When it came to sports fandom in the late 1980s, I was but an unformed lump of clay.
A mere elementary school child then, I don’t remember hearing much about Arkansas State basketball. I certainly never heard about the biggest athlete to ever play for an in-state team.
And so it was with great interest that I fell on mention of a 7-4, 300-pound British center who played in Jonesboro in 1988-90 while researching for my most recent Arkansas Sports Anniversaries piece.
Who was this behemoth, this Anglican land leviathan who once stalked the courts of Crowley’s Ridge?
I asked my go-to ASU expert friend Jeff Reed, and he told me: Alan Bannister, who he confirmed was absolutely HUGE. Not very good, mind you, but most definitely GIANT.
Bannister, it turns out, was sort of effective and not horrible in his first season after arriving in the United States to play for Oklahoma State. “When Big Al arrived here from England, it was sad,” his former roommate Grant Buster told Sports Illustrated. “He couldn’t even catch the ball.” Bannister had only one move to the net, an incipient sky hook. Still, as a 245-pound freshman in 1985-86, Bannister started 19 of the Cowboys‘ 27 games, averaged 7.6 points and 4.5 rebounds and blocked 49 shots.
That was pretty much the apex of his career, though. He sat out his sophomore season with multiple stress fractures in his left foot, but he showed good cheer through it all. When SI asked how he got so tall considering his mom was 5’7″ and his dad 5’11” Bannister retorted with this classic: “We had a tall mailman.”
In reality, it was a benign tumor in his pituitary gland.
Bannister soon transferred to ASU, where one of his OSU assistant coaches had been hired, according to this 1991 article. Bannister was eligible to play there for three semesters. I can’t find his individual statistics, but I think it’s safe to say he did not light northeast Arkansas on fire. Apparently, he did hit a game-winning shot in Jonesboro. Based on message board recollections, it was in a 66-65 win against Cincinnati in January, 1990.
Later, Bannister did not fondly recall his time in Jonesboro. “It didn’t work out very well,” he said in 1991. “An Arkansas State coach told me I couldn’t play in the NBA. He made me feel like I wasn’t a very good player but it made me more determined. I knew I could do it. I just quit listening to the negative and focused on what I wanted to achieve.”
Bannister’s body, unfortunately, didn’t follow suit. It just kept breaking down on him, even when he did make it on to the Utah Jazz as that team’s first foreign-born player (sidenote: also on that team was 7-5 Mark Eaton, which would have made for a helluva twin tower lineup).
Bannister was invited to Utah’s training camp in October 1990, but was still very slow, still had bad hands and couldn’t jump. He played for three weeks before requiring knee surgery and going on to the injured list. He never logged a regular season minute.
The Jazz released Bannister in August, 1991, and he spent the rest of his playing days abroad in places like Austria and England, where in this photo he looks like a very, very relaxed dead ringer for Mike Dunleavy, Jr.
Bannister stayed in England, where in recent years he has coached basketball clinics.
Curious as to who would be the second-tallest student-athlete to play for an Arkansas team?
Try former Razorback Shaheed Ali, who was also a transfer.