Anointed Tallest American and Taking It in (Really Long) Stride


George Bell Jr., 50, a Norfolk sheriff’s deputy, does what he has done for much of his life: answer questions about what it’s like to be 7-foot-8. (Photos By Joy Lewis — The Virginian-pilot)
The Weather Up Here? A Whirlwind.
Anointed Tallest American and Taking It in (Really Long) Stride

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 10, 2007; B01

Maybe the questions will stop now that George Bell Jr. has achieved some recognition as the tallest living person in the nation.

But here, culled from a lifetime of FAQs put to him by strangers in restaurants or movie theaters or just about anywhere the Norfolk sheriff’s deputy ventures into public, are some answers:

1. He stands 7-foot-8 with his shoes off.

2. He plays basketball, or at least used to, but not in the NBA.

3. He is not Wilt "the Stilt" Chamberlain.

4. His late father and his mother were not giants, just folks of average height.

5. The weather "up there" is just fine.

Finally, he would like you to know that he has no idea, at least in a philosophical sense, how he got to be so tall. But he suspects it has to do with a crazed pituitary gland.

After a lifetime of attracting stares, bumping his head, sleeping diagonally on hotel beds and folding his legs like pipe cleaners to fit on airplanes, Bell, 50, has been at the center of a media whirlwind this week. After Guinness World Records singled him out as the tallest living man in the United States, Bell appeared Thursday on "Good Morning America," and the Norfolk Sheriff’s Office held a news conference yesterday.

And the questions kept coming: What is his shoe size? (19.) His inseam? (43 inches.) What kind of car does he drive, and is it true he removed the front seats and drives from the back seat? (A Nissan Altima and, no, he did not modify the vehicle because he hopes to resell it.)

Bell, whose basso voice seems to be coming from somewhere seven feet below his toes, took it all in stride.

"Seeing the smiles and the recognition of the people who know me and people who’ve never seen me — it was just amazing," Bell said.

Long ago he got used to the intrusive questions and to children following him around as if he were a storybook character.

"I believe ‘How’s the weather up there?’ is probably the most frequent question," Bell said by telephone. "But I ignore it and keep rolling."

More problematic are those low shower heads in hotels, he said.

Bell knows he attracts attention. As if to compensate, he has learned to be humble, to reassure folks that even though he might not be able to walk, let alone fit, in their shoes, he is just like them. It comes through in the little things that say a lot about the big guy, such as the voice mail greeting on his cellphone: "Hello, my name is George. I apologize for not being around when you took the time to give me a call. . . ."

"He’s a gentle giant," said his former wife, Joyce Bell, 50, a retired city employee from Durham, N.C., who nominated Bell for the honor.

First, to put things in perspective: The tallest living person is Leonid Stadnyk of Ukraine, who is 8-foot-5 1/2 , followed by Bao Xi Shun, a Chinese man who stands almost 7-9. The tallest human ever documented was Robert Pershing Wadlow, who stood a whisker above 8-foot-11. Wadlow, who was born in Alton, Ill., died in 1940 at age 22.

Of course, by Bell’s standards, the Miami Heat‘s Shaquille O’Neal (7-1) is a pipsqueak. If he wanted to, Bell could also look down his nose at the tallest of the tall in the NBA, including Houston Rockets center Yao Ming (7-6) and Cleveland Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas (7-3). Even human bamboo Manute Bol, a former NBA player, stood only 7-6 3/4 .

Bell said he hit the 6-foot mark when he was 12. No one made much of his height when he was growing up, though everyone thought he should play basketball. A native of Portsmouth, Va., Bell attended school and played basketball at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, the University of California at Riverside, and Biola University in Southern California. Afterward he played for the Los Angeles Magicians and the Harlem Wizards, show teams whose on-court razzle-dazzle was patterned after the Harlem Globetrotters.

But his former wife said she always thought Bell liked music better than hoops. Joyce Bell said they met in a New York City nightclub while he was with the Wizards. She discovered that he could boogie pretty well for a big guy, but she did not really notice his extraordinary height. A girlfriend did, though.

"The girl said, ‘Joyce, do you believe how tall that man is?’ " Bell recalled. What shocked her more, Joyce Bell said, was when she saw her date’s face in Jet magazine. After seven years of marriage, the couple — who have a 20-year-old, 5-foot-6 daughter — parted amicably, they said.

As his enthusiasm for basketball waned, Bell, who has not remarried, became interested in law enforcement, particularly because he liked working with young people.

"I think George has done a good job of fitting in and being one of the guys," said Sheriff Robert J. McCabe. Bell has a good rapport with the inmates he supervises in the Norfolk City Jail. The biggest crisis so far happened the day Bell took his oath of office.

The sheriff, who is 5-foot-7, had to stand on a chair to pin the badge on Bell.

"And I still had a hard time," McCabe said.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.


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