As a short sportswriter at 5’5 and one 1/2″, I always enjoy watching the professional athletes who compare to my stature and find success in the pros. After all, one of my favorite baseball players growing up in Pittsburgh was shortstop Freddie Patek who played for the Pirates—among other teams—all while only standing at about 64 inches in height.
When you think of pro sports, especially in football or basketball, size seems to matter. But that’s not always true. Plenty of men 5’7″ and under have left a legacy behind in their respective sport. You want to talk short in the NBA? How about Muggsy Bogues? All 5’3” of him.
Basketball on all levels has, for the longest time, been considered a tall man’s sport. But guys like Bogues ignored the stereotype and proved with ability comes success. Size did not stop Bogues from finding the basket and dishing the ball all over the place. As you may have guessed, his first name is not his birth name. Instead, his given name is Tyrone Curtis Bogues.
If you want to know the full story about how the little man became known by his name, the tale can be found here. In short, it came from street basketball where Bogues grew up in Baltimore. He began with the nickname “Apple,” assigned by his family. But once he got into basketball, he reminded friends of a character from the show “The Bowery Boys”. The character’s name, of course, was Buggsy. The name stuck and the rest is history.
Bogues would become the starting point guard for the Charlotte Hornets in the 1990s, finishing his career with 1,369 steals while fearing nobody one in the NBA. If you could put our next NBA player standing next to Bogues you might not be able to tell them apart. That’s because Spud Webb only stood 5’6.”
Like Bogues, Webb was very successful in the pros. Born Anthony Jerome Webb in Dallas, Texas, how Spud Webb got his nickname is a more colorful story than how Muggsy acquired his.
Spud Webb’s grandmother believed that when Webb was young, his head resembled the Soviet satellite Sputnik. So she began calling him “Sputnik” but later left it at “Spud.” In 1986, Webb did the unthinkable. He won the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest—beating Atlanta Hawks teammate Dominique Wilkins to do so. That same season, Webb finished the year averaging 11 points per game while playing 26 minutes per contest.
While other sports may not have he emphasis on height like the NBA does, some other professional’s height may surprise you. One of the greatest race car drivers of our time is the now retired Mario Andretti. While size is hardly a factor in car racing, I was surprised to find out that Andretti is only 5’7″.
Ask yourself: how would the late Bruce Lee have fared had he been an MMA fighter competing in the UFC? My belief is NO ONE would have touched him. When you look at photos of Bruce Lee you may not realize he is just 67″ in height. But there is no doubting that he was a very, very, dangerous man. If you’ve never seen his movie “Game of Death,” in it, he fights NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Keep in mind, Jabbar stands 7’2″.
In today’s NHL, many players hit the ice with size. The Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford once played goalie for the Penguins, all five feet and eight inches of him. One of the greatest players in NHL history, Henri Richard was only 5’7″. Soccer fans out there? The great Diego Maradona is just between Muggsy Bogues and Spud Webb at 5’5″.
In the National Football League, players come in all sizes. But rarely are they as small as one Jack Shapiro—who for one game played professional football as a running back while having a height of just an inch over five feet. His one season came in 1929, and for the Staten Island Stapletons. Today we have Darren Sproles who is only 5’6″. Only an inch shorter? That’s return specialist Trindon Holliday.
Thus far, we’ve talked about a lack of height. What about those who rise far above the average man? The tallest folks in professional sports. Obviously you are going to think NBA first, and why not? The NBA has an extensive history of very tall players. Some come from other countries, others American born. Yao Ming came to the U.S. from China, standing 7’6”.
But a man from Africa outdid the height of Ming—Manute Bol from Sudan—standing an incredible 7’7″. The difference was that Bol looked like a skeleton. He could not play the game very well but turned out to be very effective as a shot blocker. Bol was a very charitable human being before tragically passing away on June 19, 2010 from acute kidney failure and complications from Stevens-Johnson syndrome. He was just 47 years old. The only NBA player to ever match Bol’s height? Gheorghe Mureșan from Romania.
Then there are those in the NBA who rivaled those two men for stature. Shawn Bradley was just an inch shorter. Chuck Nevitt stood 7’5″. Also coming close were Ralph Sampson, Mark Eaton and Rik Smits—all standing roughly 7’4”.
Back in the NFL, Richard Sligh was a defensive tackle drafted by the Oakland Raiders in 1967. That was his only year in the pros, but Sligh stood seven feet tall. The Dallas Cowboys’ Ed “Too Tall” Jones came close at 6’9″. In pro boxing, Nikolai Valuev from Russia had a 52-fight career—losing only twice— while standing seven feet tall. Valuev owns a victory over the great Evander Holyfield. Would you like to box a 7-foot, 330-pounder?
How about some more hockey height? Try Zdeno Chára on for size. Chára played for the Boston Bruins, lacing up skates responsible for holding up a 6’9″ frame. In the swimming pool, there’s Rolandas Gimbutis—who competed for Lithuania in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympics while stretching the waters at a height of 6’10 and 1/2″. Currently on the American Tennis Pro circuit, 6’11” indicates the height of Ivo Karlović from Croatia. Karlović turned pro in 2000 and is currently ranked 24th on tour.
Finally, we return to the shorties. Roy Worters would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1969 after playing from 1925-1937 with three teams (New York Americans, Montreal Canadians, Pittsburgh Pirates). Worters was smaller than your writer here! He stood just 5’3”. Oddly enough, Worters died at the age of 57 in 1957 from complications of throat cancer. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame posthumously.
For the shorter people out there, if you’ve never met any of diminutive athletes listed here, it might be interesting to tower over a professional athlete or look down on one. That is, if the chance ever presents itself.
In your mind, who is the most memorable athlete to either be shockingly short or incredibly tall? Sound off below! And for more form Harv Aronson, check out his website!