Muggsy Bogues is tough, tenacious and resilient. But most of all, he is a survivor.
"I've never seen Muggsy back down from anyone or anything," said David Wingate, his former Dunbar High basketball teammate and now a member of the Washington Bullets. The Bullets play Bogues and the Charlotte Hornets at the Baltimore Arena tomorrow night (7:30).
Bogues is quite familiar with the downtown arena. He performed there a few times in leading the Dunbar Poets to city championships and mythical national titles as the dynamic, 5-foot-3 point guard who defied the odds.
Bogues, who started playing ball as a 7-year-old growing up in the Lafayette housing project, continued to beat the odds in winning a scholarship to Wake Forest, where he set ACC records for assists.
But Bogues' reputation as a "giant-killer" was just beginning. He astonished NBA experts when the Bullets made him the 12th player selected in the 1987 NBA draft, 10 picks ahead of Dunbar teammate Reggie Lewis, who was chosen by the Boston Celtics.
Bogues lasted only a season in Washington before being claimed by the Hornets in the 1988 expansion draft. He is now in his fourth season at Charlotte, still the team's No. 1 point guard and easily the Hornets' most popular player.
"The media constantly says I have to prove something," said Bogues, who has survived three coaching changes in as many years. "But I feel I've already done that. I know what I can do. I've lived with criticism all my life. But I believe in myself, and that's all that matters."
Yet that never stopped the cynics from wondering aloud what a man his size was doing playing in the NBA.
In retrospect, Bogues said, "I never got an opportunity in Washington to show what I was capable of doing. I don't know why they drafted me so high if they didn't want to commit to my style.
"And then in my first year in Charlotte, Coach [Dick] Harter wasn't too thrilled with my height. He thought I was a defensive liability and only allowed me to make so many mistakes. When we lost, I usually got the blame."
But Bogues became the Hornets' unquestioned floor leader when Gene Littles replaced Harter in 1989. He was voted the team's Most Valuable Player that season after averaging a career-high 9.4 points and 10.7 assists.
This season, with Allan Bristow stepping down from the front office to become coach, Bogues has split the point guard position with Kendall Gill. But Muggsy, who got his nickname from a "Bowery Boys" television character, still leads the team in assists, with 8.6, while averaging a respectable 7.5 points a game.
"What amazes me," said Bristow, "is that when I talked to our frontcourt players about our team, they always bring up Muggsy's name. He's our inspirational leader, and he makes their job so much easier by penetrating.
"And it is also surprising how few turnovers he commits, as much as he controls the ball. I really don't remember seeing anyone take the ball away from him. The few turnovers he makes usually result from him forcing the issue. But I can't think of anyone better at handling a basketball."
Bogues' ball-handling and ball-hawking skills are respected around the league.
"He's the only guy in the league you've got to know where he is on the floor all the time," said Houston guard Kenny Smith. "Otherwise he comes from nowhere and picks you clean."
"Muggsy is a coach's dream," said Celtics assistant coach Don Casey. "He gets the ball up the floor and drives you nuts on defense. He's worse than a virus."
And he's contagious, especially with the young basketball fans who gravitate to him like a moth drawn to a flame.
"I guess they relate to me because of my size," he said. "They see a guy playing professionally who overcame all kinds of obstacles. Hopefully, the message I deliver is that nothing in life is impossible."