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Boykins Is Tiny but Not Small

Sitting in the stands at a recent Clipper game, staring intently at my nachos, I was startled by the shout of my young son.

“Look!” he cried. “They’re letting one of the ball boys play!”

I looked. And, well, yes, dribbling downcourt in an oversized Clipper uniform was a little guy seemingly plucked from behind a baseline dust mop.

The smallest professional athlete I’ve ever seen who was not astride a horse.

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Watching him drive to the basket was like watching a single fern twist through nine sequoias.

Watching him fight for a rebound was like watching a hot-dog wrapper bounce off skyscrapers.

A human optical illusion, is what he was.

“Who is that?” my son asked. “Why does he get to play?”

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I tried to explain, but couldn’t.

So I made a lunch date Monday with the only person who can.

His name is Earl Boykins and, at 5 feet 5, 133 pounds, he is the slightest player in modern NBA history.

“I know I’m different, I know I’ll never blend in, but I like who I am,” he said.

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Smaller than Spud Webb. Thinner than Muggsy Bogues. Positively dwarfed by Tyronn Lue.

“When I think about my height, I think, I have really been blessed.”

So small, he can barely touch the rim, and never twice in a row, because the mere attempt drains him.

“If I was taller, I probably wouldn’t have worked as hard or gotten as far.”

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So slight, his college coach Ben Braun once inflated his height to 5 feet 7 in the media guide because Braun didn’t want fellow coaches to think he had recruited somebody so puny.

“It’s always the same; the first time somebody sees me, they don’t think I can do anything.”

So tiny, he will soon begin wearing football hip and thigh pads under his basketball pants so hard screens won’t knock him out of the game.

“But once they see me, then they believe.”

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Only 15 minutes into lunch with the most amazing basketball player in Los Angeles this year, I could give my son an answer.

Why does little Earl Boykins get to play?

Because he’s huge.

His earliest memories involve being taken to the local recreation center by his father.

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In a duffel bag.

Not that Earl Boykins is anybody’s mascot or parlor trick.

Not after a career at Eastern Michigan University that included a memorable 1996 upset of Duke in the NCAA tournament.

And not after a four-year NBA path that has led him here, to a team and a coach that don’t care about such things as heights or ages.

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On Sunday, home looked like 11 points, five assists, no turnovers, and crunch-time minutes in the Clippers 99-86 victory over the New York Knicks.

Tonight, home will look like more key minutes against the Lakers as Jeff McInnis’ backup, replacing the injured Keyon Dooling.

“Tonight will be fun,” Boykins said. “Tonight is why you play.”

Even if the top of his head only reaches Shaquille O’Neal’s stomach.

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Actually, Boykins feels a kinship with the center who is nearly two feet taller.

“We go through the same thing in life,” he said. “Everybody talks about him being big, everybody talks about me being small.”

They weren’t saying those things early in his life, perhaps because, while growing up in Cleveland, he never gave them a chance.

“I grew up in the gym,” he said. “Because of my height, if I wanted to play basketball, I knew I had to learn the game better than anyone else.”

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So he would go to the Fairfax Recreation Center after school, and stay there until it closed at 9 p.m.

His father would bring him his dinner there. He would do his schoolwork in the bleachers.

“Nobody ever said anything about my height, because everybody knew I could play,” he said.

He first realized his height would be an issue when he was recruited by Eastern Michigan. The recruiter was afraid to give his size (about 5 feet 2) to Braun. He kept telling the coach that he had to see him with his own eyes.

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Once at school, Boykins again decided to live in a gym, but it wouldn’t be easy.

He finally worked a deal where he would ask the campus police to let him in the main gym late at night.

Once there, he would shoot jumpers past midnight with the lights turned down so nobody would catch him.

Once, an assistant coach returned to his office and saw somebody shooting in virtual darkness.

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“Who’s there?” he shouted.

“Just me,” shouted Boykins, who was then given a gym key for the remainder of his college days.

“But I still shot in the dark,” Boykins said. “You get better shooting in the dark.”

Better, but not taller. The second time his height mattered was the worst time.

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Draft day, 1998. Scouts said he was one of the best pure point guards available.

Didn’t matter. He was not selected.

“It was awful, sitting there all day, nobody wanting you,” Boykins said. “After going through that I think, how bad can it get?”

His father Willie Williams, a Cleveland police officer, pulled him aside.

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“He told me, ‘The only thing that happened today is, you didn’t get your name called on television. That doesn’t change you or your ability,”’ said Boykins.

The next day, he flew to a tryout camp and began an odyssey that included two years in the Continental Basketball Assn. and short stints with New Jersey, Cleveland and Orlando.

He was signed by the Clippers last year, but played only 10 games because of injuries.

This summer, he returned to the Fairfax Recreation Center to play in city leagues against regular folks to regain his strength.

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It worked. He’s back.

He’s refined the secret that he says helps a little guy survive.

“It’s all about space, about creating space between yourself and your opponent,” he said, smiling. “I just can’t tell you exactly what it is, because somebody might read it.”

He embraces the twitters from the home crowd when he takes the court.

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“There’s always a buzz when I go to the scorer’s table, I can hear it, I can feel it,” he said. “I’m different. I understand. It’s OK.”

He’s finally being used and appreciated and, well, he’s so happy he could ... dunk?

He has never dunked in a game, and probably never will, but that doesn’t stop him.

“I’ll dunk in a layup line before the game, just watch,” said the little man with the giant sense of self. “I’ve never done it before, and I tried last week and missed, but I’ll try again. You’ll see.”

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com


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