GENEVA, Ohio — When strangers approach Robert Bobroczkyi, as they often do, the first question is almost always, “How tall are you?” Lately, he has been responding with typical teenage snark.
“Five-eleven,” he might say, making up a figure nearly two feet off the real answer.
Forgive him. Though his voice rumbles forth like boulders down a mountain, and each of his hands is the size of an iPad, and he could gaze down upon the crown of the head of any N.B.A. player today, Bobroczkyi, 17, still has the deprecating wit and trademark eye roll of a sophomore in high school. Because that is what he is.
He likes horror movies, science-fiction novels, “old-school” music and NBA 2K. He sleeps wherever and whenever possible. He taught himself to play the piano from YouTube clips. In English class, he was asked to give a presentation about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It helped, he joked, that he had seen the Indiana Jones movies.
And then he steps on a basketball court, where he can reject 3-point attempts from just outside the lane. He doesn’t need to be anywhere near the ball to be an intimidating factor. All he needs is to grab the rim, with both hands, while standing flat-footed.
This is life at 7 feet 7 inches, with the world at your size 17 feet. If Bobroczkyi entered the N.B.A. tomorrow, he would join his Romanian countryman Gheorghe Muresan and Muresan’s contemporary Manute Bol, who also played at 7-7, as the tallest men to play in the league. But unlike the hulking Muresan and the shot-blocking Bol, Bobroczkyi is modeling his far-from-developed game off that of Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis, who at 7-3 has redefined how a player of that length can handle the nimbleness and fluidity of the modern game.
Bobroczkyi is also learning that the one thing no coach can teach — height — will not guarantee him a future in pro basketball. He developed scoliosis at a young age, which gives him lower-back trouble, and though he has stopped growing, his hips have been left misaligned by several inches. And then there is his weight.
Eating enough to fuel his eight-foot wingspan and gain the muscle needed to sustain a career is a daily ordeal. That is one reason he left Europe to come here to the Spire Institute, a 750,000-square-foot facility on 170 acres in the solitude of Ohio wine country. Aside from the basketball court, with floorboards ripped from Quicken Loans Arena (where the N.B.A.’s Cleveland Cavaliers play), and the health-conscious cafeteria, Spire is also close to the Cleveland Clinic, which assigned a dietitian to assist with Bobroczkyi’s nutrition.
The goal is to get his weight, 195 pounds, to rise by a pound per month. Doing so requires consuming a diet of 4,500 calories per day. Bobroczkyi eats slowly, and sometimes uncomfortably. At his school, nearby Grand River Academy, the plastic chairs in the cafeteria are of normal height, which means his legs fold underneath his seat, his ankles lying flat against the floor. Eating a bowl of miso soup this week meant lifting the bowl to his lips; for the liquid to travel all the way up there by spoon would be a long and shaky journey.
Bobroczkyi said the day he met Porzingis, while visiting a basketball academy in Seville, Spain, was the first time in a long while that he stood eye-to-eye with somebody other than his father. Porzingis was 7-foot-1 at the time. Bobroczkyi was 14.
Bobroczkyi was always tall, even when he was little. He passed six feet before his ninth birthday. He dunked at age 12. His father, Zsigmond, is 7-1, and his mother, Brunhilde, a former volleyball player, is 6-1. Still, their boy’s size raised concerns. At the Cleveland Clinic, doctors ruled out Marfan syndrome, a genetic condition of the connective tissue that can lead to life-threatening heart trouble. Other tests over the years eliminated other, potentially worrisome, conditions.
“We made all kinds of tests through the years to ensure everything was all right,” the father wrote in an email. “We made them everywhere, every year, once including Rome, Seville, Washington, Vitoria, Budapest. Everything was fine.”
In Bobroczkyi’s hometown, Arad, in western Romania, he was known mostly because of his father, who had played professionally with the Romanian clubs Elba Timisoara and West Petrom Arad, and even with Muresan on Romania’s national team, forming what might have been the world’s tallest frontcourt at the time. But he began to garner attention when, in middle school, he surpassed his father’s height.
He went to Italy to play for an amateur club, A.S. Stella Azzurra, but took a year off from basketball to work on his frame, which was struggling to support his long limbs. Around that time, Bob Bossman, director of the basketball program at Spire, discovered a YouTube video of Bobroczkyi coolly knocking down 3-pointers and making passes.
“I saw he has potential,” Bossman said. “You don’t get to work with a kid like that often.”
Bossman reached out to Bobroczkyi on Facebook. The conversation began: Bossman told him about the facilities, the chance to play on a team with some of the nation’s top recruits, to attend a small boarding school down the road, to practice at an Olympic training site. When Bobroczkyi and his family visited the campus in 2016, he packed a bag and did not return to Italy.
He first lived in a dorm at Grand River, a 187-year-old preparatory academy with 80 students. School officials brought in an eight-foot bed for his room and custom desks in his classrooms. He has since moved into a house with his basketball teammates at Spire; the bed could not fit in the door there, he said, so Bobroczkyi props two suitcases at the end of his twin with a pillow on top to support his feet.
“You have to get used to it,” he said of his height, a sizable understatement given the challenges that come with it. Doorways are perpetually too low. Pants need to be custom-ordered. Shirts are XXXXXL.
His team once flew him to Hartford for a game, but forgot to reserve a seat for him in an exit row.
“Never flying again, Coach,” Bobroczkyi told Bossman when he landed. On the bus ride back to Ohio, he sat in the back row, his legs splayed out down the aisle.
“Yes, Rob! Thirties! You’re on them!”
The voice of Brandon Strausser, the strength and conditioning coach at Spire, echoed around the cavernous performance center. Bobroczkyi lay on a bench with 30-pound dumbbells on either side of him, ready for his first rep of 10 presses.
Strausser and John Wallace, Spire’s performance director, had tailored a workout plan for Bobroczkyi that was like nothing they had ever attempted. It was arguable that nobody had created anything like it. After all, whose body could compare?
Porzingis was 6-9 at age 17. Muresan did not reach his playing height until age 20. Bobroczkyi even has a couple inches on the former N.B.A. center Shawn Bradley, who was 7-5 in high school.
His experience then, navigating the harsh and bewildering climb to maturity, is truly singular. He cannot fade into the background of his high school hallways, much as he might want to try. In his algebra class, the teacher Matthew Pavlovic asked students to pair up for an assignment — a difficulty for Bobroczkyi, whose elevated desk is set off slightly from the others. He shuffled it across the room with loud screeches.
His father used to tell him that his height could be a blessing or a curse. It was up to him to decide. But asked if he would like to grow any taller, Bobroczkyi shook his head. “I’m done,” he said. “I think I grew enough.”
When Bobroczkyi arrived in Ohio, his flexibility was, Strausser said, “rough.” His lower back was hurting. Walking could look laborious. He moved adequately on the court, but only in short bursts. “He’s not slow,” Bossman said. “It’s just about how many times he can get up and down in a matter of a game or a few minutes.”
So while teammates were doing squats and charting their records in the bench press on a blackboard above the entrance, Bobroczkyi lay on the turf, spread his arms, bent his knees and twisted his torso, meticulously cycling through a 40-minute routine of stretches. His weight lifting program is mostly body resistance, using bands and straps, but when he finally got onto the bench, under those 30-pound weights, Strausser was delighted.
He held a spreadsheet in front of him with almost 50 different exercises designed for Bobroczkyi.
“As much as we can of each movement, in every single movement category that we can think of, is literally on here,” Strausser said. “Because he needs it.”
It was a big deal at Spire when, in a practice not too long ago, Bobroczkyi dunked. This might sound like celebrating a sunrise. But it was a sign that his confidence was growing.
“I mean, I like when I do it, but I also find that I still don’t have enough to push guys around the rim to dunk on them,” he said. “That’s a big part of it. But once I start to gain some pounds, that should start to happen more often.”
At a recent practice, Bobroczkyi ambled around the sideline, spinning a basketball on his finger and dribbling it through his flagpole legs. He was relegated to being mostly an observer as his teammates raced up and down the court in fast-break drills and three-man weaves.
He had played 12 minutes of game action over the weekend, the coach, Dave Briski, explained, and he needed time to recover. “Hopefully by next year he can play some major minutes,” Briski said. “If we can get 10, 15 minutes a game out of him next year, I think that’s a lot.”
Before Bobroczkyi can entertain the thought of becoming the next Porzingis, or even of earning a scholarship to a Division I college, he needs time to adjust to the speed of the American game. Bossman and others contend that his time on the court is productive, but limited.
“He’s so skilled for his height,” his teammate Julian Dancy said. “I’ve never seen a guy that can shoot 3s like him, especially the college 3 already.”
After dinner one night this week — breaded chicken, turkey tetrazzini, green beans and two helpings of rice pudding — Bobroczkyi rode the shuttle with his teammates to the house they share near campus, then sat on his bed. Below posters of Porzingis and Dirk Nowitzki, his face lit up when he heard the news that Porzingis had been named to the N.B.A. All-Star team.
He had been too shy, he admitted, to say anything the first time they met. But now, he said, he would relish another chance.
What would he ask? He paused to think.
“I’d like to ask him what advice he would give me,” Bobroczkyi said, finally. “About anything. Life, basketball, everything.”
His voice trailed off. He nodded, said “yeah,” and went back to folding his laundry for the next day.
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