Small Wonder The crunch-time heroics of 5'5" dynamo EARL BOYKINS are a big reason why the Warriors are competitive again

February 10, 2003

When Earl Boykins was little...on second thought, because wise
guys will surely ask, "When wasn't Earl Boykins little?" let's
rephrase that. When Earl Boykins was an infant, his father,
Willie Williams, sometimes brought him along to pickup basketball
games. On cold nights Williams, a Cleveland police officer, often
stood talking to friends in the parking lot afterward. To keep
little Earl warm, he'd bundle him up and tuck him inside his gym
bag.

Boykins, the Golden State Warriors' dynamic backup point guard,
hasn't grown that much since--at 5'5", 133 pounds, he's the
smallest player in the league--but he's far more difficult to
contain. Four weeks into the season the Warriors were
languishing at 4--10 and were desperate for depth at the point.
They signed the 26-year-old journeyman, who had been with four
teams plus the CBA in four seasons. Since then Boykins, SI's
midseason pick for the NBA's best sixth man, has been darting
and dashing through the NBA, flummoxing taller opponents. It's
no mere coincidence that Golden State is suddenly competitive.
Through Sunday the Warriors were 16--16 since Boykins added a
double shot of espresso to their offense. While Yao Ming has
been the biggest story in the league this season, Boykins has
been the biggest--and smallest--surprise.

"We were looking for someone to come in for 12, 15 minutes a game
and hold down the fort at point guard," says general manager
Garry St. Jean. "What we got is a guy who does much more than
that, who not only gives us a lift in the second quarter but also
makes big plays in the fourth. He's given us a jump start."

Boykins has done the same to his career. "Everywhere I've been in
this league, I've eventually been the odd man out," says Boykins,
who wasn't drafted despite averaging 25.7 points as a senior at
Eastern Michigan. At each stop in the NBA--with the New Jersey
Nets, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Orlando Magic, the Cavs again
and then the Los Angeles Clippers--someone was always in front of
him on the depth chart. Last off-season, after two years as a
backup in L.A., he saw the writing on the wall when the Clippers
traded for Utah's Andre Miller and signed Yugoslav star Marko
Jaric. Los Angeles invited Boykins to training camp in October,
but he declined. "I'd done the third-point-guard thing for four
years, and my career wasn't going anywhere," he says. "I wanted
to contribute and play meaningful minutes. So I decided to sit
out and wait until some team really needed me and I could play
right away."

That team turned out to be the Warriors, who had tried a
succession of players behind starter Gilbert Arenas. In Boykins's
second game he had 20 points and seven steals in 24 minutes to
help the Warriors wipe out a 21-point deficit and win at Denver.
"He's a guy we just picked up off waivers," Warriors coach Eric
Musselman told reporters. "We're not getting carried away."

But Boykins has become a fourth-quarter marvel, with clutch shots
down the stretch in victories over the Washington Wizards, Los
Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves, scorching the last for
20 points in the final period of a 107--98 win on Jan. 17.
Boykins is an exceptionally good improviser, creative and quick
enough to slip into the lane and strong enough--he bench-presses
300 pounds--to finish. He's also unafraid to pull up for jumpers
against taller defenders. "He knows exactly how much space he
needs to get his shot off," says St. Jean. "The instant he gets a
defender back on his heels, he's up for the shot."

Boykins's quick release can make even athletic defenders look
awkward. In the final minute of a game against Washington, he
heard Wizards coach Doug Collins tell 6'5" Larry Hughes to back
off a step to keep Boykins from penetrating. When Hughes did so,
Boykins dropped in an 11-foot jumper before Hughes had time to
put a hand up, sealing a 104--99 win. Boykins has also developed
a remarkable repertoire of shots on the move, which makes him
dangerous when the 24-second clock is running down. Against the
New Orleans Hornets in December, he drove the baseline and
flipped in a 12-footer over a flat-footed Baron Davis to beat the
shot clock.

There may be subs with more impressive stats than Boykins, who
was averaging 10.5 points and 4.0 assists in 21.8 minutes, but
few have been as important at crunch time. Much of the credit for
that goes to Musselman, who has given Boykins a freedom he never
had at previous stops. Other coaches wanted him to be purely a
distributor, overlooking his fine shooting form and three-point
range (42.5% from beyond the arc for Golden State) and telling
him to shoot only as a last resort. "At first you think he can't
keep this up, but then he keeps hitting shots that close out
games," says Musselman. "After a while you're telling him, 'Do
whatever you want--just keep the ball in your hands.'"

Boykins's fourth-quarter playing time has come at the expense of
Arenas and the other starting guard, Jason Richardson, raising
concerns about team chemistry. They both missed a recent practice
without properly informing the team, which was interpreted by
some observers as a protest. Although the matter was quickly
smoothed over, minutes will continue to be a delicate matter for
Musselman. Even as he praises Boykins, the coach stresses that
the Warriors want Arenas, who's expected to be a restricted free
agent after this season, to be their long-term answer at the
point.

But Boykins seems to have found a home as a supersub. The
Warriors are a perfect fit for him, and not just because they run
the kind of free-flowing passing game that suits his talents. St.
Jean coached 5'7" Spud Webb in Sacramento and had 5'3" Muggsy
Bogues with the Warriors, and Musselman, who was a Magic
assistant when Boykins passed through Orlando, is particularly
familiar with Boykins's game. In fact, the 5'6" Musselman
literally sees eye to eye with him. "I never have to worry about
the team having practice uniforms to fit me," Boykins says. "I
can just wear Coach's gear."

Boykins is usually willing to smile, along with everyone else,
about his size. In Cleveland he gave his approval to a promotion
in which everyone his height or shorter was admitted to the game
for $5.50. But there is a limit to his good humor. After the
Warriors' public address system began playing It's a Small World
when he was at the foul line, he put his size9 foot down. "It's
just about respect," Boykins says.

He has earned that respect from opponents, even if their
compliments sometimes seem backhanded. "You think he's a little
kid, you relax, and he's got 10 points on you quick," says
Portland Trail Blazers point guard Jeff McInnis.

Boykins doesn't mind if people still underestimate him. "I'm just
glad I've found the right situation for me," he says. "I'm not
bitter toward anybody."

Considering how long he had to wait for the chance to prove he
wasn't too little, that's awfully big of him.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER (BOYKINS) AND JOHN W. MCDONOUGH SIZE MATTERS? Boykins stands two feet shorter than Yao but hasmade as big an impact on his club. COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES AMONG THE TREES Once he slips into the lane, Boykins--blowingpast 7-footer Dirk Nowitzki--has the strength to finish.

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