Small Size, Big Heart
Muggsy Bogues comes to India.
by Karan Madhok / @hoopistani
Shubham Uparethi is 11 years old. He studies in the sixth grade. He is born, bred and currently being schooled in New Delhi, the capital of India. Shubham has been playing basketball for the last two years.
Muggsy Bogues is 47 years old. He was born in Baltimore, MD, and has practiced his trade in Maryland, North Carolina, Washington DC, San Francisco and even Toronto, before settling back at Charlotte, NC. He was a steady starting point guard at the highest level of basketball for a decade.
There is little in common between the two individuals, born 36 years apart in different worlds on the same planet. But when Muggsy Bogues and Shubham Uparethi locked eyes in Shubham’s hometown of New Delhi earlier this week, there was a sense of understanding, a bond only shared between those who face the same struggles.
At the end of his short camp with about 75 Indian schoolchildren in New Delhi on January 9, 5-3 Muggsy Bogues pointed at Shubham from the crowd of eager little golden-brown faces and called the youngster to join him in center-court. While most of the 10 to 16-year-olds that afternoon were taller than their NBA instructor, Shubham was a good six inches smaller. He was perhaps the shortest kid at the camp; but on this day, being small was a big deal.
“I am no taller than him,” said Bogues, standing next to Shubham, “When I was his age, a lot of people told me that I wouldn’t make it, but I did, and I survived the NBA for 14 years. This was only because I believed in myself. You have to believe in yourself too and understand the importance of self-motivation to achieve your goals.”
When the NBA invited Muggsy Bogues to host a clinic during an official visit of the United States Senate India Caucus to the city, they advertised Bogues to the new generation of Indian NBA fans as the “shortest player to ever play in the NBA.” On the day of the event though, Akash Jain, Senior Director of Business Development in NBA India, introduced Bogues instead as the “player with the biggest heart.”
There is no secret that India is the NBA’s next big market to promote and capitalize: a mostly youthful population of 1.2 billion people, one that is changing and growing dynamically on every level—from economics to information technology to culture—India is an obvious choice for every globalizing venture to target, including a venture like the NBA, America’s most globalized sports league.
But India is a different beast to other developing nations: Despite its large and varied population, India is still at its infancy in sports development, except for its national addiction, cricket. Fortunately, in recent years, other sports such as football (soccer), tennis, F1 and basketball have been in the fast lane of growth. Foreign investors—such as IMG Worldwide who have a long-term commitment with the Basketball Federation of India to develop game here—have been investing heavily in the future of sports in the country.
For the past few years, the NBA has seen the potential for development and invested in several ways: by promoting the game of basketball in the inner-city/grassroots level around India, promoting the NBA via broadcasts, social networking and by bringing current and former NBA players to India. The summer of 2010 was the peak time for these visits, as the NBA shipped Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol—two superstar, internationally popular big men—to India to promote NBA and basketball.
The Indian audience was interested and wowed. The NBA—as we saw it from across the shores—was really larger than life. Its superstar big men presented the physical epitome of what a dominant basketball player should look like.
But India—despite the large scale of its population—is not a country where athletic bigs, who are even half of a physical specimen that a Dwight Howard is, are easily found. True, India’s first real hope to producing an NBA player may lie in the potential of 16-year-old Satnam Singh Bhamara, a 7-2 behemoth currently learning his trade at the IMG Basketball Academy in Florida. But 7-foot, skilled, 16-year-olds aren’t exactly found roaming the gullies around here. Satnam is a talented aberration; for India to become a country that regularly churns out top-quality basketball players, the search would have to be widened out to the physical majority.
A year ago, the NBA in India, perhaps temporarily, shifted from its strategy and brought 6-1 Brandon Jennings to Mumbai. Jennings preached his message right, talking to young Indians that basketball was a matter of talent, not height.
But it was the visit of Muggsy Bogues last week that really drove the message home. Bogues’ story of determination and beating the odds is well known: As a matter of coincidence, I held SLAM 153 with Tzvi Twersky’s excellent feature on Muggsy “How To Make it in America” next to me as I heard the news about Bogues coming to India (late to read the story, I know: International subscribers feel my pain!).
For the first time, young Indian players weren’t literally looking up at a successful NBA star who they figuratively looked up to: Bogues stood among us, and in most cases, was much shorter than us, but for his incredible achievement, we looked up at him much the same.
“Height isn’t everything,” said Bogues. “When I was growing up, many people told me that I would never make it. But I felt like I had the potential to play well. I developed a lot of confidence in myself over the years and I was able to show that even someone at 5-3 could play basketball—which is known as a ‘tall man’s game’—at the highest level, the NBA.”
Bogues says that his success in the NBA, despite his size, was due to the fact that he understood his limitations and worked on his strengths. During his clinic at the Modern School in New Delhi, Bogues mostly focused on passing on the knowledge of his biggest strength, one that helped him conquer opponents much taller than him: dribbling. “Control the ball, don’t let it control you,” Bogues told the kids, as he helped them practice several skills including crossovers, running with the ball, changing hands while dribbling, changing directions and footwork.
A lot of kids at the camp, like little Shubham, may face the same roadblocks as Bogues did by coaches and scouts as they get older. “I had to change the mindset of a lot of coaches when I was young who believed that height was the only important thing,” he said, “I competed and played well against those bigger than me to change the perceptions. But what helped me the most is that I understood my point guard position and absorbed all the knowledge I could relating to that position. I had to play to my strengths, which were dribbling and passing the ball. A lot of smaller players who are point guards think that they have to score a lot to be effective and sometimes, this can hurt them. That’s why a point guard has to know when to score and when to get his teammates involved.”
Today, smaller players—and particularly elite point guards—are celebrated more than ever in the NBA. “The NBA is about trends,” Bogues added. “If one team is succeeding in a certain style of play, others will try and copy that style. These days, yes, a lot of good players are small: even the shooting guards. In my time, most of the shooting guards were around 6-5 or 6-6; now, there are a lot of smaller SGs like Jason Terry or JJ Barea who are making a difference.
Unlike scoring small players like Barea or Nate Robinson though, Bogues’ claim to fame is that he was more than just an offensive spark off the bench: He was a regular starter and the quarterback of his teams, particularly at Charlotte where he led the offense on an entertaining Hornets’ squad in the ‘90s. He still stands as the Hornets’ all-time leader in minutes played, assists and steals. Bogues credits his success and minutes he earned to his defensive tenacity: Even at his size, he wasn’t a liability on the defensive end of the floor.
“Believe in yourself,” he told the attending kids. “All you need is self-motivation. Not every one of you will become professional basketball player, but if you believe in yourself and work hard, each one of you can achieve your dreams.”
Two years ago, the 6-11 athletic freak of nature, Dwight Howard, had similar words of encouragement to the young players in India. Alas! It’s hard to believe someone who looks like they were born to play basketball. But in the case of Muggsy Bogues, someone who overcame all odds to ‘survive’ at the highest level, the words aren’t just clichéd press bites; they actually have an inspirational story behind them.
And basketball in India is truly in need of inspiration. To make it out of a country heavily plagued by rampant corruption and poverty, where sport is seen as a hobby and rarely as a profession, where methods of coaching, scouting and conditioning lag far behind international standards, and where professionalism in most sports is still a work in process, Shubham Uparethi and the next generation of Indian basketball players have to beat the odds to make it to the top.
In Muggsy Bogues, they met someone who did just that.
Karan Madhok is a basketball writer in India, writing about the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) and the NBA on NBA.com/India. Read more of his work at his blog, Hoopistani.