Muggsy Bogues will forever be a part of basketball folklore. Not only as the shortest player to ever reach the NBA, but also as a core member of the consummate ‘90s merch team, the Charlotte Hornets. And, if the teal and purple pinstripes weren’t enough to etch his name in golden era history, Bogues was also in Space Jam. Homecourt’s Adam McKay caught up with the former Monstar to discover that since his on-court career ended, the legend of Muggsy Bogues has continued to grow.
Heart over height. This is a phrase commonly associated with Tyrone Muggsy Bogues, the NBA’s shortest ever player. Bogues entered the NBA in the late 80’s at a time where the dominant centre and post play were still very much in vogue. A player standing a mere 5’3”, or 160 centimetres, taking on a league full of big men was no small accomplishment, but, as we will learn, the only thing small about Bogues is his height.
Overcoming obstacles started at an early age for Bogues, who was born in 1965 in Baltimore. The late ‘60s proved to be a tumultuous time for his community, with many workers finding their jobs gone after the Bethlehem Steel plant, which employed around 30,000, moved work offshore. Growing up in the Lafayette Court housing projects also meant that merely being out in the streets came with a degree of danger, and a young Bogues found out just how real this danger was when he was shot at the age of five. A stray bullet penetrated Bogues’s arm, narrowly avoiding what could have been a tragic end to a life that had only just begun.
The incident strengthened the resolve of Bogues. His love for the game of basketball was his driving force, and a young Bogues quickly developed not only a name for himself on the playgrounds of Baltimore but, also, a thick skin. It was this resilience that rendered him immune to the inevitable doubts and verbal jabs from those who saw no place for a diminutive player in a sport dominated by giants.
“Trying to pursue a basketball career at the size I was, it was very difficult. A lot of people laughed and didn’t believe that a kid my size could play the game of basketball,” Bogues says of his mindset at that time. “I just knew who I was and knew what type of impact I brought to the game and how I impacted the game. The ability to take over the game at my position, to create havoc on both ends of the floor – I knew that was within myself, so it wasn’t a surprise to me.”
For a young Bogues, the notion of one day being able to play in the NBA was yet to come into focus. Instead, he aspired to use the game as a vehicle to attain an education through an athletic scholarship at a major college. Bogues had his share of naysayers, but those who doubted him failed to realise that giants come in many shapes and sizes. They would soon learn that Bogues’s character, strength and ability would not be defined by his height or their perceptions of him.
This tenacity saw Bogues go on to receive a scholarship at Wake Forest, where he played all four seasons. Bogues was not there to make up numbers; he went on to become one of the greatest point guards in program history, and the prospect of the NBA started to become more and more real.
“Once I reached a certain point in my college career, especially my junior year, I felt that was the turning point where I had a position to change the narrative of my family. Come ’87, my dream was able to come true. The weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders the day I got drafted.”
A 22-year-old Muggsy Bogues was selected by the Washington Bullets with the 12th overall pick in the 1987 NBA draft, and wasted no time in changing his family’s narrative. Bogues surprised his mother with a new house, his way of repaying her for raising four children on her own after his father went to prison.
Most fans of the NBA will remember Bogues as a member of the Charlotte Hornets. Bogues was selected by the newly established franchise in the 1988 expansion draft after spending his rookie season with the Bullets, and soon found himself part of a team that became iconic in both basketball and wider popular culture. Bogues, alongside Dell Curry, who was also selected by the team in the expansion draft, welcomed Larry Johnson (1991) and Alonzo Mourning (1992) as teammates in the coming years. This core group made the Hornets a formidable team, and one that is remembered fondly by all who watched ‘90s NBA basketball. The point guard spent nine seasons in Charlotte – the city embraced Bogues and the Hornets, and the feeling was reciprocal for Bogues, who chose to raise his young family in Charlotte once his playing career ended in 2001.
Bogues’s popularity opened doors to many off-court opportunities, but none was a big as his role in the 1996 movie Space Jam, where he was joined by Hornets teammate Larry Johnson. Bogues was injured at the time and did not participate in the infamous “Jordan Dome” games, which took place after hours on set. The battles between a recently unretired Michael Jordan and some of the NBA’s top players of the day have become the stuff of legend. However, Bogues does have many fond memories of his time filming the movie. He recalls an incident in which a barber, who evidently did not have much experience cutting African-American hair, gave Larry Johnson a bowl cut. The haircut held up production for four hours as Johnson refused to begin filming until he was taken to another barber to salvage the cut. Bogues was the only one to see the botched job, but made sure all involved in the Space Jam shoot knew what had happened to Johnson, who later jokingly called Bogues a bum for sharing his embarrassing situation.
Although Space Jam grossed over $200 million, and has gone on to become a movie beloved by multiple generations, Bogues at the time had no sense that the film would achieve what it did. “I had no idea how well the movie was going to do and how it was going to turn out,” he says. “It had a lot of contributors, so it was kind of hard to see how it would all come together.”
Like so many who have reached the summit of their chosen sport or vocation, Bogues was the beneficiary of help along the way. He acknowledges those who kept him on the right path and countered the doubters by showing their belief in his ability as a player and his character as a person. Bogues says that, at that time in Baltimore, it took a village to raise a child, and the surrounding community played an important role in shaping him into the man he is today.
The goal was always to change the narrative of his family but, after achieving success in the NBA, Bogues has widened his focus to helping his entire community and repaying the support he received in his youth. This led to the establishment of what has become The Muggsy Bogues Family Foundation, which supports disadvantaged youth wishing to pursue a vocational trade rather than a four-year college degree. This support comes in the form of scholarships that remove the financial barrier for students who would otherwise find tuition fees prohibitive and be unable to obtain qualifications that would see them ready to work in the fields of engineering, maths, trades, computer science, accounting, finance, and electrical or business administration. A passion for the foundation and its programs shines through when he speaks about its goals going forward. Muggsy hopes to increase the number of scholarships on offer from four at present to 100 in the near future.
With this well-established focus on improving the lives of marginalised communities, it’s no surprise that when asked about Australian basketball talent, Bogues skips right past the obvious athletic prowess of Ben Simmons and the sharp shooting of Joe Ingles, and instead highlights a player for his off-court achievements. Patty Mills has earned the respect of Bogues through his commitment to bettering his community, and in particular his recent work on The Community Water Project, which is dedicated to providing clean and sustainable drinking water to Indigenous communities throughout Australia.
This passion for community and equality has never been more relevant than now when considering the Black Lives Matter movement. Bogues recognises that injustice and inequality along racial lines are not limited to the US; systemic racism is a global issue coming in many forms. He wishes to see the current wave of protests sustained so that the pressure on those in power will result in real change in policy and law. Furthermore, Bogues would like to see companies, which have come out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, follow up with their support with action. Bogues strongly feels that African-Americans are overlooked for roles in companies despite their qualifications, and points to the fact that presently only five Fortune 500 company CEOs are black.
Bogues laments, “We’ve got a lot of African-Americans capable of running Fortune 500 companies. We’ve got quality African-Americans who continue to get overlooked at a lot of these positions, mainly because of the colour of their skin.”
As a player, Muggsy Bogues wanted nothing more than for the world to look past his height and recognise his talents for what they were. These same themes of opportunity and equality form the foundation of his values as a person and member of his community. When considering his long history of philanthropic work and commitment to his community, his desire to help others, and passion for social justice, it all becomes clear. Bogues wishes for us to succeed as a society and foster an environment where people are judged on the content of their character and skillset for their role, rather than overlooked because of their height or skin colour.
Muggsy Bogues may not be tall in stature, but he is a giant in character.