Tyrone Bogues says things are looking up.
He's an optimist, which is a good thing to be if you're 5 feet 3 and your mother calls you Muggsy and your dream is to play in the National Basketball Association.
Optimism is one of those intangibles like heart and determination that athletes talk about when specifics elude them. It's hard to say whether Bogues is an optimist by nature or by experience or by default. His is a full-tilt, all-out, in-your-face optimism, part defiance, part bravado, all hustle -- your basic full-court press on the possible. It is a conviction hard won on a thousand fast breaks. It is simply belief, an absolute refusal to accept the obvious.
"More so," Bogues says.
It's an expression he uses often to indicate he agrees, only more so. "More so," he says, when yes or maybe or even more or less would do.
But there is no room for more or less in Bogues' world. He says as far as he's concerned, 5-3 is the perfect height. He says if he had three wishes, "taller would not be one of them." He says, "I am stunned the way I am."
He also says he's not sure he's reached his full height.
"If you ask him," says his childhood friend and former Georgetown star Reggie Williams, "he'll tell you he's still growing."
"Reggie said that?" Bogues says quickly, as if a deep dark secret has been revealed. "It's true. I told him I grew."
It's hard to say whether this is another expression of his optimism or a chink in it or both. There's nothing wrong with wanting to be taller, unless of course you've spent your whole life insisting bigger isn't better.
He is 22, a kid from East Baltimore who grew up to be the first-round draft pick of the Washington Bullets. When the season opens tomorrow night against the Atlanta Hawks, he will become the shortest man in the history of the National Basketball Association. There are those who predict big things for him with the Bullets. There are those who think the NBA will cut him down to size. Either way, he is the great small hope.
He figures by the time his career is done, he'll be 5-5, maybe 5-6. Not more or less.
A funny thing happens when you ask people about Muggsy Bogues. Their voices get lower and they start talking earnestly about his speed and quickness, his heart and determination. And then they say something like:
"He's certainly going to give the Bullets a dimension not a whole lot of teams have," says Bob Staak, his coach at Wake Forest.
"He's going to give them a lift," says Boston Celtics President Red Auerbach.
"He will have to overcome some shortcomings," says Mike Fratello of the Atlanta Hawks, the shortest coach in the NBA.
"I call him my biggest mistake," says Georgetown Coach John Thompson, who decided not to recruit him four years ago. "... Greatness has a way of elevating itself. It's a big challenge still. But I wouldn't bet against him."
"The biggest problem Muggsy will have is when he sits on the bench, his feet won't hit the floor," says Seattle SuperSonics scout Tom Newell.
No matter how you size it up, there's no getting away from his height. In your face? Try in your feet. Sometimes when he's dribbling, protecting the ball, it's no more than a foot off the court -- which means that Manute Bol, his 7-6 3/4 teammate, would need arms six feet long to reach it.
Bogues' thighs are twice as thick as Bol's, but he reaches just above Bol's waist. Talk about seeing the forest through the trees. Sometimes, as Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry says, "you just don't know where he is."
"From the waist down is Muggsyball," says University of Maryland Coach Bob Wade, who coached Bogues at Dunbar High School in Baltimore.
So what does it feel like down there, Muggs, surrounded by all those big galumphs? What do you see? Kneecaps? Thighs?
"Kneecaps, thighs," he says impatiently. "I see the entire court."
It isn't hard to put Bogues in perspective. All you have to know is that he's 16 1/2 inches shorter than the average player in the NBA. It doesn't quite suffice to say the odds against him are long.
"Improbable? Incalculable," says Jim Valvano, coach at North Carolina State. "It's comparable to Lady Di leaving Prince Charles and asking me to come visit her this weekend ... I don't know what the odds are. I flunked trig."
His mother is 4-11. His father is 5-5. Bogues has been going one-on-one with the odds ever since he was old enough to understand a tape measure.
"So you do things to try to overcome them," he says. "Steal the ball, try to distract your opponent, make him upset. You got to do the little things. Little things are so important. People try to overlook them. But these little things really turn into big-time plays."
The gym at Fort Meade is packed on a Sunday night in Indian summer. The people in the stands have come to the Bullets training camp to see what the Little Guy can do, which is, of course, what the Bullets hoped when they drafted him 12th in the league.
The Bullets, and logic, argue that you don't use a first-round draft pick on a sideshow, but the gate value of having the tallest and shortest men in the NBA isn't lost on them either. After all, they drew fewer than 12,000 a game last year. The crowd giggles as Muggsy and Manute stand side by side, waiting for their turn on the court. Slapping hands, they give a new meaning to a low five. As Bol says, "7-6 and 5-3. Should be fun."
Bogues, the new point guard, gets the ball at half court. Michael Adams, who used to be considered short at 5-11, reaches for the ball and slaps it away. Instinctively and immediately, Bogues regains control, coaxing the ball to a dribble, faking right, faking left, then faking right and left again. The motion is seamless, reflexive, explosive.
A teammate once called Bogues the captain of the All-Blur team. And, in a blur, he passes off to Terry Catledge for an easy basket. Adams is left alone, shaking his head -- not exactly voluntarily. (This week he lost his job to Bogues and was traded to Denver.)
"On a dime, he can change up on you," says forward Tony Campbell (who was waived this week). "You wink, boom, he's going left. Boom, he's going right. He draws everyone to him, then boom, the pass is there."
For Bogues, stasis is death. Some big guy is liable to come up and slam dunk him along the base line. He needs to move to excel. More to the point, he needs to move to survive.
He flourishes in flashes -- slicing between two defenders like sun between shutters, scooting through a thicket of quadriceps, dribbling down the court on the break chased by guard Duane Washington (since waived). Washington reaches for the ball. Bogues lowers it just beneath his reach. Lower and lower down the court. It is a cruel thing to behold.
Next time down the court, Catledge grabs a rebound and heaves the ball at Bogues. It bounces over his head. This, too, is a cruel thing to behold.
Basketball players spend their lives girding for someone bigger, stronger, in their faces. Then along comes this little guy, 144 pounds of resolute muscle, who subverts their expectations, who makes them feel clumsy, slow, who makes them feel like the freaks of nature they are. In those moments, when they're tripping over their feet trying to keep up with him, he becomes the intimidator. His height is daunting.
No one wants to get stripped of the ball at midcourt in front of 18,000 screaming people, especially by a guy half his size. "It's a big ego game, and your ego is being savagely attacked by someone 5-3," Staak says. "He strips them of a lot more than the ball."
"Psychologically, he has a real advantage," says Pete Newell, a scout for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who has been involved with basketball for more than 50 years. "He's used to playing against normal-size guys around the NBA. They're not used to playing him."
The list of diminutive athletes who have overcome large odds is admittedly short. When Buddy Young, a 5-4 running back, retired in 1956 after nine years in professional football, the last three with the Baltimore Colts, the Associated Press noted: "Although he was about the smallest player in the pro game, Young's most serious injury was a broken rib."
When "Little" Howard Stevens, a 5-5 running back at the University of Louisville, led the nation in scoring in 1972, he explained, "I'm not small. I'm short."
When Freddie Patek (a k a "Moochie" and "The Flea"), a 5-4 shortstop for the Kansas City Royals, was asked how it felt to be the shortest man in the major leagues, he replied, "Better than being the shortest man in the minor leagues."
When Ernie Oravetz, a 5-4 outfielder, joined the Washington Senators in 1955, manager Charlie Dressen took one look at him and said, "We might be able to use him if watch fobs ever come back."
Each has been called a little man with a big heart. Each has felt the scorn of those who expect little of him.
"At each level, I had to prove myself," Bogues says. "Even though you get the recognition and the glory, you're still 5-3 and playing a big man's game. You have to continue proving yourself. I don't feel it anymore, but it's still there. It's a test -- how will he do in the NBA? It's still a proving stage, probably more for them than for me. I know what I'm capable of doing."
Ironically, where his height matters least is where it matters most -- on the court. Once he takes the court no one can tell him, "You can't."
"Once you get to the court, you feel comfortable, you feel safe," says Spud Webb of the Atlanta Hawks, who at 5-7 was the shortest man in the NBA until Bogues came along.
"You feel like you're on top of the world," Bogues says. "You feel like you're on a different planet. Especially me."
One night when he was a sophomore at Wake Forest, there was a threat against his life. The caller said that if Bogues played against Duke that Thursday, he would be "found the next morning stretched out in an alley," Bogues remembers.
He played anyway, making two free throws in the last seconds of overtime to clinch the game, and was named the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the week.
"Once I step on the court, I feel free," he says. "You can have so many problems in life, then you're on the basketball court, I feel, it just eliminates everything. It totally blocks the world out of your mind.
"You have so much love for the game, it's totally indescribable. You can say you're in heaven. You can put any words that are really far-fetched because that's how much it means to a lot of people who play this game. When you're out on the fast break, when there is a three-on-one and the ball is in my hands and I'm in the middle of the court and I have the opportunity to trick my opponent, you get this great feeling, like something spectacular is about to happen."
Like the time in high school, when Dunbar was playing Carroll, and he came down the left side and did a 360 and passed off to Reggie Williams without even looking to see if he was there. He starts to diagram, to explain. He shrugs. This is not about words. "I jump, I spin, I'm still in the air, and I flipped it over my neck," he says. "Who knows?"
In those moments every obstacle, including his opponent, disappears. "It seems like he's invisible," Bogues says, "like there's no one there."
And he is once again back in East Baltimore, a little boy left alone with the ball under a milk-crate basket at the bottom of an imaginary key. This is where fate leaves him on a Sunday in Indian summer as practice ends and everyone else heads for the bench. Bogues fakes left. He fakes right. He looks over his shoulder.
There is a weightlessness then, a giddy isolation. A sober drunkenness, he calls it.
"More so," Bogues says.
Carl Tacy needed five minutes. The pep rally was peaking, the Wake Forest band was thumping, the cheerleaders were strutting. Coaches live to orchestrate momentum. Tacy needed five more minutes. He turned to Bogues and asked him to try to dunk the ball.
"I knew him well enough to know he couldn't dunk," says Tacy, who left the school after Bogues' sophomore year and now owns yogurt stores in Winston-Salem, N.C. "So I said, 'How 'bout dunking?' He said, 'You know I can't.' I said, 'Yeah, but you can try.' So he came out and tried for five minutes. To go out and try to do something you've never been able to do, something he knew he couldn't do, was quite an inspiration."
"I felt I could have done it," says Bogues, who is 63 inches tall but can jump another 44. "It's just that the ball wouldn't go in."
As paradigms go, this is as good as any other. Most guys would have given up, which is to say they wouldn't have tried. Bogues always tries. In his senior year, when a Sports Illustrated photographer asked him to dunk a ball, he kept trying until he succeeded. It hardly matters that he did it with a children's ball.
"You have to get inside Tyrone Bogues to find out what gives him the gall to believe he can compete with people a foot to a foot and a half taller than he," Fratello says. "You've got to have great inner drive. You've got to be one of those special people, as he is. Each of us has to be able to delve into ourselves and see what it is."
Bogues is uncomfortable doing that. His peripheral vision does not extend to introspection. Questions provoke yawns. Basketball is his vocabulary, and often that defies description. "Sometimes you're not aware of what happens until after," he says. "You say, 'Oh, I did that, huh?' It's within you. Sometimes you don't know what is within you."
Limits just never seemed worth talking about. Once when he was a toddler and living in the projects, 10 flights up, he told his mother Elaine Bogues that he was going downstairs. She told him "I'll break your legs if you do," she recalls, laughing. But he went anyway.
"Threw my bottle downstairs," he explains. "Gave me a reason to go down and get it."
His mother also remembers that her youngest son spent a lot of time climbing on top of kitchen counters he had no business reaching. When he told her that one day he would grow up to be an NBA star, she smiled and said, "That's nice, dear." Muggsy didn't know she was indulging him.
He says: "I wasn't going to be denied."
There is something indefatigable about him. Determination is one of his favorite words. As Georgetown's John Thompson says, "The damndest thing about him is it's not 'I hope I can,' it's a given."
"It all goes along with your upbringing, where you were born, what type of kid you were, where you get that heart and that desire," Bogues says. "It came from where I was brought up, the atmosphere I was surrounded by. That gave me the willpower to believe in myself. To try to conquer."
In the projects of East Baltimore, the world was organized according to which rec center you played for. Either you were a Lafayette guy like Bogues and Williams or a Cecil guy like David Wingate and Reggie Lewis. But if you were a guy, you played.
"We came from an attitude where if you didn't play ball, you weren't considered a person," says Wingate, now with the Philadelphia 76ers. "There wasn't anything else to do except get into trouble."
Given the alternative, Bogues played.
Skip Wise was the legend of East Baltimore then. He was going to become the next Oscar Robertson, and everyone, including Bogues, wanted to be just like him until he ended up in jail for selling heroin. For the kids in the neighborhood, Wise came to personify the choices life offered. "He was a good example and a bad example," Bogues says.
"Being in the area, you pick up bad habits," says Ed Bush, Bogues' best friend. "You see people not motivated, you see guys selling drugs. You dealt with the women or you played ball."
"It's a way of life for a lot of kids," Bogues says. "You play it as a hobby and all of a sudden, as you are getting older and developing other skills and getting to learn the true meaning of the game, then it becomes a love and you treat it as a way out."
A way out?
"Of the ghetto," he says.
His mother says, "I don't think it's a tough neighborhood. We're living in public housing. People always have a low opinion of public housing. I go to work and I come home. To me it doesn't seem that bad."
"It's a tough area to grow up in," Bogues says. "You got a lot of illegal things going on. It wasn't difficult to the point where it was a life-and-death situation, but it was difficult."
In 1981 his father Richard Bogues was sentenced to 20 years in the Baltimore City Correctional Center for armed robbery, according to a spokesman for the Maryland Division of Corrections. Recently he wrote to George Redd, the unit supervisor at the facility, asking permission to see his son play. But the request was denied, Redd says, "because we can't give special leave for that."
"He made some mistakes," Bogues says. "He chose a life because he thought he couldn't provide. He paid the price. He's not the same person he was when he went in there. He's a great person, a very supportive person to me. I love him to death. I wouldn't be in the situation I am now if not for his support ... I'm not ashamed of what he did. No one in my family is."
Bogues has two older brothers, Richard and Anthony, and an older sister, Sherron. Everyone but Richard played basketball. Everyone stayed out of trouble. "All parents are scared of their kids getting in trouble," their mother says. "I did my best to tell them right from wrong. I just told them if they got in trouble, I'd kill them. No, not really."
Bogues says his mother spoiled him -- made sure he had sneakers and a ball and enough to eat. Last year, when he was presented the Arnold Palmer Award as Wake Forest's most valuable athlete, he was overcome with emotion while thanking her.
He says he had no dreams until basketball, no idols until he met Dwayne Woods, who was just a little older and just a little taller. Woods was a 5-4 point guard at Dunbar who ran the offense and energized the break and showed him the futility of accepting the world's limitations.
"More so," Bogues says.
"I was the first shorter guy to play with the bigger guys," says Woods, now a bar manager in Baltimore. "Every afternoon he used to come and get me to play one-on-one ... He was determined to do something other than get in trouble."
His sister Sherron, who is 5-1, was a starting point guard at Dunbar, and Anthony, 5-6, played there too. Wade remembers Bogues would come to watch them. "He'd wait around and play with the other little kids," Wade says. "Their reward was to clean up the gym and put the bleachers up and we'd give them a basketball. I remember the way he could handle the basketball. He made the ball seem like it was a part of him."
Carolyn Damon, a math teacher at Dunbar, insisted on walking him home after those games because she thought he was much younger than he was. "He had the personality to make others do things, especially compared to other athletes who are within themselves," she says. "He could make even the shyest student talk."
In the neighborhood they called him Muggsy after the character in "The Bowery Boys," a little guy with a mug face who led a gang of street kids. "Everybody got taller except Muggsy," Bush says. "It kind of hurt him. Once he got the recognition, he liked being Muggsy Bogues, the little guy. He loves it now."
Being the little guy became more than an identity -- it became an incentive. "I was out to prove to the rest of the world that I wasn't going to give up because of my size," Bogues says.
On the playgrounds, he was known for stealing the ball and driving the lane against bigger players. "We played pickup games," Wingate says. "If no one picked him up, he'd be mad because he knew he could play with the big guys. He'd try to go off on somebody, score a lot of points to show they should have picked him up."
"You couldn't be passive or compassionate, for me anyway, at my size," Bogues says. "It was going to happen through life. If I had taken the other route, let people push me around, I wouldn't be in the predicament I'm in now.
"They tried, of course. Pushing and shoving and talking. Talking can be more damaging than someone pushing you around. People are not used to people talking trash to them."
His mother says the teasing motivated him more than anything else. When he was introduced at away games, opponents would laugh -- "I got the little guy," they all said. "At the final buzzer," Wade says, "he had the last laugh."
In basketball, measuring is a way of life -- it's the essence of one-on-one. You go up against another guy, you find out how good you are. It's sports as social Darwinism. Bogues not only survived, he dominated. He was the Most Valuable Player in city league championships and the Most Valuable Player of Dunbar's 1982-83 team, which finished undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country.
By the time he graduated, Wade says, "the 'I'll show you' attitude subsided."
Still, he was not heavily recruited by major colleges. When he first visited Wake Forest, the players thought he was some other recruit's younger brother. "I'm sure people thought we'd given a scholarship away," Tacy says.
At the end of four years, he was all-time Atlantic Coast Conference leader in assists and steals, precisely those categories in which the Bullets are noticeably lacking. He majored in communications and says he still has "a few hours to do, maybe a semester or two," to complete his degree.
On the streets these days, strangers look at him and say, "Oh, isn't he cute?" But there is also a hardness to him that isn't just muscular. "He's had to scrape and claw for everything he's got, not just in basketball but in life," says John Justice, sports information director at Wake Forest. "Here he was this inner-city kid who was idolized by all these prep school types, not just in the student body but the whole community. It brought him out of his shell."
He was a big man on campus, a star. Any remaining doubt about his status was erased the day he met Sidney Wilkins, a former college athlete who liked to hang around the gym and join in pickup games. "He called me Big Guy," Bogues says.
Bogues has a hard time sitting still. He is the sort of person who never looks quite comfortable on a couch. He paces his living room, hugging his infant daughter Brittany, whom he calls Shorty. Between coos, he considers the question of limits and those he has accepted.
"Not to be God, so to speak, not to be the best person on this earth, to be just an ordinary human being, who would like to make his life better and hope it can rub off on others," he says. "Right, Shorty?"
Life is good now. He has a new home in Columbia, which he shares with his girlfriend Kim and their baby (he also has a 4-year-old daughter named Tyisha ), a new three-year contract with the Bullets reportedly worth $300,000 a year and a whole new set of people to prove himself to.
His mother says he was relieved when he was drafted in the first round because it told him he was being taken seriously. He was also coveted by Seattle and Utah. "He wouldn't have gotten out of the first round," says Auerbach.
On the playgrounds of East Baltimore, young boys now take turns pretending to be Muggsy Bogues. Pete Newell says, "Every undersized kid will get renewed hope, and we have lost a lot of those."
His agents hope to exploit that appeal with a phalanx of kid endorsements: clothes, backboards, balls, rebounding machines. Andrew Brandt, his agent at ProServ, says he expects Bogues to sign with Converse this week for a series of children's shoes called the Muggsy Collection. Sources say the deal will bring Bogues $500,000 for three years.
"Face it," North Carolina State's Valvano says. "People love underdogs -- from the Little Engine That Could right up to Rocky. He's a happening. He's going to be a happening if he makes it."
If he makes it. When you're 5-3 and your dream is to play in the NBA, there is always an if.
Basketball types are waiting to see if he can play in a half-court offense, in which the things he does best are almost irrelevant. If the perennially plodding Bullets can keep up with him on the fast break. If he can guard 6-9 Magic Johnson in a man-to-man defense. If he can function in the last two minutes of the game, crunch time, when guards a foot taller than he will certainly post him up -- back him down near the basket and shoot over him.
"He's going to have problems," says former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell. "I think time will tell on Muggsy. He has tremendous quickness and stamina, but he played on a team the last couple of years where he could almost do what he wanted. He has some assets and some liabilities. I don't think anyone can say he's a sure-fire thing."
What's surprising is not that people say wait and see. What's surprising is that no one will bet against him.
"It is apparently ridiculous," says Thompson. "We're not talking about appearances anymore. We're talking about intangibles. A lot of people are afraid to bet against him now. They're not going to bet against his spirit."
For every problem he encounters on the court, he creates another. He messes up offenses. He messes up minds.
"He's the only player I've ever seen who dominates a game and is smaller than the referees," Valvano says. "His senior year, he altered every team's game plan. You got ready for Tyrone Bogues. You pay all this attention and then you turn to your assistant and say, 'What, am I nuts?' This isn't Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Magic Johnson."
After North Carolina State's last game against Wake Forest, all the guards were high-fiving in the locker room. Not because they had won in overtime, Valvano says, but because they never had to play Bogues again.
Now here he is again. Daring them to tell him he can't, flouting the narrowness of their vision with his speed, his determination, his passion.
"My experience is so high, it's to a point where nothing can get to me -- the criticism, the compliments," he says. "Nothing can get me to a point to give in and say, 'You all were right.' I don't care what happens. If the season starts and things don't go so well for me, it still won't.
"It will build -- 'I know he's not going to make it, he's too small, they're paying him all that money and he's making a fool out of himself.' That still wouldn't break me. I know it in my mind. I can play this game as well as anybody."