How To Make It In America

by November 14, 2011
#muggsy bogues


by Tzvi Twersky | @ttwersky

“As a kid, I just wanted to fit in, and basketball was my savior.” When Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues speaks, his countrified voice carries an air of authority and his citified words deliver a stainless steel message. Hardly what you’d expect from a 5-3, 100-something-pound Baltimore baby turned Charlotte-based adult. The shock at hearing mighty words come from a mini man is short-lived, though. After all, Bogues has been defying expectations since his escape from the womb 46 years ago.

Barely born into this world after his mother suffered a prior miscarriage, Bogues focused on basketball from a young age. In spite of—and, in a way, thanks to—catcalls from coaches, fans and players making fun of his diminutive stature, he stuck with it and improved steadily. By the time he transferred to Dunbar (MD) High, he was good enough to be named the leader of an all-time great prep team that featured four future NBA players. College wasn’t too different, either. Pundits expected his height to catch up with him at Wake Forest, but once he got his grades right—and once the Demon Deacons switched up coaches—he continued outplaying taller, wider point guards to the tune of 14.8 ppg and 9.5 apg in his senior season.

Drafted 12th overall by the Washington Bullets, it took a few years and teams for Bogues to find his bearings. Once he did, however, he had a span on the Charlotte Hornets in the mid-’90s where he dropped dimes better than any PG not named John Stockton. All told, the shortest player in NBA history appeared in games with the Bullets, Hornets, Warriors and Raptors, retiring after a 14-year career with averages of 7.7 points, 7.6 assists and, amazingly, only 1.6 turnovers per game. Along the way, the brilliant ballhandler and demonic defender proved that skill and success can’t be measured in height or weight, opening up the door for the Nate Robinsons and Aquille Carrs of the world.

An honest and open interview, Muggsy, who was recently named head coach at Charlotte (NC) United Faith, shared his thoughts with SLAM in multiple conversations over the last several months.

SLAM: So what was it like coming up as an undersized kid in the large, sometimes dangerous city of Baltimore?

MB: Growing up in the inner city was tough, especially when you’re small and you’re trying to play a sport. Not even dealing with all the other issues that are outside in your neighborhood—the drugs and the shooting and the killing—when you’re small and trying to participate in something, you’re always gonna get picked on.

SLAM: Aside from getting picked on, were you affected by that neighborhood violence?

MB: Yeah, I was 5 years old, and I got shot because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was 5 years old; I shouldn’t have been outside. At that late hour, you’re thinking that a 5-year-old kid should be asleep in his house. But there I was outside [in East Baltimore] trying to be nosy, trying to be in the mix, and I got caught up. That’s what started my thinking process, my wanting to get out of that environment by any means necessary. I didn’t know how that was gonna happen, but I found something, a hobby at the time, something that I had a joy for.

SLAM: So basketball became your outlet after that?

MB: When I was a kid, I was tiny—the ball was as big as me. But I picked it as my main game when I was probably around 13 or 14. Before that I used to wrassle and I ran track.

SLAM: You probably got heckled by a lot of kids whom you played with or who watched you. But did coaches ever disrespect you?

MB: Coaches always try to talk you down. The teams that we played against, those coaches, they’d be laughing at the little guy on the floor. Fortunately for me, I had a neighborhood coach (Leon Howard) who saw something special in me, and I think that’s what propelled me to stay with it. Howard and the same coaching staff coached me pretty much at every age level, so they had insight on me, they knew who I was and they taught me the fundamentals as I kept climbing up the ladder.

SLAM: At that time, were you still holding out hope that you’d have a growth spurt?

MB: Growth spurt [laughs]? I guess everybody has one, but mine never really happened. I tell people I think my mom had me when I was 5-3, ’cause I don’t ever remember getting any taller. When I was growing up, I used to take some chalk, put it on my little door in my room and measure how tall I was. I got so fed up because I was never growing, so I decided I’d just erase this. I also used to drink milk, and I can’t drink milk anymore. They always said you’re supposed to drink milk, and you’re gonna get taller. Now I can’t stand milk.

SLAM: Ha! Were you thinking from early on that you should work on your handle and your speed because you knew you’d be a point guard that would have to get by people, not through them?

MB: Absolutely. I realized that I wasn’t gonna be tall. My parents was small: My dad was 5-6, and my mom was 4-11, maybe 5-0. One brother is 5-7 and my other brother’s 5-5, and I got a sister that’s 5-1. So I knew that I wasn’t gonna be very tall.

SLAM: In high school, you played alongside Reggie Lewis, Reggie  Williams and David Wingate at Dunbar on a team that won a remarkable 59 games in a row. What was it like, leading those guys on the court?

MB: That was fun. All of us, we grew up together. You got guys that got the same dreams and you’re kids, and then all of a sudden you wind up on a special team with each other and everybody’s talents kind of continued to evolve and we all got better each year. And here it is: I was the general. I was the one that orchestrated all that, as well as my coach.

I remember [one time] we played a very good team in Camden, NJ, when I was in 11th grade. It was the first time that team got a chance to see a player like me, and they just had a ball laughing about the little guy walking on the floor. Before the opening ball went up in the air I went back to the huddle and Coach said, “Muggsy, you OK?” I said, I’m fine, baby. We just gonna have a party out here. We gonna have a party. I went out there and stole the ball three straight times from them, and we wound up winning by like 25 points. And we became the No. 1 team in the nation.

SLAM: In some ways, you guys  really put Baltimore on the basketball map, and to this day it’s still flourishing.

MB: It’s unbelievable. It’s great to see those guys keep our area on the map. You look at all the people who came after us—from Sam Cassell to Carmelo [Anthony] to Donte Greene and Rudy Gay—they’re still carrying it. And now you got the young guy who’s up and coming, Aquille Carr.

SLAM: What do you think about Carr? At 5-6, he’s a little guy, too.

MB: Carr’s daddy and me grew up together in the same projects. I haven’t had the opportunity to properly get up with Aquille, but he and I have been trying to catch up. My message to him and his daddy—who I’ve spoken to—is do it the right way. He’s a young player who has the opportunity to do something special with the ability that he has, but he needs to understand that school is the way to do it. You got to get acclimated to keeping yourself eligible so that you can finish high school and go experience that college life that’ll help you grow as a young man and help you develop.