In the late ’90s, Eastern Michigan University assembled some its best basketball teams. The Eagles were so good they stunned the Duke Blue Devils in the first round of the 1996 NCAA tournament, 75-60. They were led by the nation’s second-leading scorer in 1998 – a guy named Earl Boykins – who the program said stood just 5-foot-8-inches tall. This, I had to see.
I watched Boykins torch Western, Central and Ball State. He could handle the ball, shoot it and pass it better than anyone on the court – even though he was shorter than everyone on the court. Yep, this was a story.
When I interviewed him, the story just got better. He told me he was so small growing up that he learned to dribble by using a tennis ball. When he was three, his dad could sneak him into games by stuffing him in a gym bag – but, Boykins told me, “Man, that’s back when I was small.”
Then he stood up, and I quickly realized the program listing was very generous. 5-foot-8? I’m 5-foot-8 – and I towered over him. I said, “Duuuuuude! You ain’t 5-8!”
He laughed and confessed he was actually 5-5 – and that’s how I broke the “Earl Boykins’ actual height” story nationwide. Just another example of good, hard-hitting, investigative journalism.
If you’re a 5-foot-8 sports writer, you get used to being towered over by your subjects. The only time I can ever look down at an athlete is when I interview jockeys … which I’ve never done. So this was it. Heck, this guy wasn’t just shorter than the sports writers. He was shorter than the referees, the cheerleaders and the ballboys – and probably you, too.
So, how did he get so good?
When Boykins was 13, his father started bringing him to his adult Saturday morning pick-up games. It improved his skills – and particularly his thinking. He said, “I can’t tell you how much more advanced I was mentally than other guys my age.”
His court sense is incredible. A full day after one of his games, I asked him about a dozen or so plays, and on each one he had an almost photographic memory of where everyone stood on the court, who was moving where, and who should get the ball. Plus, the dude can dunk!
I still figured there had to be more to it, so I asked to play him in a little one-on-one game up to five.
I didn’t fear getting burned – I knew that was coming – but I was afraid I might injure Boykins through some dumb play. But that would have required getting within five feet of him, which I never did. So, he was safe.
I learned one thing right off: Earl Boykin’s isn’t quick. He’s gone. Where most guards rattle off three sudden steps to get around their opponents, Boykins’s first surging stride launches him four or five feet, bringing him even with his defender, and every step thereafter is just gone, gone, gone.
After he did that to me twice, I started back-peddling. That’s when I discovered Boykins can jam his size 9 1/2 right foot into the hardwood and spring up and back from the bucket – almost like a pole vaulter – for an uncontested jump shot. So he’s 5-foot-5, and I’m 5-foot-8 – and there was no way I could stop him: 5-0, game over.
Okay, I stink. But far better and bigger players have not stopped him, either. I’m in good company.
For Boykins, playing basketball is the easy part. The hard part is getting the chance.
Iowa offered him a scholarship – then took it back. In college, Boykins finished second in scoring nationwide – and not one NBA team drafted him.
But here he is, already in his second decade in the NBA, a multimillionaire who probably can’t take all the rides at Cedar Point. On Sunday, Eastern retired his jersey, only the fourth player so honored.
Oh, and all the guys Iowa spent scholarships on? Earl Boykins has played more years of pro basketball than all of them – combined. The little guy has outlasted them all.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the Wall Street Journal, and ESPN Magazine, among others. He is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller, and “Third and Long: Three Years with Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines,” due out this fall through FSG. Bacon teaches at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.