Anyone writing about Muggsy Bogues almost feels compelled to begin: Once upon a time . . . At 5 feet 3, nobody has risen through sport in quite so appealing a way.
As we slowly have come to learn over the centuries, height sometimes has little to do with stature. St. Francis of Assisi and Toulouse-Lautrec were 5 feet 1; James Madison and Pablo Picasso topped out at 5-4. Among historical matchups, Bogues is joined in the 5-3 club by Nikita Khrushchev, Marquis de Sade and Mickey Rooney. At 5-6, Napoleon and Stalin would have been looking -- Magic-like -- for quick postups.
But those fellows were worlds removed from the profession Bogues has chosen: basketball. Or tallball. Where even the marginally talented still look down at the rest of us. And the best player at the position usually reserved for shorties, point guard, is 6-9.
To help understand the prejudicial baggage Bogues carries, consider that the game that welcomes undersized men, baseball, celebrated an otherwise obscure outfielder named Albie Pearson because he was 5-5. Also, that fond figure of National Football League lore, Buddy Young, was an uncatchable 5-4.
So on his first introduction in each NBA city, Bogues will generate as many snickers as he does applause. He will, after all, very likely be a wee bit smaller than whomever has just sung the national anthem. Not too long after tipoff, however, it's a tossup which Bogues will steal first -- the ball or your heart.
I might as well get this on record. Bogues is one of my top-20 favorite active athletes. I hopped on his bandwagon long ago, when a cart would have held admirers other than the Baltimore cognoscenti. Lefty Driesell got me intrigued when, with a straight face, he mentioned: "There's a 5-3 player over at Dunbar who's a big-timer."
He surely is.
Usually, it takes a while for the eyes to overrule the mind about Bogues. Even free thinkers have trouble believing he can survive at the next level of basketball. Hey, we keep saying, here's the cruel bottom line: the little fella is only three inches bigger than Dolly Parton, head to toe. And exactly the same height as one of the famous fools who hangs onto horses for a living, Angel Cordero.
Ain't no way, we thought, that midget Muggsy could ever dream of playing meaningful minutes in the Atlantic Coast Conference. So he can penetrate. Big deal. Waiting with open arms -- and palms extended in correct shot-blocking position -- will be Olden Polynice at Virginia, John Salley at Georgia Tech and Horace Grant at Clemson, to say nothing of North Carolina's horde of giants.
Besides, Bogues directed the greatest cast of players ever to make a high school lead guard look brilliant. Reggie Williams and David Wingate and Reggie Lewis. Plus some larger teammates who did not become quite so productive in college. Passing to those sharpshooters, who couldn't be effective?
That was the mind lecturing the eyes.
The eyes had seen it the other way. They had seen Dunbar as Muggsy's team. Reggie Williams might have been national high school player of the year their senior season, but Bogues was voted Dunbar's most valuable player.
When Wake Forest signed Bogues, the mind said: "Okay, it's the ACC. But it's a bad ACC program. If Muggsy was pretty much ignored at Dunbar; he'll drop out of sight at Wake."
All Bogues did was make all-conference. That's with North Carolina's Kenny Smith as a running mate; that's with Tommy Amaker, Jeff Lebo, Bruce Dalrymple and a couple of others as competition. And almost nobody to help make him look good, Wake Forest's supporting cast being the worst in several leagues.
The lingering memory of Bogues was one of his final moments in the ACC. In the last nine seconds of the first overtime against North Carolina State during the tournament's semifinal in Capital Centre, Bogues was in the sort of situation he loves -- chaos.
A State player had missed a foul shot and the ball was headed out of bounds. Bogues grabbed it, and hit dribbling overdrive by half court. As he bore toward the basket, North Carolina State's defenders flew toward him. Bogues didn't smile, but he might well have, for he knew an eager teammate would be waiting for an unguarded shot.
Bogues quickly was blanketed; an instant later, he fed Antonio Johnson for the layup that forced a second overtime. Wake Forest lost, but Bogues had 17 points, eight assists and -- incredibly -- six rebounds. Has a game at that level ever been dominated by anyone 5-3? Most forceful players dominate the air around or above the rim; Bogues controls everything from the waist down.
Some scouts are certain that the main reason the United States team beat the Soviet Union in the world championships last season was neither David Robinson nor Kenny Smith, but Muggsy Bogues.
All of that gushing having been done, a question needs to be asked: will Bogues ever become an NBA all-star? I fantasize about that. I imagine him on the break, with James Worthy or somebody else smart and swift flying escort. I also see Patrick Ewing, in that same all-star game, forgetting to hold the ball aloft on a rebound and Bogues flicking it away.
Muggsy mugging, somebody will write.
I picture this; I also doubt it will happen. Once more, the mind grabs control of the eyes. I can see Bogues as a productive NBA player, but never quite an all-star. I figure he ought to be judged now the same way any player chosen midway through the first round would be, as being good enough not only to make his team but also making more than a slight impact on it.
Think of Bogues as you would Pearl Washington, a mid-first-rounder last year. Or as Derek Harper, chosen 11th in 1983. Or Terence Stansbury, the 15th player picked in 1984. Those players had weaknesses, as Bogues does, though none was quite so obvious.
What team Bogues might open the season on remains uncertain. Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry drafted him; rumors persist that Bogues will be part of a package that will help correct the Bullets' most obvious weakness -- outside shooting. Anybody with any sort of an accurate shot will be aided immensely by Bogues, whose penetration will create more unmolested space.
Yes, Muggsy matched against Magic will be a must-see. And a full-court pressing team featuring Muggsy, three other chasers and Manute Bol as the 7-6 backstop surely will be part of Washington's defensive thinking. Opponents must now be anticipating ways to force Muggsy into sure-shot maneuvers for themselves near the end of close games. Soon, a good deal of the NBA will be thinking small.