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Muggsy Bogues, the Original Short King

At 5-foot-3, the NBA veteran reigned over the league long before the Short King ascended to the throne culturally

The internet loves a good “Michael Jordan being a ruthless asshole” story, and chief among them is the rumor that Jordan once uttered something so vile to Muggsy Bogues that it ruined his career. Setting aside the fact that the exchange never actually happened, if you think mere trash talk could torpedo Bogues’ career, you clearly don’t understand who he is. Five-foot-three Muggsy Bogues is no ordinary man — he’s a Short King. In fact, he may very well be the Short King. 

Unlike the widely debunked MJ story, true Bogues believers don’t need to dream up fairy tales to preserve his legacy. The now 56-year-old, who played 14 seasons in the NBA with five playoff runs, faced no shortage of naysayers, shit-talkers and even death threats on his journey from the Lafayette Court Housing Projects in East Baltimore to NBA stardom. 

In 1970, when Bogues was just five years old, he was standing outside when a store owner across the street responded to a broken window by pulling a shotgun from his shed and firing into the neighborhood. Bogues still recalls the sounds of the gun before buckshot embedded into his right arm and leg. “That was the worst thing that’s ever happened in my life,” Bogues tells me. “When you’re five and got buckshots all over your body, you’ve got a memory bank of that kind of violence and your perspective changes. After that, I felt like I went through the worst of it, and there was nothing that could prevent me from doing what I wanted to do.” 

The Short King of Kings

It’s hard to believe that the cultural revolution for short kings began only three years ago, when comedian/writer Jaboukie Young-White launched a viral campaign in support of “short kings” and short positivity in general. 

The designation has since evolved to include those who stand under 6-feet as well as those who carry themselves like, well, kings. “Short kinghood evokes a healthy confidence without egotism: a blessed attitude that transcends the physical,” writes my colleague Miles Klee. “The nod to royal status is a reminder that we each rule over the dominion of the self, and we can choose to decree our stature, race, gender and orientation as the exemplary ideal of that province. This is not to diminish anyone else’s identity, of course  —  only to realize the power of inward love.” 

Bogues, however, started working toward his NBA dream decades before short kings reigned supreme, stuck in a world that wasn’t yet ready to bow to miniature royalty. “I used to come home crying and telling my mom about how cruel the other kids were at the court, how mean they were because they didn’t like that I was playing a game they thought was for taller people,” Bogues remembers (at the time, the average basketball player stood 6-foot-7). Other players would ask Bogues if his feet “dangled in the air” when he sat on the curb, or tell him he was so small that they could stuff him into dresser drawers. “That hurt, but my mom helped me tune them out, and gain the understanding that they were just kids and didn’t know what they were saying.”

Heart Over Height

Even after he became the best player on arguably the greatest high school basketball team of all time, fans, coaches and teammates alike treated him as a sideshow. Nothing really changed either when he earned a starting spot at Wake Forest, where he manhandled future NBA greats like Spud Webb and Kenny Smith and led an upset against number-two-ranked Duke, despite receiving a death threat prior to tip-off. “[The Duke] crowd was all over me, yelling ‘Stand Up!’ everytime I had the ball,” Bogues recalls in his memoir, In the Land of Giants, “And the band always played ‘Short People’ whenever I was introduced.’” 

“Of course it was challenging having to wake up everyday and prove myself all over again,” Bogues tells me of his high school basketball career. “Of course it was disheartening and sad, but that’s the facts of life. No one is immune to criticism and doubts no matter who they are. And being small and in the arena of what I chose as a hobby and passion, it just came with the territory.” 

Looking back, Bogues says he never wished that he was taller. Because like a true short king, he didn’t see his stature as a liability, or something for which he needed to compensate. Instead, he made it the centerpiece of his game. “The ball’s on the floor more than it’s in the air. And down there is Muggsyland,” he wrote in his memoir. “That’s where I rule. Put the ball on the floor, and you gotta watch out for the little fella.”

The NBA got its first taste of Muggsyland in 1987 when Bogues was selected as a lottery pick by the Washington Bullets (now Wizards) in a draft that included the likes of Scottie Pippen, Reggie Miller and David Robinson. After a promising rookie season, Bogues’ was moved to the expansion Charlotte Hornets. His new coach, Dick Harter, would openly complain that he couldn’t win with a 5-foot-3 guard. When reporters asked about utilizing Bogues more, Harter would, per Bogues’ 1994 memoir, drop to his knees and retort, “Will a midget really bother Patrick Ewing?,” or climb onto a chair and say, “Try shooting over a building when you’re only five-three.”

“All of that just strengthened a toughness within me, it fueled my motivation and put me in that gym rat attitude where I wanted to learn as much as I possibly could about this game,” Bogues says. “I wanted to prove these people wrong so badly.” 

While Bogues had a handful of people who supported his dream to play basketball, none believed he’d actually make it to the NBA save for one — his mom, Elaine. “My biggest hero was my mom. She was constantly telling me how ‘people can’t measure your heart,’ and that if I wanted to play basketball then I should play it to the best of my ability,” Bogues tells me. “Those words still resonate with me today. No one will be an expert on your life, no one will know your capabilities or your potential but you.” 

In a sport that saw height as a reflection of personal value, Bogues’ lived by his mom’s words: “Your heart has gotta be bigger than anything that’s put in front of you.” 

Eventually, Charlotte hired a new coach who believed in Bogues and styled the game plan around him. The shortest player in NBA history went on to lead the Hornets to three playoff appearances and became one of the league’s biggest stars. But after 14 seasons, Bogues retired in 2001 due to nagging injuries and to care for his mom, whose cancer had worsened.

“As a small guy pursuing the game of basketball, trying to break down the barriers was challenging, because it was something totally different than anyone had ever seen,” Bogues says. “But I had understood what I was capable of doing on the basketball court, and I stayed within myself, not changing for others, and that allowed me to keep showcasing my skills and proving people wrong. I had the same impact on the game that others had who happened to be a little taller, and I was able to do it my way.” 

Short Kings’ Court

Although he doesn’t play much basketball these days, Bogues, now 56, tries to pass down his mom’s wisdom of valuing heart over height to younger players. What’s more, he takes great care in being a line of support for every undersized NBA player who follows in his footsteps. “The guys that came into the league after me, Earl Boykins [5-foot-5], Nate Robinson [5-foot-9], Chris Paul [6-foot even] — all those guys reached out for advice and guidance,” Bogues explains. “So I keep in touch, and mentor and give some thoughts to younger guys coming up, too.”

Arguably, though, no one learned more from Bogues than Steph Curry (6-foot-3), who’s father, Dell, was Bogues’ teammate from 1988 to 1991, when they became close friends. “Steph saw the things that I was going through as a smaller guard and got a lot of the same criticism coming up,” Bogues says. “People considered him too small, frame-wise, to compete at higher levels. We always talked about how no one could control your destiny besides yourself, and he understood that. He believed in himself and never lacked confidence, because he was always around us just soaking it all up.” 

The Short King Ascends to the Throne

Today, whether it’s 5-foot-9 dunk contest champ Nate Robinson, 5-foot-6 NFL running back Tarik Cohen or 5-foot-4 rapper Lil Uzi Vert, it’s clear shortness is no longer a barrier for entry. “All we had back in my day was Danny DeVito [4-foot-10],” Bogues laughs. “But now there are a lot of small guys out there, and they’re getting their due recognition. People are beginning to accept that height doesn’t preclude people from being capable of doing great things, whatever industry they’re in.” 

Bogues’ work, however, is far from done. Be it through his upcoming book, Muggsy: My Life from a Kid in the Projects to the Godfather of Small Ball, or via his travels around the world as a “Global Ambassador” for the NBA, Bogues is on a mission to reach every down-and-out shorty losing the battle to bitter frustration. “I’m just out here trying to keep people’s hopes up, and continue to be an example of the fact that if you’re pursuing something and you’re effective at it — no matter your height, gender, race, religion, whatever it may be — then so be it,” Bogues tells me.

People will always doubt their worth or compare themselves to others, he adds, but true Short Kings tune out the haters and focus on the positive. “As people believe in themselves and never stop trying to break down the barriers others put in front of them, they can achieve anything — and that’s what life’s all about.”