The Dilemma, As Tyrone (Muggsy) Bogues sized it up, was that the pants to the dinosaur costume were too long, not that his legs were too short. He had seen plenty of pictures of real dinosaurs, and they all had stubby legs, like his own. At the very least it could be said that the 5'3" Bogues was anatomically correct on this occasion, pants or no pants.
The occasion was his son's birthday party, and the kids would begin to arrive at the house later that afternoon. That, in itself, was not out of the ordinary at the Bogueses' house in Charlotte, N.C. "Kids will knock on the front door all the time and ask me, 'Can Muggsy come out and play?' " says Kim, Muggsy's wife.
Most of the time lately the answer is, No, the Charlotte Hornets' starting point guard cannot come out and play. He is, after all, 28 years old. And at present he's trying to get some rest as the Hornets head into the last two weeks of the NBA season with a chance to make the playoffs for the first time in the five-year history of the franchise.
At week's end Charlotte was clinging to the seventh, and next-to-last, playoff spot in the Eastern Conference after recovering from a five-game swoon with victories last week over the Orlando Magic and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The two Hornets clinging most tightly were Bogues and guard Dell Curry, the only players remaining from the team's original roster.
It was Curry who finally stepped in to fill the dinosaur pants last week at the birthday party for Tyrone II, Kim and Muggsy's two-year-old son, who has already begun to stand next to his father and cast appraising glances upward, no doubt wondering how many months he must wait before overtaking the old man. Even without a costume Bogues danced along with the kids at the party. Children who see him play for the Hornets are his biggest fans. "They think I'm a little kid out there," Bogues says. "I guess I'm less intimidating than a seven-footer."
"When kids see the other players, it's always 'Mr. Curry' and 'Mr. Mourning,' " Kim says, "but I have never heard a child call him anything other than Muggsy. They feel like he's one of them."
Bogues has brought the pro game down to a new level, and apart from opposing players whose legs he waxes on defense, folks seem pretty happy about it. He is wildly popular with Hornet fans, his teammates and even with referees, all of whom have a tendency to throw an arm around Bogues's shoulders as if he were their little brother. "A lot of times they try to rub his head," Kim says, "but Muggsy doesn't go for that. He says he's not a dog."
There are other things he is not. Unlike the Denver Nuggets' 5'10" Michael Adams, Bogues is not likely to set any records for three-point shooting. (Bogues shoots only 25% from three-point range.) He is not a dunker, as is the Sacramento Kings' 5'7" Spud Webb, who once won the Gatorade Slam-Dunk Championship. (Bogues has never dunked; his hands are too small to palm the ball.) What he is, however, is a player built so close to the ground that on his lightning-fast crossover dribble, Bogues sometimes scrapes his knuckles on the floor. What he is, too, is proof that tall ain't all when the game is played the way it is supposed to be played. What he is, is the Toulouse-Lautrec of point guards.
"People always say we'll probably never see another Larry Bird," Hornet coach Allan Bristow says. "But I've always felt we have a better chance of seeing another Larry Bird than we do another Muggsy Bogues. Nobody has ever done what Muggsy is doing. And you really don't get the full effect of Muggsy until you go up and stand next to him."
This happens all the time, of course, people sidling up to him in shopping malls, trying to cop a feeling of superiority, looking at Bogues and wondering how the weather is down there. In the entire 47-year history of the NBA, there has never been another player whose talent amounted to so much while his body amounted to so little. Charlie Criss, who played for Milwaukee, the Atlanta Hawks and the San Diego Clippers from 1977 to '85, and Calvin Murphy of the Houston Rockets, a veteran of 13 seasons from 1970 to '83, were Bogues's itty-bitty predecessors; but Criss was 5'8" and Murphy 5'9". And what will deconstructionist historians make of former Boston Celtic Nate (Tiny) Archibald, the patron saint of NBA little men? At 6'1", Tiny would tower over Muggsy by precisely the same margin that Celtic forward Kevin McHale, at 6'11", once loomed over Archibald.
McHale described Bogues last season as the league's most stouthearted fellow. "It's got to be Muggsy," said McHale, before overestimating Bogues's stature. "He's out there playing, and he's only five-six. He's definitely the toughest." Through Sunday, Bogues's average of 9.0 assists per game was the fifth best in the NBA, and his five-to-one ratio of assists to turnovers—a measure of how well Bogues takes care of the ball—led the league. Perhaps the best indication that he is not merely surviving at 63 inches but thriving, is his scoring average, which was in double figures (10.5 points per game) for the first time in his career.
"He's the heartbeat of our team," says Bristow. "When Muggsy has a good practice, we have a good practice as a team. And when he gets tired, practice goes to pieces. A lot of our younger guys feed off his energy and enthusiasm." And Bogues, in turn, feeds off opposing point guards, buzzing around their ankles until he can find an opening and siphon off a little more blood. "Nobody likes playing a guy like that," says Maurice Cheeks, the veteran point guard of the New Jersey Nets. "He's so active, always around you like a mosquito. There are a lot of guys you can relax against, but you'd better not relax on Muggsy or you'll be in trouble. He keeps you aware of every move you make for 48 minutes, and eventually that begins to wear you down."
Some players have farther to wear down than others before getting to Muggs-eye level. In a blowout loss to the Miami Heat last week, Bogues was at various times matched against Brian Shaw, who is 6'6"; Steve Smith, 6'8"; and Vernell (Bimbo) Coles, 6'2". (Nicknames in the NBA would appear to be apportioned on the basis of height, with those at the short end of the stick getting just that, ergo, Bimbo, while names such as Dream, Mailman and X-Man are for the tall.) "We posted him up every chance we got," said Miami coach Kevin Loughery after the game. "Even if the shot doesn't go in, you want to keep Muggsy under the basket, so he's got to run the full length of the floor to get them into their offense."
Defending against much taller players underneath the basket was expected to be Bogues's Achilles' heel when, after a stellar career at Wake Forest, he was the 12th player taken overall in the 1987 NBA draft, by the Washington Bullets. "There was a lot of testing in the beginning," he says. "There had to be. Everybody thought, Let's shoot over the top of him. But looks can be deriving. When guys try to post me up, they don't realize how strong I am. And most guards aren't used to playing with their back to the basket, so they're uncomfortable down there to begin with. Honestly, I believe I'm one of the great defensive players in this league." Bristow, too, thinks that the supposed mismatch under the basket is more imagined than real. "I can't think of one time I've taken Muggsy out of a game because the other team was posting him up effectively," he says.
Most of the NBA's little men have been of about average height when they played for high school and college teams. Bogues has been the runt of every team he has played on, and he has grown only in esteem. "He's heard that he was too short since he was in junior high school," says Bristow. "If you're seven-feet tall, you belong. Muggsy's always had to prove he belongs. Always."
Bogues has no recollection of ever occupying any altitude other than the ground-hugging level at which he's currently vectored. "I don't remember growing at all," Bogues says. "That's strange, isn't it? In high school I was five-three. It seems like before that I was always five-three. I don't know, maybe my mom was the first person to have a five-three baby."
Actually, no. It would have been a neat trick, of course, and all the more impressive considering that Muggsy's mother, Elaine, is herself only 4'11". His father, Richard, is 5'5½", and Muggsy has brothers 5'6½" and 5'5" and a sister who is 5'1". "We're the fives family," Muggsy says. "I knew a long time ago I wasn't going to get out of that five-foot range."
Getting out of the housing projects of East Baltimore must have seemed an equally daunting prospect, for Bogues had all of the disadvantages that such a start in life can confer. His mother dropped out of school in the 11th grade to have a baby—Muggsy is the youngest in the family—and his father went to prison for armed robbery when Muggsy was 12 years old (Elaine then returned to school to earn her high school equivalency diploma). "I grew up as hard as you can get it," he says. "I wasn't proud of what my pops did, but I guess at the time he felt that was his only means of survival. He used to write me while he was in prison and give me pointers on my game."
Bogues earned his nickname while he was being a defensive pest on the playgrounds. "Tyrone," said Dwayne Woods, a 5'5" star at Dunbar High who was the only hero Bogues ever really had, "you're out there muggin' everybody." Bogues was also a talented wrestler and might have done quite well picking on guys his own size in that sport. "Everybody was trying to convince me I needed to stick with wrestling because there was no future for me in basketball," Bogues says. That was all he needed to hear. He would prove to the doubters that he was master of his destiny, captain of the tiny dinghy that was his life.
"He may not seem like he cares about his height, but he's very sensitive about it," says Kim. "The thing about Muggs is, when he walks out the front door every day, he's going out to prove himself."
"When I played at the high school level and the college level, everybody thought I was cute, but I wasn't taken seriously," Muggsy says. "Then when I got to the NBA, I was a curiosity. People were wondering, Can he play? Or is he just a novelty act?"
The Bullets' front office must have been asking itself the same questions, because Bogues was left unprotected in the 1988 expansion draft. "I think they got caught up in all the criticism of making me their first-round pick; they started second-guessing themselves," Bogues says. "I think [drafting me] was a p.r. thing with them, and when the media said, 'He's so small, why did you draft him?', they washed their hands of the whole thing."
Dick Harter, who was Charlotte's first coach, had no more faith in Bogues than the Bullets had. "He was a very negative person," Bogues says. "I don't think Dick Harter disliked me; he just didn't think a five-three guy could play in the NBA."
Demonstrating once for reporters why he didn't bother to have Bogues front New York Knick center Patrick Ewing in a double-team defensive scheme, Harter dropped to his hands and knees—at mock Muggsy level—and asked, "Will a midget really bother Ewing?" When Harter was asked why Bogues had difficulty scoring against New York, he scrambled up onto a chair, held his arms over his head and said, "Try shooting over a building when you're only five-three."
Harter was fired in 1990 after a season and a half; under new Hornet coach Gene Littles, Bogues was installed as the starting point guard. And since Bristow took over after Littles resigned, Bogues has thrived in the new up-tempo offense, injecting it with equal parts adrenaline and attitude. "If you set up in a half-court offense, that's not Muggsy's game, and he's lost," says Bristow. "But if you run it up and down the floor, it doesn't matter if he's five-three or six-three."
Bristow would actually prefer to use Bogues as a sixth man, but it is fairly certain that any applicants for the starting job will have to climb over Muggsy Mountain. "He's got so much energy, he can accomplish everything he needs to in 22 minutes," Bristow says. "The trouble is, we can't find anybody who's better than him to play the 35 minutes."
Such praise is nice, of course, but Bogues is inclined to be suspicious of all tributes to his industry and to the size of his heart. "It's ability that keeps you in the NBA, nothing else," he says. "If I hadn't gained the respect of the other players, I would have come and gone by now, like a circus act."