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Tuesday, May 04, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Les Carpenter
MERCER ISLAND In the murkiness of a half-dark gymnasium, Rob Potashnick works the zoom of his hand-held home video camera, trying not to shake, not to do anything to make this spectacle standing before him disappear. Through the viewfinder looms a man-child, a basketball player of gargantuan proportions.
Bigger than Shaq.
Bigger than Arvydas Sabonis.
The same height as Yao Ming.
And this player is holding his arms out from the side of his head, pinching a basketball between the thumb and forefinger of each palm. He giggles and waggles his hands, still clutching the balls. Want him to use different fingers? he asks. Jerry Sokoloski is 7 feet 5, 311 pounds and wears a size-22 shoe. And here is the best part: Almost nobody in basketball knows he exists.
"So you think this is what the NBA scouts want to see?" Potashnick asks from behind the camera.
Potashnick is a real-estate agent and an eighth-grade basketball coach. He knows nothing about NBA prospects other than the most intriguing player in this year's draft has just walked into his life. And that the best thing to do when you have the basketball equivalent of Sasquatch in your garage is to make a videotape, because everyone will want proof.
"Go do that thing you can do with the rim and the basketballs," shouts former NBA center Blair Rasmussen, whom Potashnick has brought in to watch.
Sokoloski smiles sheepishly and walks to the basket, reaches up, and while standing on his toes, he pulls down the rim with one hand and shoves a ball through with the other.
Rasmussen howls. Sokoloski laughs. The camera rolls and who knows what to make of all this?
"You're a freak!" shouts Rasmussen, who stands 7 feet himself. "A freak of nature!"
On Thursday, Jerry Sokoloski will turn 21. But it has not been an easy 21 years. He grew up a giant around the Toronto suburb of Brampton, Ontario, taunted by the other children, ogled by adults. He was 7 feet tall in the eighth grade and his full 7-5 by his second year of high school. His father was a truck driver, his mother lived in subsidized housing, and because of this they were apart for much of his childhood, leaving him tall, poor and vulnerable.
By his 21st birthday, he will have weighed 500 pounds, lost 200, put 100 back on, lost it again, nearly died from a liver ailment, been to three high schools, fallen in love, fallen out of love and cared for an ailing father when no one else could.
He has floated through several AAU teams and since his organs never caught up to his growing body until his late teens, he has barely played organized basketball. Mostly he has just drifted from the clutches of one get-rich scheme to another.
Who knows where he'd be now if Potashnick coaching a local AAU team had not stumbled into Sokoloski and a 7-2 teammate at the Four Points hotel lobby near the Los Angeles airport during an AAU tournament last summer and impetuously handed them his Coldwell-Banker card.
"Call me when you want to buy your mansions," he said.
Instead, Sokoloski e-mailed to say hello. They struck up a friendship. Then he called in March when an Oklahoma agent told him he would never make the NBA. He was desperate. Would Potashnick help?
After some consternation, Potashnick took Sokoloski in, helping him get a hotel room and asking a childhood friend, Freddie Brown Jr., the son of the former Sonics star, to work with the center. He even brought in a personal trainer to improve Sokoloski's footwork and agility and asked Rasmussen for advice.
He says he is doing this because he genuinely likes Sokoloski, because they are friends despite a nine-year difference in their ages. He says he sees someone with an amazing gift who has never been given the proper direction.
"To me, everyone needs a fresh start," Potashnick says. "With a kid like Jerry, if he had grown up on Mercer Island with someone like (Mercer Island High coach) Ed Pepple, he would be in the NBA now, or graduating from a Division I college."
Last Friday, after Potashnick put the video camera away, Sokoloski sat leaning against a door to the Mercer Island High gym. He was polite and friendly but also tired and wary of an interview that was beginning to pick too much into his past. His answers were guarded until the subject of Potashnick arose, then the face that had been so expressionless broke wide into a smile.
"He was a savior to me, an angel in disguise," Sokoloski said. "I owe a lot to Rob. He has called some of his friends to help me like Freddie and Blair. That's what friends do for each other. Hopefully I'll get a chance to help him out someday."
Sokoloski is a mystery to the NBA. A few are aware of his existence but know nothing about his game. Thomas says that because Sokoloski barely played in high school, no one has been able to make a true assessment of his abilities. The NBA's director of scouting, Marty Blake, read some basic biographical information over the phone (much of which seems to have been provided by Potashnick).
"He should draw some interest," Blake finally says. "Teams will say, 'What do we do here?' Frank Layden always says, 'You can't teach height. "
This is how little they know.
The best guess comes from Rasmussen, who sat in the bleachers at the Mercer Island gym last week and gazed with amazement as Sokoloski sank a series of short jump shots, then made several quick cuts to the basket during one of his workouts with Brown. Eventually Rasmussen laughed and threw up his hands.
"He's going to drive a few NBA general managers crazy," Rasmussen says. "Where do you peg him? Usually when you see guys like this, they're really raw. This guy doesn't seem raw to me. Clearly he has been worked with."
Mostly, he has been worked over. After two years of waiting for his body to catch up to the extreme growth of his bones, Sokoloski got his first real chance to play organized basketball his junior year at Toronto's Silverthorn High School. He wasn't very effective, given he had ballooned to nearly 500 pounds, and colleges were scared off by his inability to move quickly down the court. But he was playing.
Then came the first of many poor decisions. That summer, a pair of coaches convinced Sokoloski and a few other Toronto prospects to enroll in a school outside the city. They promised they could get him into shape and that he would be able to play basketball right away his senior year. He transferred over the protests of his parents, only to find out that the local school board had ruled the transfers ineligible.
Without basketball, his life spiraled out of control. His grades, which were never spectacular, suffered. He dropped 200 pounds, but he says the health shakes his new coaches gave him also damaged his liver and he began to feel weak even on simple walks around town. When he finally went to a doctor, he was told his drop in weight had depleted his liver of so much iron he could die.
He recovered, met a woman five years older who had a child, moved in with her, got engaged and transferred to a third school, Father Henry Carr, only to find out that transfer would not be allowed, either.
He stumbled through a few months of school until his father had a heart attack and contracted pneumonia. He returned to Toronto, moved in with his father and took care of him. Eventually, his engagement broke off.
Finally, in the fall of 2003, with his father recovering, a basketball contact put him in touch with John Potter, an agent in Tulsa who agreed to take him on.
His inactivity had allowed the weight to creep back. By the time he got to Oklahoma, he weighed 400 pounds. Potter put him on a training routine, and slowly the fat began to melt away once more. As he got into shape, Sokoloski's basketball skills began to emerge. He had soft hands, a good touch and some inside presence.
But Potter says he became concerned when he brought in college players to play against him. His game fell apart.
"We were going to put on a magic show for the NBA teams," Potter says. "Ultimately, we decided we couldn't do that; I'd destroy my reputation."
They parted ways a month ago. Sokoloski says Potter tried to get him to sign an agent's contract, then took away his shoes and left him in a Tulsa hotel when he refused. Potter denies this, saying that no contract was offered and no shoes were pulled away. Both agree, however, that Sokoloski did not want to go back to Canada, which is why he called Potashnick.
Sokoloski is uncomfortable talking about the past. His answers are slow and hesitant. He will not name the woman he was engaged to, he does not want to talk about the school transfers. His liver is fine now, he says.
"I'm just working with what I've been given," he says. "I'm 7-5, I've had a hard career. I'm not ashamed of it. I didn't die, and I have my dream that I want to come true."
Back in Canada, Thomas sounds relieved when he hears Sokoloski is involved with people from the Mercer Island program. Like almost everyone else who has met Sokoloski, Thomas likes the kid, finds him friendly and too trusting. His hope has always been that Sokoloski could find himself in a stable situation, where the basketball would have a chance to develop.
"It's kind of a last chance for Jerry, I think," he says. "I don't think he has ever been with the right people and the right circumstances."
Yes, this might be the best hope for Jerry Sokoloski. Rasmussen has had several long talks with the player trying to tell him what a serious world it is that he is getting into. Upon Rasmussen's recommendation, Potashnick has changed Sokoloski's workout routine to include distance running and full-court sprints. In the end, this is what the NBA will want to learn can this player it knows nothing about run the floor in a game?
Rasmussen has also suggested Potashnick look for an agent, somebody with a big name, who really knows NBA general managers and can find a place for Sokoloski.
Potashnick sounds hopeful.
"There were people who took advantage of him," he says. "But now it's like Blair said, he needs to stand on his own two feet and make his own decisions."
And maybe, just maybe, this becomes the best story of the NBA draft.
Les Carpenter: 206-464-2280 or email@example.com
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