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How 5’5″ Earl Boykins Went From Sneaking Into Gyms in a Duffel Bag to Scoring 5,791 Points in the NBA

The only college recruiter to offer him a scholarship originally mistook him for a ball boy.

An illustration of Earl Boykins during his time in the NBA with the Denver Nuggets
Credit-Denver Nuggets/NBA/Joker Mag

He thought the kid was a ball boy.

I mean, he had to be…right?

A hair over five feet tall.

Slender frame.

Maybe 135 pounds soaking wet.

He must’ve been helping the team out. Lending a hand after class. Wanting to be around real high school basketball players.

The ones he came to recruit.

But when the buzzer sounded and the kid stepped onto the court, everything changed.

And the recruiter’s jaw dropped to the floor.

Long before his successful career in the NBA, Earl Boykins did what many young kids do:

He followed his dad to the gym.

As a three-year-old, Earl was so small that his father carried him into their rec center in his duffel bag to save the entry fee.

And because his hands were too small for a regular-sized basketball, he learned to dribble with tennis balls.

But by the time Earl was 12 years old, he was good enough to play in his dad’s rec league games.

“You play with grown men all the time,” Boykins said, “you get used to contact.”

Those early matchups gave him confidence from an early age.

“The players were much bigger and stronger than me, so I learned to play smart. Once I realized I could play well against big, physical players, I began to believe in myself.”

Boykins attended Cleveland Central Catholic High School where as a member of the Ironmen, he averaged nearly 25 points per game.

Earl’s physical stature steered a lot of college scouts away from offering a scholarship.

But after one Eastern Michigan recruiter originally mistook him for a ball boy, EMU was so impressed with his skill set that they made an offer.

“You signed a guy how tall?” someone asked head coach Ben Bruan ahead of Earl’s freshman year.

“I’m either going to look like a genius or incredibly stupid,” Braun responded.

“I figured it was my duty to make him look smart,” Earl said later.

A photo of Earl Boykins next to Shaquille O'Neal with the caption: "One college recruiter thought Earl Boykins was a ball boy when he first saw him. But after seeing him play, the same guy offered him a scholarship."

Boykins attended Cleveland Central Catholic High School where as a member of the Ironmen, he averaged nearly 25 points per game.

While his physical stature detracted many to avoid offering the diminutive point guard a scholarship, Eastern Michigan saw only a talented basketball player, not a player short on height.

That is after one EMU recruiter originally mistook Boykins for a ball boy.

Coach Ben Braun padded Earl’s height on his roster listing. After all, he didn’t want everyone to question his decision to offer the 5’5” point guard a scholarship.

“You signed a guy how tall?” someone asked him before Boykins’ freshman year.

“I’m either going to look like a genius or incredibly stupid,” Braun responded.

“I figured it was my duty to make him look smart,” Boykins said later.

As a freshman starter for the Eagles, Earl finished tied for second in scoring (12.5 ppg), while leading the team in assists (4.5 apg). Although the team failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, Boykins was selected to the MAC (Mid-American Conference) All-Freshman team. 

Not only did the Eagles improve their record the following season, finishing 25-6 overall and capturing the MAC Championship, but they also earned a ticket to the Big Dance, as a ninth seed.

After dropping the 8th-seeded Duke Blue Devils, the Eagles fell in the second round. Boykins finished his sophomore year as one of only two players to start every game, increasing his stat line across the board.

Boykins and his backcourt running mate, and future second-round pick Derrick Dial took over as leaders of the Eagles during their final two years on campus, leading the Eagles to another MAC title during their senior year.

Averaging 25.7 ppg, 5.5 apg, and 2.3 rpg during the regular season and earning the MAC Tournament MVP, Boykins capped off his final college season with another appearance in the NCAA Tournament, losing to Michigan State in the first round. 

Boykins earned high praise from his college coach.

“Earl may be the most competitive player I’ve ever coached,” Milton Barnes said.

“He does not know the odds are against him. He’s 5’5”, but he plays 7’5”.”

When the NBA Draft rolled around, Earl Boykins didn’t hear his name called.

Knowing there were other professional basketball options, he signed with the Rockford Lightning of the CBA.

Earl Boykins quote: "For a small player to make it, he has to work twice as hard. If you have the talent and motivation to work at it, you can make it."

While he averaged only 7.4 ppg during his first year, he turned enough heads to earn not one, but two opportunities (technically three) during the 1998-99 season. After a short five-game stint with the New Jersey Nets to start 1999, Boykins signed two 10-day contracts with the Cleveland Cavaliers to close out the season.

The 1999-2000 season saw Boykins once again pull on three different jerseys as he split time between the Lightning, where he significantly increased his stats, averaging twenty more minutes of floor time than his first year and averaging 21.6 ppg and 9.3 apg.

His numbers were impressive enough to turn NBA GM’s heads in Orlando and for a third run in Cleveland.

“You think he’s a little kid, you relax, and he’s got 10 points on you quick,” said point guard Jeff McInnis.

Boykins’ time with the Magic and Cavaliers earned him a two-year contract with the LA Clippers where he came off of the bench for 76 of 78 games, averaging 4.4 ppg and 2.3 apg.

By this point in his career, including the Lightning, Boykins had collected five different jerseys in four years.

Following a one-year run with the Golden State Warriors in 2002-03 (where the sound guy would play “It’s a Small World” whenever Earl checked into the game until he told him to cut it out), Boykins was finally offered a contract with long-term security by the Denver Nuggets.

Armed with a 5-year, $13.7 million deal, Boykins produced the best numbers of his NBA career – averaging 25.5 minutes, 12.1ppg, and 4apg in 255 games. 

“Being big in basketball is a great advantage,” he said. “For a small player to make it, he has to work twice as hard. If you have the talent and motivation to work at it, you can make it.”

Following three and a half seasons in the Mile High City, Boykins found himself living out of his suitcase yet again for the next five years, playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, Charlotte Bobcats, Washington Wizards, and a return to the Bucks, before finishing his NBA career in 2012 with the Houston Rockets.

For a player that almost nobody wanted – despite proving that he was more than capable of running an offense – Boykins finished his NBA career earning over $16 million.

Earl’s 5,791 career points and thirteen-season NBA career placed him within the top thirteen of what would have been his draft class despite being feet and inches shorter than his peers.

His success against all odds inspired future undersized NBA stars like CJ McCollum.

He’s also one of the strongest pound-for-pound NBA players ever – bench pressing 315 pounds while weighing in at just 135. For those keeping score at home, that’s more than 2.3 times his body weight, and nearly equal to the weight of Shaquille O’Neal!

But rather than sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labor, Boykins has stayed involved in the game.

In addition to running his own basketball academy in Denver, he’s spent time on the benches of the Douglas County Huskies (high school), the Arkansas Razorbacks, and the UTEP (University of Texas El Paso) Miners.

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Written By

Life-long sports fan and avid basketball junkie in every sense of the word. The same passion I have for the Lakers translates to my extreme dislike for the Duke Blue Devils. As much as I cheer for the favorite and the dynasty, I appreciate and applaud the underdog and the grind whether you are a weekend warrior or a professional, both on and off the field.

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