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Mark A. Philbrick, Brigham Young University

How is former NBA player Shawn Bradley so tall? BYU genetic researchers found out

By Hannah Leavitt, KSL.com | Posted - Sep 10th, 2018 @ 7:05pm


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PROVO — The 1990-91 college basketball season is memorable to any BYU basketball fan — that was the year that Shawn Bradley started playing for the Cougars.

Besides Bradley’s natural basketball abilities, he has a special advantage on a basketball court: he stands 7 feet, 6 inches tall.

Bradley’s height is in the 99.99999th percentile, according to a BYU News article. But what’s even more unusual than his height is the reason why he is so tall.

“Unlike many extremely tall people who have a rare genetic disorder or a pituitary tumor, Bradley is healthy and still one of the tallest people in recorded history,” BYU Media Relations Manager Todd Hollingshead said in the article.

A few years ago, BYU biology professor and department chair Dr. John Kauwe ended up sitting next to Bradley on a flight to Texas. Dr. Kauwe said he knew who Bradley was and the two started discussing basketball and the reason behind his above-average height. This ultimately led to the decision of doing genetic testing on Bradley.

“My main research focal area is not height, it’s Alzheimer’s disease,” Kauwe said. “But this was just one of those interesting opportunities. Height is one of those things that is just universally interesting. We both wanted to know what we could learn about his height.”

Dr. Mark Ebbert was one of the lead authors on the study of Bradley's height and said that they used exome sequencing (examining all the protein genes in a genome) based on a blood sample to study Bradley’s height.

“We sequenced essentially all of (Shawn Bradley’s) genes and we looked for both rare mutations and common mutations that had already been associated with height,” Dr. Ebbert said.

The doctors and students who performed the study expected to find rare genetic reasoning to account for Bradley’s height. But they found something more uncommon: Bradley has almost every genetic variant that’s responsible for increasing height.

Ebbert said the results of Bradley’s genetics are a “jackpot of common mutations.” Bradley has a combination of different mutations that each individually increase height just a little bit, but when put altogether, you’ll get someone that grows to over 7 feet.

“Scientifically, this seems like a really simple conclusion,” Kauwe said. “But what’s unique here is that we’re demonstrating that with this type of genetic information we can actually predict who can be an outlier for a complex trait.”

Kauwe went on to say that results such as Bradley’s can help to predict traits such as allergies and asthma.

His "jackpot" of genes definitely helped him in his long-running basketball career. While at BYU, Bradley averaged 14.8 points, 7.7 rebounds and an NCAA freshman-record 5.2 blocked shots per game, according to The Washington Post.

Then he entered the NBA draft after playing only one season of college basketball and taking a two-year hiatus to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was the second overall pick and ended up being drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers. He went on to play for the New Jersey Nets and the Dallas Mavericks, as well.

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Hannah Leavitt

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