A Ballplayer’s Journey

by November 09, 2011

by Nick Rotunno

Isaac Sojourner, a former professional basketball player in Japan’s top league, stands about 6-8 and carries the athletic build of a prototypical American forward—long-limbed, muscular, the ideal frame for snatching rebounds or throwing down slam dunks. He was—and still is—a ballplayer of uncommon touch and variety: His mid-range jumper is satin, his footwork is fluid and fundamental, and he can turn the corner on bigger defenders with a quick first step.

But even a burly forward like Sojourner, who is neither short nor small, is dwarfed by massive Chinese center Sun Ming Ming—the tallest basketball player to ever stand on a court. At 7-9 inches, the looming Ming Ming is a tower of a man. His feet are size 20; he palms the basketball like a grapefruit. When he steps on a scale, it registers about 370 pounds. Ming Ming’s proportions are roughly those of a young polar bear. “If you didn’t get your body on him, he’s just gonna walk on down to the basket,” Sojourner says.

About three years ago, Sojourner and the Takamatsu Five Arrows encountered Ming Ming’s Hamamatsu Phoenix in a Basketball Japan League game. Sojourner, one of the Arrows’ tallest players and its best defender, received the unenviable assignment of checking the big Chinese. The American, though, was not intimidated by Ming Ming’s impressive tonnage.

Like most supersized players, Ming Ming is impossible to guard on the low block (he can nearly dunk the ball standing on his tiptoes), but he is not blessed with an overabundance of foot speed. To describe him as “lumbering” is perhaps too charitable. His greatest strength—that bone-crushing size—is also his greatest weakness. Thus, Sojourner’s strategy against Ming Ming was simple: make him move, make him sweat.

The tactic worked to perfection. With Sojourner playing relentless defense, the tired Ming Ming couldn’t park in his favorite spots. Sojourner bodied him, muscled him, harried and hurried him. Ming Ming was too slow to beat Sojourner down-court, and wasn’t skilled enough to create a shot from the perimeter. He was rendered ineffective.

On the other end of the floor, Sojourner took advantage of Ming Ming’s athletic deficiencies, driving to the rim whenever a lane opened up. The Arrows ran him off pick and rolls. Far from the hoop, Ming Ming was little more than a pylon. It was easy pickings. “All you had to do was stand at the high post,” Sojourner recalls. “He’d come out, and you’d go right around him.”

Sojourner finished with 15 points and 15 rebounds, and hit the game-winning shot. Next time their teams met, Ming Ming stayed on the bench whenever Sojourner was on the court.

Now 36 years old, his professional days behind him, Sojourner sits at a Starbucks table in Springfield, OR. He is wearing sweats and looks a bit sleepy. His voice is deep and his laugh is a throaty rumble. Two calligraphic tattoos darken both sides of Sojourner’s neck. They are Japanese characters, representing the words “seki” (strength) and “makoto” (honor). Sojourner also carries a tattoo on his ankle, the image of a burning sun, which symbolizes his eldest son, Trevor. Recently hired as the JV girls basketball coach at nearby Thurston High School, Sojourner is busy preparing for the season. The first games will begin in December; the first practices are just around the corner. It is already late October, and there is still much to be done.