Shortly after the buzzer sounds to start the Washington Bullets' season this fall, Tyrone (Muggsy) Bogues will shuffle his size-8½ feet onto the floor and, at 5'3", become the shortest player in NBA history. Curiosity seekers will hunch forward in their seats, cute-aholics will swoon. Centers will jokingly adjust their kneepads, and large guards prone to posting up will lick their chops. Ninth-graders will instantly identify.
Then Bogues will get the ball. Hunkered down and dribbling shoulder-high, he'll resemble an advancing end table. Momentarily he'll vanish like a tot in a forest of grownups; then, magically, the ball will appear in larger, better-situated hands for an easy deuce. The Bullet offense will begin to flow; the opposition's will be messed up. Bogues will dominate the ground space, disrupting dribbles, heading off chest passes. He'll thread, shred and inspire dread.
When the Bullets spent the 12th pick in the draft last month on the sprite from Wake Forest, it may have seemed absurd. After all, Bogues's fellow first-rounders average 6'7". (The next-shortest NBA man is Atlanta's 5'7" Spud Webb. New York's Wat Misaka and Baltimore's Red Klotz, both of whom played in the 1947-48 season, also were 5'7".) But Bogues can play in the NBA and will prove it. "What he doesn't have in length," says Laker coach Pat Riley, "he has in quickness, strength, legs, drive, jumping ability, timing and shooting." Says Warrior superscout Jack McMahon, "I've heard a lot of skepticism, but I've never had any."
Such comments have never much concerned Bogues because he boils it all down to what happens on the court—and there he likes his chances just fine. Little wonder. At every level, opponents have had a much harder time adjusting to Muggsy than he has to them. At Dunbar High in Baltimore, he was the MVP on an unbeaten dream team of top draft picks, including this year's No. 1's Reggie Williams (L.A. Clippers) and Reggie Lewis (Boston). At Wake Forest last season, he pumped in 14.8 points a game and led the ACC in assists and steals for the third straight season. In the spring Bogues devastated the predraft pro showcases in Portsmouth, Va., and Chicago. He averaged 22.2 points and 8.4 assists a game for the USBL's Rhode Island Gulls before suffering an ankle injury Saturday that ended his summer season.
"I always believed in myself," says Bogues, who's 22. "That's the type of attitude I always took out on the floor—knowing that I belonged, that with my talents, my abilities, there's a place for me out there."
Bullets general manager Bob Ferry became small-minded two years ago. He was scouting the Gulls' 7'6¾" Manute Bol and was taken with Webb, the Sudanese center's teammate. At the time, though, Ferry was bent on bagging Bol and thought Manute would have enough trouble adjusting to the NBA without being paired in a sideshow. But Webb's subsequent success with the Hawks made Ferry take a long look at Bogues. There was another factor: Ferry's son Danny, who played against Bogues five times while at Duke, told his dad that the Blue Devils spent half of their pre-game preparation girding for Muggsy.
"I dream all the time about trying to trick someone," Bogues says. "When you're small, you've got to do so many things to make up for it. You have to make your opponent be in fear of you—be thinking about some of the things he wants to do instead of going ahead and doing them. I try to distract my opponent, keep him off-balance, keep him thinking, Where's this guy at? I don't see him. Where is he?"
He has ploys galore, for example, the reverse-dribble reversal: Anticipating an opponent's spin dribble, Muggsy swings quickly around, catches a bounce head-high and roars off the other way. ("Point guards refused to bring the ball up on him," says Wake Forest coach Bob Staak.) The broken break: Hiding among midriffs, Bogues pops out to intercept outlet passes. ("If you don't see Tyrone," the saying goes, "he's about to steal the ball.") The hand across the floor: Dribbling very low, Muggsy sometimes drags his palm along the hardwood. ("He only turns it over when he makes a bad pass," says a USBL official. "You can't take it from him.")
Though only 63 inches tall, Bogues has a 44-inch leap. With larger hands, he could dunk. Though he has never lifted weights, he looks like a 140-pound walking muscle. His jumper is accurate to 20 feet. He seldom wears down. Bogues led the ACC three times and, until his injury, led the USBL in average minutes played per game.
And then there's his quickness. "I'm on the all-blur team," says Dwight Anderson of the Gulls, "but he's the captain." When Muggsy runs the break, he transforms players on both sides into marionettes. "I feel like I'm up in heaven," Bogues says of the open court, "and something positive is about to happen."
But how much will he get away with in the pros? A lot. No, he won't score much in the half-court offense, and yes, he may be better off as a change-of-pace sub than as a starter. In the NBA, where zones are supposedly illegal and isolation plays frequent, Bogues is likely to be posted up. He'll find himself being backed down near the bucket by guards at least a foot taller, and this could cut his court time.
But by moving guards inside who aren't used to playing with their backs to the basket and by clearing big men outside, an opponent will be taking itself out of its offense. And you can't just overlook Bogues. He has ways of making offenders balk or walk or miss.
Trade talk has swirled around Bogues since draft day. He might find a cozier niche with a running team because he's most effective in the open court. The Bullets are plodders: Moses Malone pounds it down inside; Jeff Malone puts it up outside. They ranked last in assists last season. But Ferry believes his club will pick up its pace with Muggsy. "I think everybody improves their running when they play with a player who gets them the ball," he says. "From what I hear, Moses is tickled to death."
Assuming Bogues makes it in the NBA, there will be no dearth of endorsements. Last week a shoe company exec was pitching a promotional package that would include Muggsy coloring books, Muggsy leather pouches and a line of Muggsy clothing for kids. Says Bogues with a small shrug, "Your height's going to be talked about, it's going to be used. You've just got to accept that."
During a USBL game, Bogues, who excels on defense, makes his move on Sean Couch.
Muggsy's 6'10" Rhode Island teammate, Hank McDowell, gives him an approving hug.