CLEMSON -- Height is the first thing people notice, the first tangible trait measured in basketball. Size is so critical, it can precede a player's name and position when starting lineups are announced at games.
Catalin Baciu is the tallest player in Clemson basketball history. The 7-2 center is an inch taller than former Tigers star Tree Rollins.
Because of his height, basketball coaches from Romania to Veritas Academy (N.C.) to Clemson have tried to spin Baciu into basketball gold.
Height often determines which sport you will play and which position you're able to occupy. In basketball, height creates expectations. Expectations perhaps unfairly elevated for Baciu.
Baciu, a senior, has exceeded his previous career point total in 18 games this season. After a winding 5,500-mile path from his homeland to Clemson, he is on the cusp of being something more than a sizeable mystery.
Poetry and soccer
Baciu is curious. Maybe it comes from his mother, a chemist at a plastics factory in their hometown of Cluj-Napoca, Romania, once an industrial town and now the country's tech center.
Baciu, 23, can take apart a computer and piece it back to working order. He writes poetry. And as a 15-year-old he fashioned a skateboard out of scrap and test rode it near the city's university.
A university security person noticed the lanky 6-7 teenager awkwardly navigating a sidewalk on the clumsy vehicle. He stopped Baciu and asked him the question every tall boy and girl has been asked at some point: Do you play basketball?
Baciu had never played. He had never seen basketball on television. His game was soccer. But he agreed to try the sport. Too young for the university team, Baciu was invited to practice with an area club team. Having no basketball shorts or basketball shoes, Baciu showed up to his first practice in black dress shoes and cargo shorts.
"The players were like 'What the heck is this kid doing there?' " Baciu said. "I had no idea what I was doing. ... I can't make a layup and I'm 6-7. It took me two months to actually dunk."
Despite his shortcomings, coach Moldovan Voicu saw potential. Voicu spent hours working with Baciu, whose height earned him a spot on the nation's fledgling national team. That's when he was introduced to an American coach at Veritas Christian, a prep school near Asheville, N.C. He was offered an opportunity to play there.
Coming to America
Baciu arrived in Charlotte in 2006 to learn his baggage was lost at the airport.
He has only an address. He has no idea what his coach looks like.
He's relieved when a stranger approaches and asks if he is his new center.
Baciu speaks English well. He grew up on Mickey Mouse cartoons. He likes American music, so assimilating to a new country was easier. Baciu was attending Veritas Christian as a study-abroad student, but his height grabbed the attention of American basketball coaches.
His size and coordination alone -- Baciu is ambidextrous -- elevated him to the nation's No. 55 overall college prospect, according to Scout.com in 2008. Suddenly, he was getting lots of mail from colleges.
"I was shocked," Baciu said. "Why are all these people sending me letters? ... I stopped opening all of them."
Recruiter after recruiter made tiresome sales pitches. But one particular assistant coach could point to Baciu's hometown on a map. This recruiter knew Baciu's interest in poetry.
"He connected to me," Baciu said. "He knew my life."
The recruiter's name? Shaka Smart, the former Clemson assistant who is now the head coach at Virginia Commonwealth.
On a visit to Clemson, Smart had a Good Charlotte tune, one of Baciu's favorite bands, thumping through the locker room. He became Clemson's highest-rated player in the 2008 signing class.
Beats is born
The truth is Baciu did not love the game, not at first. Clemson assistant Mike Winiecki has seen it before: tall players pushed into the game because of their height.
Baciu's early indifference was different, though. He was still learning the game early at Clemson, where Oliver Purnell's full-court scheme was a poor fit for the center. Baciu rarely played. He thought about transferring as a sophomore.
Everything changed for Baciu when new head coach Brad Brownell brought his half-court philosophy to Clemson last season. Brownell and Winiecki saw the height, saw the potential, and made Baciu a sort of priority project.
"He's coordinated," Winiecki said. "He can run and defend. He has good touch. He has a jump hook. He can make a free throw. He just had to get tougher."
Brownell and Winiecki first played sports psychologist. Baciu is good-natured and quirky -- he loves comic book villains. He did not play with the edge coaches want. Tired of calling Baciu by his nickname "Bobo," Winiecki began calling Baciu "Beast."
'It was pure joy'
Working with Baciu has Clemson thinking more creatively about scouting. The staff is considering attending amateur tournaments in Europe.
"We have to look at all those different avenues recruiting-wise," Winiecki said.
Winiecki also wonders what kind of player Baciu would be if the current coaches had him for four years.
And after Baciu scored nine points in the ACC opener against Florida State, Winiecki wonders where Baciu might be as a player in late February.
After a strong finish at the basket against Florida State last week, a timeout was called and Baciu was mobbed by his teammates.
Forward Tanner Smith said he and his teammates were thrilled for Baciu, who had been labeled a disappointment in his early years at Clemson.
"His unbridled enthusiasm in the FSU game was great," Winiecki said. "It was pure joy."
Baciu is no longer playing basketball just because of his height.