Shawnta Rogers, George Washington's 5'4" senior point guard, chuckles as he harks back to his freshman season, when he walked onto the floor of Hearnes Center at Missouri and was greeted by a horde of Tigers fans painted blue and singing the Smurfs' theme song. He giggles whenever he sees a sign in a hostile basketball crowd that reads GET SHORTY or he hears the chant, "Stand up! Stand up!" Rogers can afford to laugh these days. It's the last laugh.
Through Sunday, Rogers, the shortest starter in Division I, was leading the Atlantic 10 in scoring (22.0 points per game), assists (6.9) and steals (3.8), and he could become the first player ever to lead the conference in all three categories for a season. (He was also atop the Atlantic 10 in free throw shooting, at 85.2%.) He ranked seventh in the nation in assists and first in steals. In fact, of the 14 point guards nominated for the John Wooden player of the year award, Rogers was tied for first in scoring with Arizona's Jason Terry, was fourth in assists and, most astonishingly, third in rebounding (4.1). "I know this sounds a little crazy," says Colonials first-year coach Tom Penders, "but I've been coaching 28 years, and Shawnta is the most dominant player I've ever had. He can shoot from deep, he's a great passer, he can steal the hubcaps off a car going 70 miles per hour, and he's like guarding smoke. You just can't catch him."
After leading Baltimore's Lake Clifton High to its second straight Maryland Class 4A championship as a senior, Rogers moved into George Washington's starting lineup three games into his freshman season. He's the Colonials' career leader in assists and steals, and this season he has won tight games against Old Dominion and LaSalle with buzzer-beating jumpers. Through Sunday he had led George Washington to a 16-6 record (10-2 in the conference) while playing U.S. ambassador on a roster that includes 10 foreign players from eight countries.
Still, Rogers is dogged by the basketball world's obsession with height. He was listed at 5'3" until his sophomore year, when he was asked to switch to number 54 as a promotional stunt to complement 7-foot center Alexander Koul who wore 45. After Rogers's shot beat LaSalle a couple of weeks ago, Explorers coach Speedy Morris delivered an unintentionally backhanded compliment by saying, "Rogers is the best 5'4" player who's ever lived."
"Sometimes I wish I were taller because then if I had these numbers, my size wouldn't be an issue," Rogers says. "I think I deserve to be player of the year in the conference, but I don't expect it because I've been overlooked my whole life."
Red Auerbach, a George Washington alumnus and a longtime friend of Penders's, is convinced that Rogers can succeed in the NBA. "At first I was skeptical about who Rogers could guard," says Auerbach, a regular visitor to GW's practices, "but after watching him, the real question is, Who can cover him? I think he'll have a good NBA career—and not just as a crowd-pleasing gimmick on the end of somebody's bench."
Penders, who as a 5'11" point guard in the mid-1960s twice led Connecticut to the NCAA tournament, understands how desire can overcome a lack of size. "When you're constantly being discounted, you learn to take advantage of every opportunity," he says. "Shawnta's the kind of kid who meets a polar bear on Thursday and is wearing a white fur coat on Friday."