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McHale described Bogues last season as the league's most stouthearted fellow. "It's got to be Muggsy," said McHale, before overestimating Bogues's stature. "He's out there playing, and he's only five-six. He's definitely the toughest." Through Sunday, Bogues's average of 9.0 assists per game was the fifth best in the NBA, and his five-to-one ratio of assists to turnovers—a measure of how well Bogues takes care of the ball—led the league. Perhaps the best indication that he is not merely surviving at 63 inches but thriving, is his scoring average, which was in double figures (10.5 points per game) for the first time in his career.
"He's the heartbeat of our team," says Bristow. "When Muggsy has a good practice, we have a good practice as a team. And when he gets tired, practice goes to pieces. A lot of our younger guys feed off his energy and enthusiasm." And Bogues, in turn, feeds off opposing point guards, buzzing around their ankles until he can find an opening and siphon off a little more blood. "Nobody likes playing a guy like that," says Maurice Cheeks, the veteran point guard of the New Jersey Nets. "He's so active, always around you like a mosquito. There are a lot of guys you can relax against, but you'd better not relax on Muggsy or you'll be in trouble. He keeps you aware of every move you make for 48 minutes, and eventually that begins to wear you down."
Some players have farther to wear down than others before getting to Muggs-eye level. In a blowout loss to the Miami Heat last week, Bogues was at various times matched against Brian Shaw, who is 6'6"; Steve Smith, 6'8"; and Vernell (Bimbo) Coles, 6'2". (Nicknames in the NBA would appear to be apportioned on the basis of height, with those at the short end of the stick getting just that, ergo, Bimbo, while names such as Dream, Mailman and X-Man are for the tall.) "We posted him up every chance we got," said Miami coach Kevin Loughery after the game. "Even if the shot doesn't go in, you want to keep Muggsy under the basket, so he's got to run the full length of the floor to get them into their offense."
Defending against much taller players underneath the basket was expected to be Bogues's Achilles' heel when, after a stellar career at Wake Forest, he was the 12th player taken overall in the 1987 NBA draft, by the Washington Bullets. "There was a lot of testing in the beginning," he says. "There had to be. Everybody thought, Let's shoot over the top of him. But looks can be deriving. When guys try to post me up, they don't realize how strong I am. And most guards aren't used to playing with their back to the basket, so they're uncomfortable down there to begin with. Honestly, I believe I'm one of the great defensive players in this league." Bristow, too, thinks that the supposed mismatch under the basket is more imagined than real. "I can't think of one time I've taken Muggsy out of a game because the other team was posting him up effectively," he says.
Most of the NBA's little men have been of about average height when they played for high school and college teams. Bogues has been the runt of every team he has played on, and he has grown only in esteem. "He's heard that he was too short since he was in junior high school," says Bristow. "If you're seven-feet tall, you belong. Muggsy's always had to prove he belongs. Always."
Bogues has no recollection of ever occupying any altitude other than the ground-hugging level at which he's currently vectored. "I don't remember growing at all," Bogues says. "That's strange, isn't it? In high school I was five-three. It seems like before that I was always five-three. I don't know, maybe my mom was the first person to have a five-three baby."
Actually, no. It would have been a neat trick, of course, and all the more impressive considering that Muggsy's mother, Elaine, is herself only 4'11". His father, Richard, is 5'5½", and Muggsy has brothers 5'6½" and 5'5" and a sister who is 5'1". "We're the fives family," Muggsy says. "I knew a long time ago I wasn't going to get out of that five-foot range."
Getting out of the housing projects of East Baltimore must have seemed an equally daunting prospect, for Bogues had all of the disadvantages that such a start in life can confer. His mother dropped out of school in the 11th grade to have a baby—Muggsy is the youngest in the family—and his father went to prison for armed robbery when Muggsy was 12 years old (Elaine then returned to school to earn her high school equivalency diploma). "I grew up as hard as you can get it," he says. "I wasn't proud of what my pops did, but I guess at the time he felt that was his only means of survival. He used to write me while he was in prison and give me pointers on my game."
Bogues earned his nickname while he was being a defensive pest on the playgrounds. "Tyrone," said Dwayne Woods, a 5'5" star at Dunbar High who was the only hero Bogues ever really had, "you're out there muggin' everybody." Bogues was also a talented wrestler and might have done quite well picking on guys his own size in that sport. "Everybody was trying to convince me I needed to stick with wrestling because there was no future for me in basketball," Bogues says. That was all he needed to hear. He would prove to the doubters that he was master of his destiny, captain of the tiny dinghy that was his life.
"He may not seem like he cares about his height, but he's very sensitive about it," says Kim. "The thing about Muggs is, when he walks out the front door every day, he's going out to prove himself."