The rise of Jamarion Sharp, Division I men's tallest player

Since arriving at Western Kentucky, Jamarion Sharp has led Division I men's college basketball in blocks, in no small part thanks to being the tallest player in the sport. Joe Murphy/Getty Images

BOWLING GREEN, Kentucky -- Just before Jamarion Sharp dipped his head so he could fit through the door of a local Mexican restaurant, it happened to him -- the thing that always happens when you're nearly as tall as a Christmas tree -- again.

A young man who'd just pulled up to El Mazatlan, a local spot, stopped walking as he passed Sharp. He nearly dropped his phone as he tried to grasp the towering shadow of Western Kentucky's 7-foot-5 (that's no typo) shot-blocking star.

"Whoa!" he said to Sharp. "Bro, you ... Bro, you must play basketball?"

Sharp never broke his stride.

"Yeah," he said, as he shook his head and smiled. "Something like that."

Division I men's college basketball's tallest player would stand out in New York City or Los Angeles, too. But this is Bowling Green, Kentucky, a blue-collar town in the middle of America. Down here, the National Corvette Museum, a series of caves and a minor league team called the Hot Rods are the biggest attractions.

In Bowling Green, Sharp is Paul Bunyan. He has a 7-foot-7 wingspan and wears a size 18 shoe in a world in which only 2,800 of the almost 8 billion population is 7 feet tall -- and only 10 people have, reportedly, ever grown taller than 8 feet.

"Since I got to Western Kentucky, my image has changed and people have started to recognize me," Sharp told ESPN. "And then, I started to go out to places and people would just look up and go, 'Wow, you're tall.'"

Sharp said he once resented the attention, but now he embraces the love that surrounds him in his second season at Western Kentucky. Through a turbulent year, one filled with losing streaks and head coach Rick Stansbury's health challenges, the big man with the giant personality has been a rock for the program, which hopes to halt another potential losing streak when it hosts Louisiana Tech (Thursday, 9 p.m. ET, CBSSN).

Wherever he goes, he signs autographs, takes pictures with fans and smirks whenever someone asks him a question about his height -- or if he's a basketball player.

As part of a name, image and likeness (NIL) deal, a local furniture store placed three large billboards showing Sharp with his arms stretched wide across town. It looked like he was palming the city.

The deal helped him buy a car suitable for his frame. No longer scrunched into undersized vehicles, Sharp owns a new Jeep Cherokee. It's perfect for him -- if he moves the seat all the way back, leaving just enough room for himself and his new puppy, Joker.

"You can't sit behind me," Sharp said, "unless you're really small."

He maintains an easygoing vibe about his height and the magnifying glass that comes with it, in this town of 73,000 that's filled with old manufacturing plants and strip malls.

As a kid growing up approximately 62 miles west, in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, however, Sharp hated the attention his frame attracted. He recalled refusing to go to WalMart with his mother because people would always come up to them to ask questions:

How tall are you?
Which basketball team do you play for?
What's it like up there?

So, he started wearing a customized hoodie that read, "Yes, I Play Ball, I'm 7-5 and the Weather is Good Up Here." Back then, Sharp hadn't fully understood his talents and potential. He was simply a lanky teen who kept growing.

Between his sophomore and junior years of high school, Sharp went from 6-foot-5 to 7 feet. His family knew something was changing, fast, when he began to hit his head on the ceiling lights in the house that he'd been able to walk beneath just months prior.

"We were Black Friday shopping and he was in high school, standing at like 7-foot-2," Jaqualis Matlock, Sharp's brother, remembered. "And he was trying to hide from people as we walked around the mall. And everybody was looking. I told him, 'You can't hide from people. You're tall. You're special.'"

At the time, Sharp never envisioned a future in basketball. He didn't love the sport and considered it a pastime in high school, where he played limited minutes. While his friends talked about the NBA games they'd watched over the weekend, Sharp was more focused on his drawings. He still loves to sketch cartoon characters by hand. He was more of an artist than a basketball player, he said.

But then, Sharp got dunked on. During a competitive high school game, the then-7-foot-tall junior watched the crowd explode after a smaller player rose above the rim and slammed on him. He vowed then to make sure he'd never get embarrassed like that again.

"It really did change things, I kid you not," Sharp said. "At the time, I didn't think about it. But looking back, it really changed my life. Because before then, I really didn't take basketball all that seriously."

During a stint at Logan College, a junior college in Carterville, Illinois, Sharp began to evolve on the court. His shot-blocking instincts matured, and Division I programs took notice and began calling. Sharp said he picked Western Kentucky because of the relationship he'd established with the staff in high school, one of the few programs from a major conference to recruit him then.

"[It has been great to see the progress] he's made from a guy that came in with zero expectations," Stansbury said. "His feel for the game was much better than we thought. He's been very durable. To my knowledge, he's never missed a practice."

The relationship has enhanced the player and the program. Sharp leads the nation in blocks per game (4.3) and block percentage at 16.6%, which means he has blocked 16.6% of opposing teams' shots inside the arc, per KenPom. For comparison, Los Angeles Lakers star Anthony Davis finished with a 13.75% block rate during his lone season at Kentucky in 2011-12.

Along with the defensive talent that has helped Western Kentucky amass a winning record (14-13), despite two separate five-game losing streaks, Sharp (7.0 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 65% clip inside the arc) has also become a better leader, according to his teammates. Last year, he admitted, he would sulk on the bench whenever he drew a foul or missed an assignment.

This year, he tries to stay positive and encourage his teammates through difficult moments.

"From last year to this year, he's more vocal now," Hilltoppers guard Dayvion McKnight said. "He's a lot more comfortable. And it'll keep going up from here. I don't think there is anybody like that. He's one of those defenders you worry about before you ever get to the rim."

At El Mazatlan, Sharp tried to be polite and squeeze into a booth. He didn't want to inconvenience the staff. But a waitress noticed the tight fit and agreed to move his bench and rearrange the seating area to create more room for him.

The Western Kentucky standout then stuffed tacos into his mouth, as part of a plan to add more weight to his 235-pound frame. He eats six times a day. At his size, he needs the fuel.

As he ate, a boy sitting nearby with his parents stared. He had the incredulous look of a child who thought a human being could be that tall only in a cartoon or a dream.

Sharp noticed, turned toward the boy and grinned, acknowledging that he was, in fact, real.

"Even if I go out there and don't do my best that everyone expects, kids still come up to me with a big smile on their face and ask me for pictures and autographs," he said. "And they tell me I had a good game. It makes me feel good inside."