(CNN) — As he approached the court, the crowd would raise their eyebrows and struggle to suppress their laughter: “This guy can’t be serious …”
Who could blame them? At just 5 feet 3 inches, Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues is the shortest player in the NBA’s history.
If the NBA court is Goliath’s realm, Bogues was its David.
Living proof that size doesn’t matter, his was an ascent that took him from the Baltimore projects to the world stage, as the point guard mixed it with the NBA’s big boys in an exceptional 14-year career, scoring more than 6,800 points before retiring in 2001.
Initially, Bogues harbored no dreams of reaching such heights. “I was just trying to play the game, having fun”, he told CNN. “It was a hobby for me at the time.”
Open-bottomed milk crates were Bogues’ baskets and the streets were his court.
“I was playing and having a lot of success, but I also felt a lot of criticism behind it. I didn’t know why,” he shrugs.
It didn’t take long for Bogues to find out. “People had started talking about my size, how short I was … saying some cruel things.”
Not that he let the doubters get him down: “I just wanted to play the game, and I kept playing.”
Tenacity allied to a relentless approach to defense allowed him to “mug” his neighborhood opponents — hence the nickname. He chased the bigger men like an unwanted noontime shadow.
“I was stealing the ball from all the guys. Every time they dribbled the ball I used to take it and I’d go down the court and I’d either lay it up myself or I’d pass it to one of my teammates. I was getting a lot of excitement from that; I felt good about doing that.”
Even so, the downward glances and derisive whispers were never far away.
He mimics the supercilious remarks of his former doubters — “‘You’re too short: You’ll never be able to play high school or NBA or college'” — with the untroubled tone of a man who knows he came out on top.
He recalls thinking to himself “I’m just going to keep on playing without looking back.”
And he did.
Bogues went from being named the Most Valuable Player in the recreational leagues to the Most Valuable Player on arguably the greatest high school team of all time: the famed Dunbar High School team of 1983, featuring future NBA stars David Wingate, Reggie Williams and Reggie Lewis.
“Each year, you keep on moving up the ladder,” says Bogues, who went on to play college basketball for Wake Forest in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), breaking records for career assists and steals.
Nevertheless, when the Washington Wizards (then known as Washington Bullets) selected him as the No. 12 overall pick in the first round of the 1987 NBA Draft — ahead of standouts Mark Jackson and former Dunbar teammate Reggie Lewis — the skeptics had a field day.
Muggsy’s frustration was less about the focus on his stature; more the shade those comments cast over his talent. “It was never about my skills,” says Bogues.
“People looked at my size as a disadvantage, but I looked at it as an advantage. Whatever I had in my arsenal I had to use.”
His was an arsenal that included a prodigious ability to shift. “Speed was one of the criteria for me — one of my strengths. But I had to use them all … everything I had,” he says.
As well as his quickness across the court, Bogues had another priceless asset. “My IQ level was very high … I saw things before they even happened.
“The guys that were around me — I understood how to make them better. That’s a form of leadership,” he enthuses.
After just one year in Washington — where he famously teamed up with the tallest-ever NBA player, the 7-feet-7-inch Manute Bol — Bogues wound up steering the newly formed Charlotte Hornets.
Along with teammates Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning, Bogues made the Hornets buzz — so much so that he remains the 18th all-time assist leader in the NBA.
Bogues was a player that cherished the basketball; indeed, as well as providing over 6,000 assists, Bogues’ assist to turnover ratio was consistently up there with the best in the league.
If Muggsy was the NBA’s smallest ever player, he possessed one of the biggest leaps of all time.
“I could dunk!” he insists — though he was never able to in the flow of a NBA game, mainly because of his small hands.
“If I had a viable ball, a basketball that was going perfectly, I could …”
To see Bogues in full flight is to marvel at one of sport’s most unlikely sights.
“I had a 44-inch vertical, so I was able to get up there — but I understood that it was just two points.”
Never carried away by the joy of scoring, Bogues was in his element doing the dirty work that every sport demands.
“A dunk was just two points. It’s exciting, you get the crowd up, but it’s just two.”
Besides, he says: “That wasn’t a part of my game; that wasn’t my strength. God didn’t give me that type of talent to do that. He gave me other means to figure this thing out … to maneuver, to be part of it.
“If you didn’t know who I was, your mindset [was]: ‘I’m just going to dominate this little kid, shoot over the top of him, there’s no way he can affect my shot,'” Bogues muses.
That kind of thinking played right into Bogues’ hands.
“I understood what goes into the game,” he says. “And, having that understanding, it allowed me to play my game very aggressively, you know, and change the game.
“I changed the game defensively as a small guy, just like the impact of a 7-footer like a Patrick Ewing, or a Dikembe Mutombo or a Hakeem Olajuwon,” he adds.
“I had it on a smaller version by guarding the ball, making it tough for the [big] guys.”
Bogues’ talents didn’t just stop at the basketball court — his is legacy further guaranteed by his cameo in cult film, “Space Jam.”
He appears alongside not only Bugs Bunny, but Michael Jordan, Ewing, Charles Barkley, Shawn Bradley and Larry Johnson — fitting company for one of the most recognizable individuals to ever play the game.
A 5-feet-3-inch man in the league of giants; it’s only impossible until it’s done.
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