Basketball: Bannister back for the big time: Duncan Hooper on the battle for fitness of a Giant who still wants to scale the heights of American basketball

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The Independent Online
There is no getting away from it. Alan Bannister is big. At 7ft 5in and 300lbs he has the ideal physique to dominate a basketball court. Sadly, the ideal physique does not always come supplied with the ideal joints and it has been Bannister's left knee that has robbed him, so far, of a pro career in America's NBA.

The Horwich-born 25-year-old with the size 17 feet is back in Manchester after seven years, playing for the Giants in the Carlsberg League. He was on the books of the Utah Jazz from October 1990 until August last year, but he never played and they released him with only a second spell of knee surgery to look forward to.

His first operation was in November 1990, the second in January this year and now he is building up the strength in his knee before relaunching a career which could yet end up in America's pro league.

He misses life in the States. 'I was comfortable there. The society is so oriented to sport that if you are my size it's accepted that you are an athlete and you have a position of respect. It's been a weird transition to come back here where the perception is not the same. People don't think twice about asking you the dumbest things. Like - what are you? A window cleaner?'

In the first three weeks of this season, his knee was encased in two support sleeves plus a heavy brace to restrict swelling caused by the cartilage tissue still floating around the joint. The load of 22 stones caused the knee to 'swell like a football' Bannister said. 'There was a lot of pain. I couldn't get up the stairs.'

The chance of putting such a huge body on the floor (only Romania's 7ft 6in Georghe Muresan is taller among European players) could prove irresistible for England's American coach, Kevin Cadle, in the European Championship games against Russia, Denmark and Bulgaria beginning in two weeks' time.

Bannister is in the squad of 13, although Cadle can select only 10 for each game. 'He's not just big, he's big big,' Cadle said. 'If you're driving in for a lay-up and he's standing there you're going to change your mind about your next move.'

Until now, Bannister has lacked the pace in a league where he is, ironically, too tall and too heavy. 'The pace of the game here is frantic,' Bannister said. 'It's not smooth and controlled like in the States. Smaller teams play a zone against us and I'm left away from the basket guarding some little guy.' By which he means men of 6ft 8in and shorter.

Bannister's frustration is mirrored by his club coach, Jeff Jones. 'We don't match up well when he's on the floor,' he said. 'Because he's guarding someone maybe nine or 10 inches shorter and they're just too quick for him. If the Russians bring some real big men Alan will do a job in stretches of four or five minutes.'

Bannister's motivation is the desire for another attempt in the NBA but it is hard to maintain when his next game is, like tonight's, away to the First Division's bottom club, the Cheshire Jets.

No wonder that his mind drifts to the days spent among the glamour and hype of the All Star camps he attended in the summer after his college days ended. Then he worked his way to the top of the list of prospective NBA centres and the Boston Celtics were among 10 clubs talking to him.

'I love the sport, I love to play and I'll keep working. It will be worth it,' Bannister said.

(Photograph omitted)