Yes, They Are Tall. No, They Do Not Play Basketball.
Dave Rasmussen has learned to deal with the small inconveniences that life lobs at him.
He can tell you how much space — down to the inch — an exit row seat affords him on different commercial airplanes. Once, he needed a ceiling tile removed so that he could run on a treadmill. He scouts the roominess of potential rental cars by going to the Milwaukee Auto Show.
And by now Rasmussen, 61, is ready for the strangers who gawk and take photographs and ask versions of the same question that he has fielded his entire life: Did you play basketball?
For exceptionally tall people like Rasmussen, who is 7 feet 2 inches, March may be the worst month. The N.C.A.A. men’s and women’s basketball tournaments have captured the attention of office pool bracketologists. The N.B.A. playoff chase is heating up. And tall people everywhere, including those who have never attempted a jump shot, are swept up in the madness through no fault of their own. Rasmussen is a retired information technology specialist.
“I always feel so bad for those people,” said Cole Aldrich, a 6-11 center who played eight seasons in the N.B.A. before he retired in 2019. “If you’re tall, there’s this belief that you should automatically be good at basketball. And if you aren’t, then what the hell is wrong with you?”
Many tall people gravitate to basketball, which favors the vertically advantaged since they are closer to the hoop and their length helps them defend, block shots and score against shorter opponents. But there are also millions of people who spend their days ducking under doorways and cursing ceiling fans — and have nothing to do with the game.
In any case, it gets old. Ask Tiffany Tweed (or maybe don’t ask her), a 6-4 hospital pharmacist from Hickory, N.C., who gets interrogated all the time. There are basketball questions, of course. But also: How tall is your father? How tall is your mother? And: Can you grab that book off the top shelf for me?
Tweed played basketball when she was younger, but she now tells people that she was a ballerina and does a twirl on her tiptoes to prove it. (She was not a ballerina.)
“I decided that I was going to have some fun with it, because I’m sick of answering the same questions the same way,” said Tweed, 37, who has a popular TikTok account where she shares the joys and pains of, say, shopping for jeans with a 37-inch inseam. “I love being a positive role model for girls who are tall. But when I get home, I’m like, please leave me alone.”
The average W.N.B.A. player, at a shade taller than 6 feet, towers over the average American woman (5 feet 3.5 inches). American men who are between 6 feet and 6-2 — significantly taller than the 5-9 average — have about a five in a million chance of making the N.B.A., according to “The Sports Gene,” a 2013 book by David Epstein about the science of athletic performance. But if you hit the genetic lottery and happen to be 7 feet tall, your chances of landing in the N.B.A. are roughly one in six. (There are 38 players on active rosters who are 7 feet or taller, according to N.B.A. Advanced Stats; the average height of an N.B.A. player is 6 feet 6.5 inches.)
Still, most 7-footers are not pro basketball players, and instead are often unfairly burdened with being compelled to explain their life choices to strangers.
Daniel Gilchrist, 40, played basketball briefly at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kan., before injuries forced him to call it quits. His father, Jim, had steered him toward the game for obvious reasons: Daniel was 7-7.
“At the time, I kind of resented him for that,” Daniel Gilchrist said. “But now that I’m older, I kind of understand why he wanted me to play. And I’m glad I did it, but it was never something I was passionate about.”
Gilchrist now follows his passion as an actor, appearing onstage at the Topeka Civic Theater. Last year, he played the role of Lennie in a production of “Of Mice and Men,” which he described as a lifelong dream. He has also been cast in an upcoming film — as a sasquatch. He acknowledged the long process of self-acceptance.
“It did take me a while,” he said, “especially as a teenager. And there are still days when I wish I could blend in. But a long time ago, I figured that I could either accept it or become a hermit.”
Some tall people refer to other tall people as “talls.” But true talls tend to be wary of phony talls — women in stilettos, for example. Kimberly Schmal, a 6-foot utility biller from Oak Harbor, Wash., gets the urge to investigate whenever she spots a fellow tall.
“So you go over and take a closer look: Is she wearing heels? No! She’s just tall!” said Schmal, 38. “And you strike up a conversation.”
Growing up, Schmal was a cheerleader. She did not want to play basketball — or volleyball, a basketball-adjacent pursuit. The problem for Schmal was that the girls’ volleyball coach at her high school managed the local Burger King, and he desperately wanted her to come out for the team.
“He would sit next to us at the booth and just be like, ‘Volleyball, volleyball, volleyball,’” Schmal recalled.
John Stewart, 64, who is 6-6 and played basketball in high school and for two years at a trade school, never harbored any illusions about a future in the game.
“I didn’t have any scouts following me around!” he said. “I just didn’t have the talent.”
Stewart has since spent 46 years working at a rock quarry near his home in Burlington, N.C., where he has gotten used to people remarking on his height and asking the usual questions. And for a few fleeting seconds, he is happy to let them imagine that he played big-time college ball, or even in the N.B.A., until he tells them the truth.
“It doesn’t bother me at all,” he said. “It’s kind of like my 15 minutes of fame.”
This summer, Stewart plans to attend the annual convention for Tall Clubs International aboard an Alaskan cruise. The organization includes 38 chapters in the United States and Canada. There are height requirements: 6-2 for men and 5-10 for women. But membership is otherwise open to all, said Bob Huggett, the organization’s 6-7 president.
“The only thing we have in common,” Huggett said, “is that we’re tall.”
Huggett has a pat response whenever someone asks whether he played basketball.
“No,” he says, “did you play miniature golf?”
In recent years, membership at many chapters has decreased — a symptom of a larger trend among social organizations. Nancy Kaplan, 55, a retired kindergarten teacher from Albany, N.Y., recalled how much fun she had as a member of the Tall Club of New York City in the 1990s. No one stared. No one pointed. And no one peppered her with questions about being 6-3.
“It was just so lovely to walk into a huge dance hall and everybody was your height,” she said. “I could even wear heels. I mean, heels! I was the short one in a lot of those groups.”
Kaplan has otherwise struggled with her height “every day of my entire life,” she said. As a young girl, she was teased and called names like Big Bird. The girls’ basketball coach at her high school hounded her about joining the team until she caved, though it was a short-lived experiment.
“I hate running, and I hate sweating,” she said. “I would run up and down the court fixing my hair.”
As a teacher, Kaplan said, she was scrutinized by colleagues.
“It was never the kids who said, ‘Wow, you’re so tall,’” she said. “It was the other teachers and staff who would make comments: ‘You’re too big to teach kindergarten. How do you get down in their chairs?’ It’s very painful and hurtful that someone can come up to you and just comment on your height.”
If nothing else, she can commiserate with her younger sister, Anita Kaplan, 49, who is 6-5 and described certain triggers in her own life, such as when she enters a public restroom.
“The women, in their peripheral vision, will see you and give you that look for a fraction of a second,” Anita Kaplan said. “And you know exactly what they’re thinking: Why is this man in here?”
Nancy Kaplan said the only time she felt fully seen as a woman was when she was pregnant.
Anita Kaplan, unlike her older sister, was drawn into the vortex of basketball by her father, Allen, a 6-7 optometrist who sensed her potential. She worked at her game in the family driveway, where she sought to compensate for her lack of dexterity — “I am not athletic, not even a little,” she said — through sheer willpower. Her feel for the game grew along with her reputation.
“They called me the Truck,” Kaplan said. “And I got to be around tall men. I had an ulterior motive.”
She landed at Stanford, where she was a decorated center, then played professionally for a few seasons. Now, as the mother of three teenage sons (two of whom are taller than 6 feet), she has nuanced feelings about her stature. She loved playing basketball, she said, but she also has the lived experience of always standing out, of never being able to hide. People, she said, approach her all the time to ask if she played hoops. She tells them no.
Steve Dexter, 67, has gotten so tired of questions about basketball that he now tells inquisitive strangers that he once graced the hardwood for the University of Oklahoma. The twist is that Dexter, who is 6-7, never played basketball.
“Athletes were not my crowd,” said Dexter, who lives in Laguna Beach, Calif. “I was kind of a nerd.”
These days, as a real estate investor and author, Dexter considers his physical stature to be an asset, citing research that tall people are deemed “more trustworthy and authoritative.”
Rasmussen, who at 7-2 is the tallest member of Tall Clubs International, recalled joining friends at a political rally in Milwaukee many years ago. Afterward, he was approached by Secret Service agents who gauged his interest in doing surveillance. It was a change of pace from the usual questions.
“I think they figured that if I could dress like a schlep, nobody would suspect me,” Rasmussen said. “But I never followed up.”
In retirement, Rasmussen has remained active. He swims, bikes and plays the violin and the viola in quartets and an orchestra.
At rehearsals, he sits on a high stool in the back row, where he can enjoy being a part of something larger than himself.