfathers cleared the 7-foot mark. He is the only one in his family who has ever played basketball.
Over Skype, Deguara tells his family that he'll be playing a game tonight, his first in the local league and his first since he started training. He tells Brunyansky, too, who promises to try and clear the restaurant early so he can come watch.
When Deguara was released by the River Lions, Brunyansky and his wife took him to Niagara Falls and then out for a drink afterward; they were trying to get his mind off basketball, even for a night. "We're just helping him out," Brunyansky says. "He had no one else to turn to." Now, when he goes grocery shopping, he says, he buys for three. "It's a family feeling."
Deguara's apartment, a few minutes from the cafe, is mostly empty—a handful of books, mostly biographies of other athletes, trainers, and coaches, and nothing else that couldn't be packed up quickly or left behind altogether. Outside of basketball he likes nature, hiking, interior design. In Italy, he earned a diploma in drafting and design.
He has photos on his laptop from his various stops around the world, as well as shots of his family and scenes from his life at home. In his closet are his shoes. This past summer, on a visit to Atlanta, he went to a store that makes shoes for Shaquille O'Neal. Deguara wears the same size, and the store allowed him to pick through the old stock. "It was amazing, man," he says. "For once in my life, they had all my size." He points at a pair: low-tops in red canvas. "I've never had them like this before," he says. "Summer shoes."
Admiringly, he refers to Shaq as the C.E.O, and recites other centers in the league—Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams. He studies them all, as well as San Antonio's 7-foot-3 Serbian rookie Boban Marjanovic. Marjanovic was passed over in the 2010 NBA draft, and for years was mostly unknown outside of Europe. He didn't break through until he was 27, but Marjanovic now seems to have found his place in the NBA, and with the league's most steadfast franchise.
Today's NBA is effectively unrecognizable compared to the one through which Mursean lumbered and ached. The biggest players are faster than they've ever been, their skills more diverse, and the expectations for pivots are expanding and evolving. The traditional big man, of Muresan's time, has all but disappeared, although there are still a few of the old breed out there. Marjanovic is one. Deguara is another. If the window is unmistakably closing on players like Samuel Deguara, it's not yet shut all the way.
I emailed Deguara later to ask him how his pickup game went. I wondered how he felt to be back in a full gym, to face another seven footer in Hicks—to play, and run, and do it all without immediate pressure or judgement. Mostly, I just wanted to hear that he did well, and that he was happy.
"Finally I got to run a bit," he wrote back. "I try to be much better next time."