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Every time Earl Boykins steps onto the court, he can hear the jeers. He's so little. How can he be on the team? Why are they letting the ball boy play? But the truth of the matter is not only can Boykins play, but his elevated game so far this season has put him in the running for the NBA's Sixth Man award.
I had a chance to sit down with Boykins for this week's Players section of Sports Illustrated and talk a little bit about his life as a little man in the NBA. While anecdotes and indignities make for good copy, Boykins has become much more than a fascinating sideshow. He's become a legitimate NBA player.
Coming out of Eastern Michigan in 1998, where he averaged 18.1 points and 5.1 assists over a four-year career, Boykins went undrafted. His diminutive stature -- officially listed as 5-foot-5 -- scared off NBA teams. To put that in perspective, Tyronn Lue, Bryce Drew and Mirsad Turkan all were first-round picks that year. In the second round, NBA washouts Toby Bailey, Shammond Williams and Derrick Dial each was considered more of an NBA prospect than Boykins.
After a brief stint in the CBA, Boykins surfaced in New Jersey, where he began a whirlwind tour in which he became well aware of the term "10-day contract," the NBA's version of a temp job. New Jersey. Cleveland. Orlando. Los Angeles. In each stop, his presence was viewed more as a novelty than a meaningful opportunity.
Boykins never gave up. A workout maven, the Cleveland native returned home every summer and went to work, lifting weights three times a week and spending five days a week running through shooting drills at the local rec centers. Oh, and did I mention he plays pickup games every day?
"There are no days off for me," said Boykins, a career 41.9 percent shooter. "I have to work longer and harder than everyone else to be successful."
After the Clippers passed on his option in 2002, Boykins made a decision: He would only join a team if he were guaranteed a spot as the top backup. Because of that stipulation, Boykins sat out the entire 2002 training camp before getting a call from the Warriors, who were intrigued by Boykins' ability to create havoc on the defensive end.
Boykins had a breakout season with Golden State, averaging 8.8 points and 3.3 assists, both career highs. But when it came time to negotiate a new contract, Golden State showed only nominal interest. By that time, however, Boykins' high-octane play had caught the eye of Denver GM Kiki Vandeweghe, who was in the process of rebuilding a Nuggets franchise that had won only 17 games the previous year. Vandeweghe, who loves his teams to play up-tempo, saw the potential in the speedy Boykins and signed him to a five-year, $13.7 million contract.
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Boykins has blossomed with Denver, and his improving numbers are a reflection of his rising minutes. This season he has served as a backup to Andre Miller, but it isn't uncommon to see both Miller and Boykins on the floor at the end of games. While the Nuggets have struggled out of the gate this season, Boykins has been one of the few bright spots, averaging a career-best 11.8 points per game. While Boykins' height (he's second only to Muggsy Bogues as the smallest player in NBA history) always will make him a novelty, his game has developed into something no one can look down on.
I'm watching the Clippers-Hornets game, but earlier Tuesday evening I stopped by Madison Square Garden and saw something that vaguely resembled an NBA contest. There the visiting Mavericks lay a beating on the Knicks the likes of which I have never seen. It isn't easy to guard Dirk Nowitzki, but when Calvin Booth starts knocking down wide open 18-footers, then it might be time to reassess. The real losers in this mess are Knicks fans such as Ray Brown, who along with six of his buddies paid top dollar to watch this basketball vomit. There should be a refund policy -- if your team quits in the middle of the first quarter, you should get a pro-rated return on your ticket price.
With the Randy Johnson deal to the Yankees dead for now, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein should make a bid for the veteran lefty. This situation rings eerily familiar to last years A-Rod debacle, where a near-certain deal falls apart at the 11th hour. With Edgar Renteria locked in at shortstop for the next four years, Epstein should start by offering up top prospect Hanley Ramirez for Johnson.
Still looking for some nominations for some top-notch sports bars. Is there a pub in D.C. that draws a crowd of Cardinal fans? Or deep in the heart of ACC country is there somewhere a UCLA fan can go where everybody knows his name? Anyone? Bueller?
Quote of the Week
"Gerald Wallace is a flop. He's not very talented, and that's what he does." -- Nets forward Richard Jefferson on Wallace, whose Emmy-winning flop got Nets center Nenad Krstic ejected from Tuesday's game with the Bobcats.
People who are upset at Pedro Martinez should get over it. It is just part of the business. -- Dennis, Joplin, Mo.
I'm over it, Dennis. I promise. But he's still a sellout. Hey, you think Oakland is shopping Barry Zito yet?
With Bobby Simmons sealing the latest Clippers victory (we're saying that a lot lately), I'll say good night, for tomorrow I return to my beloved Boston for a Christmas holiday to remember. First, I'd like to wish a very happy 22nd birthday to my brother Andy. I see many gift certificates in your future.