No Small Feat: The NBA's Shortest Player Never Gave Up | KGOU
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No Small Feat: The NBA's Shortest Player Never Gave Up

Oct 25, 2014
Originally published on August 2, 2015 10:41 pm

As part of a series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

At 5 feet, 3 inches, Tyrone Bogues, better known as Muggsy Bogues, holds the record as the shortest player in NBA history.

He was drafted by the Washington Bullets in 1987, but he's best-known for playing with the Charlotte Hornets alongside Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson.

Bogues says he comes from a family of "5-footers," so when he stopped growing, it was no surprise.

"I always tell people, I think my mom had me when I was 5 feet, 3 inches" — I don't remember ever growing," Bogues says.

'Little Ty'

Raised in Baltimore's Lafayette projects, Bogues loved to play basketball — but he always had to prove himself. The other kids didn't take him seriously on the court, saying he was too short to play.

"I was 'Little Ty,' 'Little Tyrone.' I always got this negative feedback from the game of basketball," he says. People told him he was wasting his time; he'd never play basketball. He remembers thinking, "Why were these people saying this? I know I could play."

When the team captains picked their players, Bogues was always left out.

"The game is being played and we got to sit over there and watch," he says. "You get tired of just watching."

So he and his friends found empty milk crates and cut the bottoms out to make baskets.

"We tied the milk crates on each end of the fence and we had our own milk crate basketball pickup game and it was a good time cause we could jump off the fence and dunk the basketball," he says. "You had to be creative in order to play and I wanted to play."

Even back then, Bogues was an aggressive defender.

"I had to play that way because I was small," he says. "A little kid that just was out there trying to create havoc, just trying to disrupt a lot of things."

That's when the older kids started to notice him.

"All of a sudden, little Muggsy started getting a little reputation in the neighborhood," he says.

Rolling With The Punches

Throughout his teenage years, Bogues continued to build that reputation on the court. He even became a star player on the Dunbar High School basketball team.

"We were the No. 1 team in the nation," he says.

Yet he still overheard his skeptics in the crowd questioning his ability to play.

"People still didn't believe: 'Well, he played in high school, he had success in high school, but it's a whole other world when you get to college.' "

Luckily, not everyone saw it that way.

Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., a school that has produced several NBA players, offered Bogues a four-year basketball scholarship.

"Wake Forest came knocking on the door and I accepted that offer," he says. "It changed my life completely."

Still, his critics were relentless.

Even the commentators at games openly criticized Wake Forest for taking a chance on Bogues.

"[They would say] 'Why did they waste a four-year scholarship on a little kid that's only 5 foot 3, who can barely see over a table?' " Bogues says. "All this negativity started coming from so many directions."

It was almost too much to handle, but Bogues' talent was undeniable.

"We had the chance to play a national televised game against [North Carolina State University]," he says.

Finally, this was his chance to shine at Wake Forest. And it was one of his best games.

"I had 20 points, 10 assists," Bogues says. "From that moment on, I continued to keep building that reputation."

The stage was set for Bogues' professional career. By the time he graduated, he had a real shot at the NBA.

The Draft

On the night of the 1987 NBA draft, Bogues was one of the many prospective players sitting in the crowd in New York. He had no idea what his future in basketball would look like.

NBA Commissioner David Stern said from his podium, "The Washington Bullets select" — pause — "Tyrone Bogues of Wake Forest."

"It felt like the whole world was lifted off your shoulders," Bogues says. "You felt like, 'I have arrived.' "

The 22-year-old, 140-pound, 5-foot-3 Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues became the shortest player in league history — a record he still holds.

"All the naysayers, the people saying that you'll never [play]. Why are you even thinking about it? A guy my size wanting to pursue a game that was supposed to be meant for the big guys," Bogues says. "That was a special, special moment."

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Time now for the latest installment of our series "My Big Break," about career triumphs, big and small. Tuesday is the NBA's opening night, so who better to talk to than Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues. Remember him? He's the 5'3" point guard who was the shortest player in NBA history.

Muggsy Bogues was drafted by Washington back in 1987 when they were the Bullets. but he's best known for playing with the Charlotte Hornets alongside Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson. Bogues says he comes from a family of five-footers. so when he stopped growing as a kid, it was no surprise.

TYRONE BOGUES: (Laughter) Five-footers, yeah. Actually, but my mom, she was the only one 4-foot-11, you know. But everybody else, we was five-feet. My sister was 5-foot-1. My dad was 5-foot-7 - 5-foot-8 if I give him that. Of course, I'm 5-foot-3, so I always tell people I think my mom had me when I was 5-foot-3.

I don't remember ever growing. I was still Little Ty, Little Tyrone, and I always got this negative feedback from the game of basketball, telling you you're wasting your time. What are you doing? You're too small. You'll never play basketball. You know, why were these people saying this? I know I can play. I didn't get chosen. The guys that decide to pick their teams, you know, the game is being played and we've got to sit over there and watch. And you get tired of just watching.

So I found two milk crates that were - we cut the bottom of the milk crates and we went on the other side and we tied the milk crates on each end of the fence and we had our own milk crate basketball pickup game. And it was a good time 'cause we could me a jump off the fence and dunk the basketball. You had to be creative in order to play and I wanted to play.

(MUSIC)

BOGUES: Very aggressive - I had to play that way because I was small, little kid that just was out there trying to create havoc, just trying to disrupt a lot of things. Then all of a sudden, they were like that little kid can play. Then they start, you know, including me in things and you start fitting yourself in.

All of a sudden, little Muggsy started getting a little reputation in the neighborhood.

(MUSIC)

BOGUES: When I was in high school, I was just fortunate enough to be on one of the best high schools they say was ever assembled. We was the number one team in the nation. People still didn't believe. Well, he played in high school. He had success in high school. But it's a whole other world when you get to college. No one would give him a major Division I scholarship. And of course, that was answered.

Wake Forest came knocking at the door and I accepted that offer. And it changed my life completely. Of course, you know, the first year, the commentators - why did they waste a four-year scholarship on a little kid that's only 5-foot-3 who barely could see over a table? And all this negativity started coming from so many directions. And I told my assistant coach, coach Ness at the time, that I'm done.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAKE FOREST BASKETBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: I wonder what size shoe he wears, about three and a half? They save money on him, though, he sleeps in a drawer of one of the guy's chests.

BOGUES: And we had the chance to play a national televised game against N.C. State. I had one of the brilliant games. I had 20 points, 10 assists. And from that moment on, I continued to keep building that reputation. And there were some great times back then.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1987 NBA DRAFT)

DAVID STERN: Welcome the 1987 NBA draft.

BOGUES: The NBA draft, 1987. I can't remember - it happened on a Friday night. I tell you, it was a miraculous day.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: And let's see what David Stern has.

STERN: The Washington Bullets select Tyrone Bogues out of Wake Forest.

BOGUES: It felt like the whole world was lifted off of your shoulders. You know, you felt like, I have arrived.

STERN: Tyrone Bogues from Wake Forest - 5-feet-3, 140 pounds, 22 years old. He is now the shortest player in the NBA.

BOGUES: All the naysayers, the people saying that you'll never - why are you even thinking about it? A guy my size wanting to pursue a game that was supposed to be meant for, you know, the big guys. That was a special, special moment. It was my big break. That was my big break.

RATH: Retired NBA player, Tyrone Muggsy Bogues. These days, he runs his youth outreach group, Always Believe Inc. in Charlotte. You don't have to be the shortest player in the NBA to have a big break. Send us your story at mybigbreak@npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.