Basketball

As the shortest man ever to play NBA, Muggsy Bogues managed to tenaciously transform his perceived disadvantage into one of his greatest assets. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

NBA player Muggsy Bogues on channelling grief

Muggsy Bogues in action for the Charlotte Hornets in 1997.
Credit: Sport the Library

Boston Gardens, April 29, 1993. It’s five months before Muggsy Bogues will appear on Saturday Night Live, and it’s a big night: a sellout crowd for game 1, round 1 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference Playoffs. It’s Charlotte’s first ever playoff game, and the Celtics’ first since Larry Bird’s retirement. Replacing him as captain is Reggie Lewis, the team’s All-Star, leading scorer and old friend of Muggsy Bogues. Together, Lewis and Bogues helped form what might be the greatest high-school basketball team of all time – the 1981-82 Dunbar Poets, who went two seasons undefeated at 60-0 and yielded a record four future NBA players. (When we speak, via Zoom, Bogues is wearing a grey Poets hoodie.)

In the first quarter, Reggie Lewis stumbled and fell – on the left side of the court, and well away from the ball. “We thought he’d just tripped,” Bogues remembers. It seemed harmless. Lewis sat up, perplexed, then stretched for a while before regaining his feet. The game had continued at the other end of the court. Lewis went to the bench but was subbed back into the game just three minutes later. His resumption didn’t last long: after a minute, he returned to the bench after a spell of dizziness.

It was his last NBA game. After days of tests, a team of 12 cardiologists diagnosed Lewis with a rare, life-threatening and career-ending heart disease. Lewis’s career was only just blossoming and he naturally rebelled against the news. Lewis sought a second opinion and quickly found one: cardiologist Dr Gilbert Mudge diagnosed Lewis with a benign fainting disorder and declared his patient to have a “normal athlete’s heart”. Lewis began lightly preparing for the next season. But two months later, while playing a pick-up game with friends at the Celtics training gym, Reggie Lewis suffered a fatal heart attack. An autopsy supported the original diagnosis of myocarditis. He was 27. (Mudge was later cleared of charges surrounding the death.) “For a while there that summer, I didn’t know all the details, but it seemed like Reggie was going to find a way back,” Bogues says. “But then I got the news.”

 

Just eight days after the funeral, Muggsy Bogues’s father died. Muggsy had a complicated relationship with Richard “Billy” Bogues. He put some food on the table, Muggsy says, but he wasn’t there with him at the rec centre or the asphalt court. Muggsy was a child when his dad went to prison – and an NBA star when Billy was released. His imprisonment profoundly rearranged the home, even if it didn’t alter Muggsy’s commitment.

As a teenager, Muggsy resisted seeing his father in prison, as the prospect was painfully disorienting. But as he got older he saw the importance of maintaining a relationship. In college, he visited his father. They talked ball and his father offered advice. Muggsy says he never “turned his back” on his father, and that Billy followed his son’s basketball career from prison, but there was a great and irreconcilable distance between the two. In his father’s absence, coaches and older players had assumed adjacent roles.

Bogues snr had only been out of prison a few years when he was found dead in an abandoned house just a few blocks from Muggsy’s former high school. The official cause of death was pneumonia, which Muggsy says was the result of a drug overdose. Billy Bogues was 56 – the same age as Muggsy now.

Billy had resumed drugs on his prison release, often with his son Chuckie, and at the time of his death, Muggsy Bogues spoke fatalistically about his father. “The streets was calling him,” he said, suggesting a greater power than he was capable of influencing. “It was breathtaking when I had to go and view the body.”

At 28, and between his two most glorious seasons, Muggsy Bogues stood and eulogised his father. He spoke gently and generously. He emphasised his father’s virtues, softened his flaws and didn’t speak to how strangely their lives had diverged. “I more or less said how proud of him I was,” Bogues remembers. “We were respectful and he gave me an opportunity to know what this world was about, even if he wasn’t the typical father. As a kid living in the [Baltimore] project, having both parents in the household is rare and that was taken away from me at an early age, but at the same time I had enough time to understand the true value of family.”

About grief, Muggsy Bogues is practical. “I’ve been around death ever since I was a kid,” he says. “I just continued to move on, that’s how I’ve been all my life. My whole outlook is always moving forward. You gotta channel [grief] in some kind of way, so you know [doing Saturday Night Live] was a way for me to escape and not think of the things that was going on at the time.”

But mostly, of course, he channelled it into basketball. Into Muggsyland.

 

The nature of basketball rewards size, but its laws still require the ball to touch the floor. And no other player was closer to it than Muggsy. Few had thought more about that space – between the opposing dribbler’s hand and the court – than he had. And that space, seemingly slight and inconsequential, was Muggsyland.

In addition to his athleticism – he had a vertical leap of 112 centimetres – Muggsy’s trick was seeing his opponent as the disadvantaged one. “See, my whole life I played on a lot of big guys,” Muggsy says. “But they’ve never played on a guy like me. I always thought that I had the advantage.”

The trick wasn’t only psychological – it wasn’t just an act of convincing himself that he could play against giants. He studied the game. He studied individual players – their habits, their feints, their preferred hand. He internalised the beats of the bouncing ball, so he could better anticipate – and disrupt – it. He became a scholar of Muggsyland. It wasn’t about overcoming his “disadvantage” – it was about transforming his uniqueness into a practical advantage. It was about making his opponent’s size a liability for them. It was judo.

Judo and tenacity. There’s a clip on YouTube of Muggsy defending Michael Jordan in the 1995 playoffs. Jordan is typically nonchalant, and backs Muggsy up, repeatedly and aggressively. Muggsy is uncowed, and his attention unbroken, as he contains Jordan – and then strips the ball from him. Such was Muggsy’s gift – and gnat-like persistence – that even gifted ball handlers resented bringing the ball up the court when playing against him.

This was Muggsy on defence. On offence, he marshalled plays and exploited gaps that few could see. Reporters asked how he could see opportunities through the forest of big men. He answered: How could I not? It was Muggsyland.

And then in 1995 his mother called, and told him that Chuckie was bad. Real bad.

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

Read part one: Muggsy Bogues, the NBA's shortest player

Read part three: Muggsy Bogues on family ties

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 13, 2021 as "Welcome to Muggsyland".

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