Basketball

As his own career began to decline due to injury, Muggsy Bogues adopted a new game plan – to save his older brother from drug addiction. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Muggsy Bogues on family ties

Muggsy Bogues back on the court for a 2020 NBA All-Star weekend.
Credit: Jeff Haynes / NBAE / Getty Images via AFP

This is part three of a three-part series.

In 1995, when the blocks of high-rise apartments that Muggsy Bogues grew up in were stuffed with dynamite and demolished, it was confirmation of what Muggsy already knew: for all of the developers’ professed optimism for Lafayette Courts, the projects were manifestations of racist neglect and segregation – and had become miserable sites of violence and decrepitude.

Lafayette Courts were opened in 1955, 10 years before Muggsy’s birth, and were part of a nationwide attempt to “de-slum” cities with the construction of high-rise public housing. Developers promised residents harbour views of Baltimore, but never adequately wired the place, and like its counterparts across the country, Lafayette Courts were poorly maintained – lifts broke; pipes froze. It was freezing in winter and sweltering in summer. Baltimore, in scenes that were being mirrored in Philadelphia and St Louis, decided to raze the city’s public housing towers. Muggsy wasn’t there but saw the implosion on TV. “It was very surreal watching it,” he says. “But it was well needed. The revitalising [plan] was well deserving to give folks better living conditions and opportunity to, you know, to provide for themselves in a more effective way. But it was still sad. And it was – it was a happy moment at the same time. There was the history of memories that you had as a kid, but at the same time, you didn’t want no one else have to live to those type of conditions – urine on the floors and the steps, and people on top of one another.”

The conditions of Muggsy’s childhood might only be partially familiar to Australians through the famed HBO series The Wire, set largely on the streets of Baltimore (though also in its ports, police stations, schools, newsrooms and town hall). With rare intelligence and complexity, The Wire examined the city’s drug trade. Muggsy’s wife Kim worked as a caterer on set. “They did an amazing job with the show,” Muggsy says. “For the most part, it was real. That was the culture, that was the atmosphere. In some regards, it changed after I left because they started using the younger kids to be the guys out there working on the streets to help them move their product, as opposed to us, when they was more or less helping us stay away from it. I guess they realised that the younger kids were easier because of the jail time they’d have to serve. But at the same time, the conditions were the same. The same dealing was going on, the same happenings behind the scene in terms of the killing and, you know, finding people in boarding houses and people all around who are dead that you don’t realise is no longer with you because something went down and he got caught up in a transaction.”

The City of Baltimore salvaged a thousand bricks from the rubble of Lafayette Courts and sold them to residents at a buck each. And they sent Muggsy one – it still sits on a shelf in his home in Charlotte. Muggsy’s home could be blown up, but the legacy of the projects couldn’t. In October that year, his mother called about his older brother Chuckie, who was then 37. She was despairing. Chuckie was still using heavily. He’d been arrested. He was often incoherent. She thought he could die soon – and what would Muggsy think about letting his brother move in with him?

A personal disclosure. I loved Muggsy as a kid and played basketball with joyous fanaticism. I fashioned bedroom hoops from coathangers and made replica jerseys with singlets stolen from my father and crudely rebranded with fabric markers. Most days I walked to the local court to shoot alone, or, if there were others, to join improvised games. If alone, I obsessively practised foul shooting and developed a respectable accuracy. I loved free throws because it was a shot made, even in games, without the harrying of defenders. The game paused, and so it was just you, the ball and the ring, and you could concentrate and conjoin your mind with your muscles.

My shooting was good but suffered from a terrible vulnerability – I was considerably shorter than everyone else, so my shooting rarely survived the interference of opponents. It was an absurdly contingent skill, like Superman being afraid of heights. To flourish, my ability required imagined opponents who I could reliably vanquish.

So, to better perform in games, I developed my dribbling and passing – skills that were less likely to be undermined by my height. I practised until my blisters leaked and my arms ached. There were few days that were too hot, wet or windy to discourage me.

And Muggsy was an inspiration.

In 1995, as Muggsy’s wife was moving out, his older brother moved in. (Muggsy and Kim would later divorce – then, many years later, would reconcile. There were “trust” issues, but Muggsy won’t get into it.)

Muggsy was also home a lot more – a serious knee injury required surgery and a long convalescence, and he played only six games that season. It was an awful brake on his career. The previous season he’d played 78 games, averaging 11 points and almost nine assists per game. Now there were questions about his career.

At home, it was just Muggsy and Chuckie. As Chuckie dried out, Muggsy served as brother, mentor, counsellor and nurse. Muggsy brought him food and cleaned up his vomit. He sat bedside as Chuckie trembled and screamed through the ravages of withdrawal. They played dominoes. He introduced him to teammates who came over to shoot hoops on Muggsy’s private half-court. And he prayed with him. “I thought if I took him to rehab we would’ve really lost him,” Muggsy told ESPN in 2019. “By the third month, I thought he was making a change.”

Muggsy says that helping his brother gave him a solemn purpose, at a time when he was suddenly without his wife or the game of basketball. And God helped, too, he tells me. “My faith got stronger as I got older,” he says. “I started to understand how much guidance He had in my life. And now I always glorify Him and I also think that things happen for a reason.”

Chuckie got clean, and remains clean today. Almost 30 years later, he still lives with Muggsy.

In retrospect, that knee injury in ’95 signalled Muggsy’s slow decline. Despite the surgery, the injury was chronic and would plague him for the remainder of his career. In the 1996-97 season, he played respectably – he was only slightly off the peaks of 1994 and ’95 – but it was the last season he’d play for Charlotte. Despite initial assurances, Muggsy was traded to the Golden State Warriors in California. It was a bitter break-up. Muggsy felt betrayed, and was saddened that he wouldn’t end his career with the Hornets – he had fallen in love with the city, and the feeling was mutual.

At his new team, Muggsy came off the bench and was putting up half the numbers of his best. After two seasons, he was traded to Toronto. (Throughout this zigzagging of the continent, he remained his brother’s keeper: Chuckie followed Muggsy to California and then Canada.) He would be traded again in 2001, to Dallas, but would never play a game for them – his mother was dying and he knew the time was right to call an end. “I was ready to retire,” he says. “Mom got sick, she wasn’t doing well. And at that time, I was ready for a change in my life. I think the weight had worn off. I didn’t have that need to prove anything, the proving stage was over. And I love basketball, it’s still a passion, but it’s not all that I am.”

Muggsy Bogues keeps his own counsel, and there’s a distinctive combination of gentle modesty, patience and guardedness to him.

That Muggsy has often kept his own counsel is unsurprising given how poor and sceptical so many judgements made of him were. He says this quiet toughness – and discretion – goes back to childhood.

Muggsy didn’t so much analyse his environment as plough through it. And he didn’t analyse himself but obsessively channelled his disappointments and grief into basketball. When he says to me, “I just try to control what I can control, and there’s a lot that I can’t”, it chimes with just about every other successful athlete to whom I’ve spoken.

After his retirement, he moved back to Charlotte where he still lives. Life continued to surprise – in both tragic and pleasant ways. After basketball, he worked successfully in real estate until the global financial crisis ripped the floor out; his long-term girlfriend died of breast cancer in 2009. He was named coach of the WNBA Charlotte Sting in 2005, until the team dissolved less than two years later.

In his 50th year, he remarried his ex-wife, Kim – his surprise birthday party was in fact a surprise wedding – and established a non-profit organisation for at-risk kids. He’s both an ambassador for the Charlotte Hornets and the NBA. For the past year, he has been working with a journalist on his memoirs – Muggsy – due next year. “I’m in a blessed place,” he says. “And I’m staying in my lane – just trying to control the thing I can.”

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

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

Read part two: NBA player Muggsy Bogues on channelling grief

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 20, 2021 as "Quality control".

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