Basketball

In a league dominated by men built like skyscrapers, 160-centimetre Muggsy Bogues went from being the butt of jokes to the stuff of legend. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Muggsy Bogues, the NBA’s shortest player

Muggsy Bogues defends against basketball legend Michael Jordan in 1995.
Credit: AP Photo / Ruth Fremson

The stage lights are hot and Kurt Cobain reeks of dope. Muggsy’s just glad it’s over. It’s September 25, 1993, and Muggsy Bogues is joining the curtain call for the season premiere of Saturday Night Live. Beside him are the show’s cast and its other guests: Charles Barkley, RuPaul and the glazed-eyed boys of Nirvana, who’ve just performed the lead single to what will be their final album.

As the motley troupe wave before the studio audience, to the millions watching at home it must seem as if the little man who had freakishly defied the odds of both his genes and his childhood had reached the summit.

In many ways, they were right. Muggsy Bogues had reached the summit. As the shortest man to have played in the NBA – a distinction still true today, and likely forever more – Muggsy was not merely surviving but flourishing.

In the season just passed, he’d ranked fifth in the league for assists and 10th for steals – the next season would be even better. As its starting point guard, he had helped the Charlotte Hornets – then in their fifth season – make the playoffs for the first time. The cherry was knocking off the favoured Celtics in the first round.

In the season just passed, the Hornets had enjoyed large and rapturous crowds, and with Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning, Muggsy helped form one of its most visible and popular trios. His image was bought by Sprite and Reebok; countless kids wore replicas of his jersey. The game had made him a multimillionaire and also an icon: the subject of late-night punchlines but also a source of popular astonishment and inspiration.

And now, having awkwardly starred in a skit with Al Franken and Charles Barkley – it opens with Barkley calling him a “midget” – he was waving before the cameras from the fabled floor of NBC’s Studio 8H besides the most famous band on earth. Not bad for a short kid from Baltimore’s projects.

But what the audience didn’t know was that Muggsy was struggling. In a life filled with wildly intense and tragic years, 1993 had been especially intense and tragic. From boyhood, Muggsy had always transformed others’ laughing scepticism into fuel for his competitiveness – an abnormally fierce desire to prove doubters wrong. Now 28, and having reached the summit, he was using that devotion to basketball to bury his grief.

And he was exhausted.

 

Members of the jury, allow me a bold assertion: Muggsy Bogues’s career is the most astonishing in professional sports history – period. Sure, not for career stats, political significance or the richness of the highlight reel – but for the weight of his achievement measured against expectation. His career is absurd, a defiance of odds as extreme and wondrous as a supernova visible to the naked eye. It should never have happened, and will probably never happen again.

Members of the jury, the average height of the American male is 175 centimetres. The average NBA player’s height is 198 centimetres. Muggsy Bogues played 14 seasons at 160 centimetres. The emphasis in that sentence lands on his height, but it could just as well land on the length of his career. And for half of it, Muggsy was a starting guard. In the 1993-94 season, he was second in the league for assists – only behind John Stockton, the league’s all-time accumulator of them – and averaged a double-double.

No NBA player has a better assists-to-turnover ratio. Not Stockton, Chris Paul or Steph Curry. No one. It’s an obscure metric, perhaps, and uncelebrated – but it’s significant. Simply put, it means Muggsy rarely lost the ball. And once he had it, something good happened.

Members of the jury, I suggest all of this qualifies Muggsy Bogues for unique reverence. But now please consider: raised in the projects of East Baltimore, Bogues was just five when he was sprayed with buckshot – a shopkeeper, incensed about an act of vandalism, stormed into the street with a shotgun and began blasting indiscriminately. Bogues woke in hospital, scarred and terrified. Twenty years later, with steel pellets in his arms and legs, he was defending Michael Jordan.

“No, Jordan didn’t intimidate me,” Bogues tells me. “I’m not overwhelmed with any human being. We all human beings, just trying to accomplish the dreams we have in our mind. There’s beauty and brilliance to [Jordan] and I give that individual lots of credit, but, you know, to be overwhelmed in their presence? That’s not me.”

Violence – and the threat of violence – was the air Muggsy breathed. Not long after he was shot, he watched a man beaten to death with a baseball bat. Later, he saw a man stabbed. “As a kid, violence was the atmosphere and you had to adjust,” he says. “Violence was more or less a daily thing, and in that neighbourhood anything could possibly happen. What you witnessed must have had some impact on you – you gotta keep your eyes aware of your surroundings – but my whole outlook is always moving forward … I’ve never seen a therapist. What I witnessed never had a really detrimental impact on me, and I found a way to navigate through that world.”

When Muggsy was 12, his father was sentenced to 20 years’ jail for armed robbery. Soon after, his older brother Chuckie got deep into crack cocaine and petty cons to fund it.

“My dad wasn’t a typical father, I guess,” Bogues says. “He was old school, a provider. He wasn’t teaching me basketball down the court.” With her husband locked up and one son haunting alleys and street corners, Muggsy’s mother went to night school to achieve her high-school diploma and secure work as a secretary – all the while praying for the Lord’s help.

Meanwhile, Muggsy hit the asphalt court and shot until the sun went down. When he was a little older, he shot until the sun came up – the soundtrack of the night was the rattle of the rim and the pop-pop-pop of gunfire.

The neighbourhood kids were cruel, Muggsy says, and insistent in their cruelty. “Midget” was a familiar word. His mother would counsel that no one knew the size of his heart; that no stranger was an expert on his life.

Tenacity was his superpower. When others called him names, he was internally repeating his shooting mantra, “BEEF”: balance, eyes, elbows, follow-through. But working on his jump shot wouldn’t matter that much; at his height, Muggsy needed to perfect his dribbling, his passing, his vision. And he did. He played endless pick-up games on the local court. He slept with a ball in his bed. As a personal challenge, he dribbled while taking the rubbish bins out. He was tough, self-reliant and fanatically devoted.

But others’ scepticism never waned. When he dominated high school basketball, most doubted he could play college. When he succeeded in college, most thought he’d fail to be selected in the first round of the NBA draft – if at all. When he was picked in the first round, by the Washington Bullets in 1987, his “eccentric” selection inspired boos from the audience. When he was traded to Charlotte after a season on Washington’s bench, his new coach humiliated him before reporters when, asked about his point guard, he fell to his knees – distastefully imitating Bogues – and replied: “Will a midget really bother [Knicks centre Patrick] Ewing?”

“The naysayers didn’t realise a kid my size was capable of doing it, so breaking down those barriers was enough motivation for me,” Bogues says. “I was letting them know I belonged. That was fuel for me. That became my make-up. Even if it was a pick-up game, I had that same effort – I didn’t go easy on anyone.

“But no one gave me a chance each level I was climbing. [Legendary North Carolina coach] Dean Smith literally said I was too small to play in the ACC [a conference of the American college competition]. Washington didn’t believe in me, and my first year at Charlotte was another challenge. But it was a match made in heaven after that.”

At every step, there was abuse, condescension and disbelief. For years, Muggsy was an exile from conventional wisdom. To many, his achievements didn’t matter – few thought that his past performance suggested future success. Bogues tells me he assumed the doubt would eventually evaporate, but it never really did. At least, not until he was well into his NBA career. But, if I’m honest, I’m much more upset about this than he is. Muggsy’s sanguine. Muggsy just smiles.

By 1993, the final barrier of scepticism was at last overcome – only to be replaced with multiple tragedies.

This is part one of a three-part series on NBA player Muggsy Bogues. 

Read part two: NBA player Muggsy Bogues on channelling grief

Read part three: Muggsy Bogues on family ties

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 6, 2021 as "Bogues’ draft".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s sports editor.