As a senior at Cleveland's Central Catholic High, Earl (the Squirrel) Boykins was a 5'8" point guard famed for dropping 50-plus-point games on taller defenders in playground matchups. As a sophomore at Eastern Michigan, Boykins was 5'7" and was known as the Earl who bested a Duke in the first round of the 1996 NCAA tournament. This season, Boykins, SI's choice as the best small player in the land, swears that the height at which he's listed, 5'5", is accurate—though at the rate he's going, he'll wind up a Boguesian 5'3" by the time he reaches the NBA.
Boykins can explain his steadily shrinking stature. He says he couldn't get recruited at anything less than 5'8", so that's how tall he said he was to anyone who asked. His coach during his first two seasons in Ypsilanti, Ben Braun, wouldn't permit him to be listed at less than 5'7", lest others think that the only person to have offered Boykins a scholarship was crazy. "You signed a guy how tall?" someone asked Braun before Boykins's freshman season.
"I'm either going to look like a genius or incredibly stupid," Braun replied.
Says Boykins, "I figured it was my duty to make him look smart."
Only since Braun left for Cal a year ago has Boykins been able to fess up—or down—to his true height. Boykins's figurative stature, on the other hand, has been steadily growing, along with his scoring average, which in college has risen from 12.5 to 15.5 to 19.1 as his height has dropped.
Much credit for Boykins's success is due his father, Willie Williams, a 5'8" Cleveland cop who's a fixture in the city's rec leagues. Williams once stashed the three-year-old Earl in a gym bag to save the cost of the boy's rec center entrance fee. A year later Williams gave his son a tennis ball because Earl's hands were too small for anything bigger, and Earl would dribble the ball all day and hold on to it while he slept. By the time he was 13, the son was playing in his dad's games. "You play with grown men all the time," Boykins says, "you get used to contact."
Contact he can deal with. Boykins has size-9� feet and can bench-press nearly twice his 143 pounds. Losing he has a harder time with. After Boykins missed several critical shots during Eastern Michigan's loss to Bradley in the first round of the 1995 NIT, Eagles sports information director Jim Streeter found him literally hiding in his locker.
Though Boykins can shoot the three, his favorite move is a sort of Ypsi doo. "He'll go into the lane, only he won't go all the way to the hole," says his roommate, forward James Head. "He'll float a shot, [Jeff] Hornacek-like." Once the ball has glanced off the backboard and through the hoop, Boykins will flash a grin at the man over whom he has just scored—or at the opposing team's heckler who called him Webster.
Last year Boykins was cut from USA Basketball's 22-and-under team because of his size. "You're disappointed when you play well enough to make the team and come up short," he says, intending no pun. He tried out again in June, and this time he made it. At the World University Games in Italy in August he led the gold-medal-winning Americans in scoring, assists and three-point shooting percentage. Last week he was named USA Basketball's Player of the Year for 1997.
"He works so well with what he's got," says his Eagles backcourt mate, Derrick Dial, "it's like it wouldn't be fair if he were six feet."