The Washington Bullets' Jeff Ruland made a bad pass, and Spud Webb, the smallest player in NBA history, picked it off near the Bullet bench. In the blink of an eye, Webb was at full speed as he blew past Gus Williams and Jeff Malone. "It doesn't matter if Spud is that fast, but just that people think he is," says Webb's Atlanta Hawk teammate Glenn (Doc) Rivers. "They start panicking." "Spud's the fastest guy I've ever seen under control," says another teammate. Randy Wittman.
Webb took off near the basket, climbing toward the apex of a vertical leap that's been measured at 42 inches. Most of the opening night crowd of 10,129 at Atlanta's Omni was on its feet—this was what they came to see. At precisely 10:57 of the third quarter, Webb's tiny hand reached up above the rim and threw down a dunk. The crowd exploded.
One small field goal for the Hawks, one giant leap for Lilliputians.
Webb hasn't had the opportunity to dunk since that heady Oct. 25 evening, but neither has he gotten trampled in traffic or squashed by falling NBA skyscrapers. As the Hawks' rookie backup point guard to Ray Williams, he has averaged 6.6 points and 3.8 assists in 17.5 minutes per game. He has shown, with every one of his 65½ inches (5'7" in sneakers) and every one of his 133 pounds, that he belongs in the NBA. "Forget all that size business," snaps all-time, all-little guy Calvin Murphy, the former Houston Rocket, after watching Webb in action during a 116-101 win over the Bulls last Wednesday night. "The kid is an NBA player."
Webb can shoot from the outside (though he'll have to improve in that area), he can handle the ball, and, brother, can he penetrate. Murphy in his prime? Randy Smith in his? Rickey Green right now? You name him; Webb is just as fast or faster when dribbling a basketball on the open floor. He has court savvy and can't be intimidated. Against the Bulls he charged after Kyle Macy when Macy elbowed him, and the next time down the floor drove past Macy in an in-your-face payback. "His heart's as big as his whole body," says Jack McCloskey, general manager of the Detroit Pistons, who made Webb a fourth-round pick in last spring's draft but mercifully didn't invite him to compete for a job that wasn't available. But Spud caught on with Atlanta, a team whose fast-breaking style and head coach—Mike Fratello is only 5'7" himself—are perfect for a water bug.
Webb can dunk with more style than most men a foot taller (his two-hand backward slam is the highlight of a national sneaker commercial that he did with Chicago's Orlando Woolridge), he can block shots (two through last week) and he can even goaltend. "The refs are usually too embarrassed to whistle it," says Atlanta general manager Stan Kasten. "Hey, we want that call!"
If only Webb could sprout 12 inches—that would nearly put him at the average NBA height of more than 6'7". But, unless one of the NBA's more promotion-minded G.M.s trots out a latter-day Eddie Gaedel in sneakers, Anthony (Spud) Webb—late of Texas's Midland (junior) College, North Carolina State, and the Rhode Island Gulls of the United States Basketball League—will go down as the smallest NBA player ever. Wat Misaka, who played three games for the Knicks in 1947-48, and Red Klotz, who played 11 games for the Baltimore Bullets that same season, were also listed at 5'7", but each weighed 150 pounds. Slater Martin, who played through the '50s, is still remembered as the quintessential NBA small guy, but he stood 5'10" and weighed 170. Charlie Criss played for Atlanta at 5'8" but carried a solid 165 pounds. Murphy is two inches taller than Webb and also weighed 165 as a player.
But no little guy has ever possessed Webb's quickness or jumping ability, attributes that make him an "attraction," not just a player. The Hawks weren't ignoring their turnstile count when they invited Webb for a tryout. They ranked 20th among the 23 teams in home attendance last season. After six games, crowds at the Omni were up 23% over '84-85, and Webb certainly accounts for some of that increase—although only 6,115 were at the Omni for last Saturday's 116-106 loss to Utah on Spud Webb Sticker Night ("He's too small for a poster," said a Hawk official). The NBA office likes Spud, too, though it may slam-dunk the request of Hawk public relations director Bill Needle to change Webb's jersey number from 4 to .4. That would have put Spud in the folkloric tradition of the 3'7" Gaedel, who wore ‚⅛ on his back when Bill Veeck sent him up to bat one time for the St. Louis Browns in 1951.
But Needle doesn't want Webb to drown in the promotional waters, and he gave only a lukewarm response to preliminary inquiries about Spud from the David Letterman show, which has adopted athletic curios such as the Atlanta Braves' Terry Forster and the Chicago Bears' William (the Refrigerator) Perry. It would be sad if Webb got typecast as some kind of freak; unlike the Refrigerator, Spud has succeeded despite the dimensions of his body, not because of them.
He is quiet, conservative, unassuming. He wears size-7, low-cut whites, not the flashy red, white and black "break-dancing shoes," as he calls them, preferred by his sneaker supplier. At the same time, he's aware of his publicity potential: With incentives, his one-year shoe and clothing deal could nearly match his $70,000 salary, the NBA rookie minimum.
"They want to change my number to point four, 'Nique," Spud said to his close friend, superstar Dominique Wilkins, as they drove to lunch after a practice last week.
"Point four?" said Wilkins, incredulously. "That's unheard of. Why?" Webb shrugged his shoulders. "Publicity, I guess."
Webb has confided to Wilkins his fears about getting released when Rivers, who has been out with a broken bone in his right hand, returns to the active list soon. "It will not happen," says Wilkins, who has all but adopted Spud as a little brother. "You think they'd spend all this time on you if they were going to let you go? Besides, you're a player. We've got to keep you."
Webb, for his part, is accustomed to the uncertainty. "It seems like every year I've had to start over," he said. "I'm always having to prove myself, more than most guys. I guess that's just the way it is for me."