The Paradox, Part I

Boykins rose above inherited expectations

By Truman Reed

Earl Boykins

"I was expected to know how to play basketball."

At 5 feet-5 inches, Earl Boykins holds the distinction of being the second-shortest player in National Basketball Association history.

One could make a strong case, though, that he is the all-time greatest paradox in the annals of the sport.

Even the most astute basketball historian would be hard-pressed to find another player who has exceeded the high expectations and dispelled the doubts that Boykins has since he first set foot on a basketball court.

The expectations actually began building even before Boykins played his first game. They date back to when Earl was 3 years old and his father, Willie Williams, would carry his tiny son along in his duffel bag to his basketball games at the neighborhood recreation center in Cleveland, Ohio.

"It was weird," Boykins admitted. "Growing up, I never experienced any doubts. I never experienced them because my dad was sort of a local basketball hero around Cleveland.

"I was expected to know how to play basketball."

Boykins didn't let those father/son trips go waste, either. He paid close attention to what his dad was doing and eventually began emulating him.

"My dad was the basketball player that I wanted to be like," Earl said. "He was the guy that I wanted

to be better than. And he was my inspiration."

Williams, a City of Cleveland police officer, was a role model for his son both on and off the basketball court.

"We really didn't talk much about his job, because I realized being a police officer is a thankless job," Earl said. "Everyone hates you, but when something goes wrong, they want you to come and save them. That's the reality of being a policeman, especially in the inner city.

"He always instilled confidence in me that if you have confidence and work hard at whatever you want to do in life, you can accomplish anything."

When the time came that Earl was invited to join his father's pick-up games, he used the experiences to his advantage.

"Actually, the game of basketball has always been easy for me," he said. "I've always had a great understanding of the game. I know that's hard to explain. But I picked it up when I was very young, and I always played with older guys. I think that's what helped me the most.

"When you play with grown men, you're not as fast and not as strong as them, so you learn how to think the game. And because I could always think the game faster than the guys my age, it made the game so much easier for me."

As Earl matured, he said he wasn't always the shortest kid in his class, but added that he was never the tallest, either. Along the way, he developed a keen appreciation of the gifts God had given him and an understanding of how to use them.

He doesn't claim credit for that.

"My strength was in my upbringing," Earl said. "I went to a Catholic school all my life, from kindergarten through 12th grade. That was my strength. My strength is knowing that if you work hard, you can accomplish anything, but at the same time, I know I've been blessed. I've been unbelievably blessed.

"Guys see that I'm 5-5, 133, and I don't know how I'm able to do some of the things I do. It's just a God-given talent to play the game of basketball."

The iron-willed Boykins played his prep basketball, appropriately enough, for the Ironmen of Cleveland Central Catholic High School. He did not emerge as an instant star, and he had to make adjustments that would prove beneficial within the scope of his career.

"My high school career was unlike many guys in the NBA," Boykins said. "I only averaged 10 points in my junior year of high school.

"My first coach was a guy who taught fundamentals. The thing that made that important was that the higher I got in basketball, I was able to adjust to just being a natural point guard. He left my junior year, and my senior year, I had a new coach who allowed me to shoot the ball."

Boykins seized that opportunity. He led the state of Ohio in scoring with an average of over 26 points per game, and he guided Central Catholic to a 24-2 record. The team advanced all the way to the elite eight of the Ohio state tournament before falling.

Those who followed Boykins' basketball exploits from ground zero through his years with the Central Catholic Ironmen would have to admit that he had exceeded the lofty expectations he inherited.

As Boykins' career continued to unfold, however, he would have to prove that he could rise above scrutiny of an entirely different variety. Visit again soon for Part II of this series.

Part II | Part II