Friday, August 26, 2011

Game Changers: Undersized players left big mark on league

Game Changers: Undersized players left big mark on league
It was one of those remarks that most people thought was absurd at the time, but not so much nowadays.

Allan Bristow, former coach of the then-Charlotte Hornets, said: "Everyone talks about how we'll never see another Michael Jordan and we'll never see another Larry Bird. But truth is, we'll never see another Muggsy Bogues."

You could say a lot of folks sold Bristow short. While we are indeed waiting for the next Jordan, and perhaps we saw the next Bird during the 2011 NBA Finals, our great-grandchildren might be the only witnesses the next time a 5-foot-3 player darts around the floor like a pinball and carves out a very productive NBA career.

Plain and simple, NBA teams just aren't big on little guys anymore. Not that they ever were. But you just don't see an abundance of players under 6-feet on rosters, and definitely none in All-Star Games.

That makes Muggsy, Spud Webb and Calvin Murphy before both of them, Game Changers who paved the way for the little man -- even though the NBA still practices size discrimination.

Only three sub-6-footers were on active rosters last season. None was what you'd consider a star, or even close. And none was selected in the first round of the most recent Draft. Which means there's no Muggsy in the works. (He was the 12th pick of the 1987 Draft, in case you forgot.)

The game at the highest level remains a near-impossible goal for anyone who measures up to Yao Ming's kneecaps. And those who happen to squeeze through the cracks are mainly role players or gimmicks who don't last very long or change the minds of NBA general managers.

The reasons are obvious and numerous. Lack of size translates into big issues, mainly on the defensive end, where they're posted up more than a yellow sticky memo. And they're stuck playing only one position. And they must be exceptional athletes, or extraordinarily good at shooting and/or dribbling, to have a chance.

Webb once said: "I see myself as a basketball player, just like anyone else in the league," but not everyone else in the league could jump almost two feet over his own height. An unmatched vertical leap kept Webb (5-foot-7) in a uniform, although he was also a very efficient passer and could hit the jumper if left open. Like most short players, he compensated for, or covered up, his weaknesses very well; anything less would've been fatal to his career.

Bogues was a freak of nature. He had no business lasting 14 seasons in the NBA, or being selected in the first round, because he had no tremendous skill. He wasn't a terrific outside shooter, nor was he a leaper (and even if he were, it wasn't going to help) and as a passer he was solid but not Stockton-like. His gifts were amazing quickness, both with his feet and hands; a low center of gravity that gave him great balance and assisted him defensively; and anticipation. He was also very smart at knowing how players would try to exploit him; he'd been trained for that his entire basketball life.

The gold standard, of course was Murphy, the shortest player in the Hall of Fame at 5-foot-9. He was the purest basketball player of any little man who ever made the NBA. Murphy could shoot with range, had a tight dribble and could spot the open man (when he decided to pass the ball, anyway). He was listed as a point guard, but in truth Murphy was an undersized shooter who averaged 20-plus points five times and finished with a career scoring average of 17.9 points. And he was feisty, willing and able to challenge taller and heavier players who dared to impose their physical strength on him.

Beyond those three players, the little man has mainly been short on impact and numbers, with only a few exceptions.

Michael Adams made himself a dangerous 3-point specialist in the Doug Moe system with the Nuggets in the late 1980s. Avery Johnson, the Little General, had a decent run with the Spurs in the 1990s. Terrell Brandon was a two-time All-Star and was solid for the Cavs and Wolves in the 1990s. Damon Stoudamire, the 1996 Rookie of the Year, gradually faded as the years went on.

Allen Iverson was slightly built (160 pounds after dessert) but listed at 6-feet, whether anyone believed it or not. Isiah Thomas was 6-foot-1. In fact, there has been a host of players in the low 6-foot range who had good and even great careers. Some are still active.

But sub-6-footers? Only a small number. So to speak.