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Earl Boykins: The little guy that outlasted them all

Jeramey Jannene
Earl Boykins with the ball when he played for the Denver Nuggets. He now plays for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Eastern Michigan University had a very strong basketball team in 1996.

The Eagles were so good they stunned the Duke Blue Devils in the first round of the NCAA tournament, 75-60.

They had nation’s second-leading scorer - and their program listed his height at 5-foot-8 inches.

This, I had to see. 

I watched Earl Boykins and his teammates torch Central Michigan, Western Michigan and Ball State.

He could handle the ball, shoot it and pass it better than anyone on the court – and none of his teammates ended up playing in the NBA.

Yep, this was a story.

When I interviewed him, the story just got better.

He told me he was so small growing up that he learned to dribble by using a tennis ball.  Until he turned three his dad could sneak him into games by stuffing him in a gym bag -- but, Boykins told me, "Man, that's back when I was small."

Then he stood up, and I quickly realized the program listing was very generous.

5-food-8? I’M 5-foot-8 – and I towered over him.

I said, “Duuuuuude!  You ain’t 5-8!”

He confessed he was actually 5-5 – and I’m proud to say I broke the “Earl Boykins’ actual height” story nationally.  Just another example of good, hard-hitting, investigative journalism. 

A 5-foot-8 sports writer gets used to being towered over.

The only time I could ever look down at an athlete is when I interviewed jockeys - which I’ve never done - so this was it.

Heck, this guy wasn’t just shorter than the sports writers.  He was shorter than the cheerleaders – and probably you, too.

So, how did he get so good?

When Boykins was 13 his father let him play in his pick-up games.

His play improved, of course, but he added, “I can't tell you how much more advanced I was mentally than other guys my age."

His court sense is incredible.

A day after one of his games, I asked him about a dozen or so plays, and on each one he had an almost photographic memory of where everyone stood on the court, who was moving where, and who should get the ball.

Plus, the guy can dunk – with either hand. 

I still figured there had to be more to it, so he agreed to play me in a little one-on-one game up to five.

My only fear was not getting burned – I expected that – but injuring Boykins through some dumb play.  But that would have required getting within five feet of him, which I never did. 

I learned one thing right off: Earl Boykin’s isn’t quick.  He’s gone.

Where most guards rattle off three sudden steps to get around their opponents, Boykins's first surging stride brings him even with his defender, and every step thereafter is just gone, gone, gone. 

After he did that twice, I start back-peddling – and that’s when I discovered

Boykins can jam his size 9 1/2 right foot into the hardwood and spring up and back from the bucket - for an uncontested jumper.

So he’s 5-5, and I’m 5-8 – and there was no way to stop him. 

Okay, I stink.  But far better and bigger players haven’t been able to stop him, either. 

For Boykins, playing basketball is the easy part.  The hard part was getting the chance.

Iowa offered him a scholarship – then took it back.

In college, he finished second in the nation in scoring, and no NBA team drafted him.

But here he is, already in his second decade in the NBA, a multimillionaire who probably can’t take all the rides at Cedar Point.

Oh, and all the guys Iowa spent scholarships on – they’re no longer in the league.

The little guy outlasted them all.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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