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Muggsy Bogues on how his height became his greatest asset

By Martin McKenzie-Murray in The Saturday Paper

The shortest man ever to play NBA explains how he transformed his perceived disadvantage into one of his greatest assets.

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.

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.

“My whole outlook is always moving forward.”

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.

Muggsy Bogues back on the court for a 2020 NBA All-Star weekend. CREDIT: JEFF HAYNES / NBAE / GETTY IMAGES VIA AFP

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.”

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

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.”

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This article was originally published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper as a three-part series in November, 2021.

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