Kids like to talk to me," says the San Diego Rockets' 5'9" rookie, Calvin Murphy (see cover). "They don't feel out of it standing next to me. Of course I feel out of it, standing next to an 11-year-old boy my height."
But Murphy looked far from out of it against Los Angeles one recent night when he tied up the Lakers' 6'7" John Tresvant—who is more than 11 years old—and then outjumped him. And while Murphy may be the springiest of the bunch ("One of his handicaps," says San Diego Coach Alex Hannum, "is it takes him too long to come down"), he is only one of five guards under 6 feet who are very much a part of professional basketball this year. Both coaches and fans have been sitting around foreseeing the day when an NBA forward would have to be 6'8", a guard 6'4" and a ball boy at least 6'2", and yet the Little Man has returned.
Two of the five are in the NBA. In addition to Murphy, who is averaging 13 points while playing only 19 minutes a game, there is Cincinnati's Nate Archibald, also in his first professional season. Archibald has come into his own as the zippiest man in Bob Cousy's new ultra-fast-break offense. He is listed at 6'1", but standing next to his 6'1" backcourt mate, Norm Van Lier, he couldn't be more than 5'11", and he weighs in at 156 pounds. Against New York recently, Archibald took the ball away from the Knicks' illustrious backcourt three times and never lost possession himself to Walt Frazier, although that 6'4" defensive demon harassed him most of the night. Archibald has been playing more than 40 minutes and scoring 15.5 points a game, as well as driving blithely on men whose uniforms alone are taller than he is.
The ABA has always been more of a guard's league, with the three-point outside shot and a shortage of 7-footers, but never have sub-6-footers shown up so well. The Floridians' Mack Calvin, a 5'11" second-year man, is leading the league with a 29-point average. Indiana's Billy Keller, 5'10", is averaging 14 points with a high game of 32 and has earned a new nickname, Indianapolis Shortie, which pleases him no end; he hated being called Mickey Mouse. And Virginia's Larry Brown, 5'9", was pursuing his fourth straight assist championship in his fourth year as a pro until he decided last week to have a minor operation that will sideline him for several weeks.
There is no doubt that the little man's emergence can be traced to the game's expansion. As Keller's coach, Bob Leonard, says, "When you had 12 pro teams, there were 48 good big guards. There aren't 112 good big guards now." But that is a point in favor of expansion, because in some ways the little guards are better, or at least more exciting, than the big ones. "People like to see speed...speed in any sport," says Leonard. "They like to see the little man take advantage of the big man." Furthermore, the little men have to be defter at outside shooting and creative passing and dribbling, and above all they have to show several inches worth of compensatory fight and quickness. It was not out of charity that a Knicks-loving Madison Square Garden crowd all but transferred its affections to Murphy in a tense fourth quarter two weeks ago when he scored 23 points in 25 minutes and sparked San Diego to a rally that almost upset the home team.
Shortness, in fact, has some advantages on offense: the little man needs less of an opening, in space and time, to squeeze past a defender, and the little man and his dribble are close to the ground together. It is on defense, when he is matched up with a guard six inches taller, that the short man is vulnerable. "The way to play a small guard," says Red Auerbach, "is to back him into the pivot and roll right over him." "You've got to think that you can take them inside and shoot over them," says Frazier.
But the little men and their coaches feel this handicap need not be a disqualifying liability. "It could hurt if you get down to the point where the other team needs a basket to win and wants to set up a specific play," says Cousy. "But if they gear their offense to taking the small men low, they've got their own men out of position." Larry Brown says other teams sometimes switch from "what they do best to attacking the small guard. They can make him look bad, but I don't believe it helps them because they're going away from their normal pattern and they lose continuity."
What the little man must do is make sure that if opposing guards take him underneath, it will not be without considerable extra effort. The way to make sure of that, Cousy says, is to "pick them up at full court and make them work all the way down. That's the worst thing that can happen to a backcourt man. Slater Martin [the last 5'9" man in the NBA before Murphy] used to do that to me. It's agonizing."
Hannum says that Murphy can probably jump well enough to block a much taller man's shot occasionally (he was called for goaltending a number of times in college), but the time for him to play defense is before his man gets within shooting range. Murphy understands this and is in constant motion between his opponent and the basket, scrambling, crowding, using his hands, like a man trying against all the odds to keep a bull away from a cow. Such tenacity gets him into foul trouble (he is averaging a personal foul every 5.7 minutes), and against the Atlanta Hawks the other night, when he took it upon himself to scramble all up and down the front side of a forward—6'6" 235-pound Bill Bridges—it almost got him a severe reprimand, i.e., a punch in the mouth. But it also has enabled the rookie they call Little Bit or Midget Man to hold his own on defense.
"There was a time," says Hannum, "when they thought the age of even the 6'2" guard was over. Why, when I came to St. Louis in 1957 they were trying to make a guard out of Cliff Hagan. I told Hagan he'd played his last game as a guard, he was a forward. It's a particular position and calls for particular skills, not the tallest man you can work in. With two short guards, you'd get hurt on defense, because a Jerry West, an Oscar Robertson or a Frazier can take even a great little man into the corner and shoot over him. But no team has more than one star like that, and I can always put my other guard on him.