Bucks' Little Big Man Boykins An Inspiration To Others
By John J. Buro
The most noticeable thing about Earl Boykins is his height. This, he relates, is no big deal. There, he is absolutely correct. Even in everyday circles, a 5'5" man would draw the occasional stare. In a professional basketball league, where the average height is a foot taller, Boykins is often considered somewhat of an anomaly.
To everyone, that is, except himself. "At 5'5", and in the NBA, people are amazed I could have any type of success," he said. "At first, guys didn't quite know how to view me. But, now, they just see me as another NBA player."
Boykins, now with the Milwaukee Bucks after a mid-season trade which sent Steve Blake to the Denver Nuggets on January 11th, is playing for his seventh team in nine seasons, which he also considered no big deal. Except, that, survival in this league is a big deal -much like it is for Mikki Moore, who was a part of eight different organizations, excluding those in the Continental Basketball Association and Greece, before emerging with the New Jersey Nets' this season.
The Bucks' guard, like the Nets' center, wasn't drafted, which has merely added to his legacy.
"Earl has arrived," said Terry Stotts, Milwaukee's second year coach, "He wouldn't be in this league unless he was an effective player - particularly at his height. Certainly, that is something that I've taken into account, but he has shown there are ways to compensate for it." Boykins had averaged 18.1 points and 5.1 assists during his time at Eastern Michigan and, rightfully, expected to play in the NBA. His senior year was particularly noteworthy, as he was second in the nation with 25.7 points and was named to the Mid-American Conference Team for the second consecutive season. Boykins also added 5.5 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game, which earned him the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award, emblematic of the best college player less than six feet tall.
But, even after graduating as the school's second leading scorer [2,211 points] and all-time assist leader , he was still omitted from the 1998 Draft. Though Boykins never stepped to the podium that evening, it could not slow his pursuit.
"The only thing that happened," he said, as the Bucks prepared to tip off against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, "was not having my name called on television. It didn't mean that I couldn't play in the NBA. From that night on, that's how I viewed it.
"I always knew that I had the ability. It was just a matter of being in the right situation, and getting a chance to play. Other than my height, I haven't really faced any obstacles. The hardest thing for me was getting an opportunity to get out on the court; there, my game speaks for itself.
"I was just another college graduate looking for work. The NBA was just one job. So, just because I wasn't selected, that didn't mean I couldn't work. Ironically, he couldn't work on this night in New York, either. A sprained right hand, which developed two weeks ago, has kept him in constant pain. At press time, he was listed as day-to-day, though a week away was more realistic.
Boykins, a soft-spoken man of 29, is all about realism. He knows his place in the game, and on the floor. And, while the Denver Nuggets media guide noted that the Cleveland native could bench press 315 -or more than 180 pounds his body weight- there is very little flash to him.
"Upper body strength," he said, "is more important to the GMs in the league than it is to me. Bench pressing helps, but it's not the most important aspect of my game. I want to overcome the prejudice that a small guy can't play here."
Basketball fans are already aware of that possibility. 'Muggsy' Bogues, who at 5'3" is the NBA's shortest player to date, and 'Spud' Webb, the 1986 Slam Dunk champion, were solid performers. But, whereas, Tyrone Bogues and Anthony Webb were later christened with newer identities, Boykins has chosen not to be known by another moniker.
"I don't want a basketball nickname. I'm just Earl," he stated, perhaps not realizing that - more than thirty years ago, in this very building- there was another guard by the name of Earl. That, of course, is where the similarities between Boykins and Monroe, his jewel of a namesake, end.
"I've had an advantage, because I never had to change positions. Most guys have had to learn a new position, [as they've gotten taller or advanced in their skill level]. I've never had to worry about that. I've always been a point guard."
With a shooter's touch. After playing sporadically during his first five seasons, Boykins averaged better than 10 points per games during his full campaigns as a Nugget. "He's a straight scorer," the Knicks' Nate Robinson observed. "He can score the ball. So, we work hard to defend him, just like anyone else." "When we made the trade," Stotts recalled, "we were really struggling to score. Earl had a 30 point game in his second game with us in Charlotte, and then hit for a career high of 36 against Sacramento a few days later.
"But," added the coach, "I've also been very impressed with his basketball IQ, and his understanding of the game." In the Mile High City, Boykins teamed with Carmelo Anthony. Here, in Milwaukee, Michael Redd is the primary option.
"The biggest difference between the two," he said, "is that they can score in different ways. Michael is more of a perimeter scorer; he's more of a shooter.
Melo, on the other hand, can score in a box. He can't extend as far as Michael, from three-point range, but from 15 feet he can score.
"They are just two completely different offensive players."
But, Boykins is, clearly, the most different of all.