Bucks Back When ... Earl Boykins, Part I

At 5-5, Earl Boykins is the shortest
player to ever play for the Bucks,
and the second-shortest in NBA
history. (Getty Images)

February 22, 2007
by Truman Reed / special to Bucks.com

Finding the crossroads at which 5-foot-5-inch, 133-pound Earl Boykins embarked on his unlikely route to a professional basketball career requires a lot of backtracking.

A fast and easy search might take you to New Jersey, where he made his entrance into the NBA in 1998; or Cleveland, where he received his first significant NBA minutes in 1999 and 2000; or Los Angeles, where he tripled those minutes after signing on with the Clippers in 2001-02; or maybe Golden State, where he nearly doubled his playing time again in 2002-03 and doubled his scoring average, too.

Before he could set foot on an NBA court, though, Boykins had to travel the low roads of the Continental Basketball Association with the Rockford (Ill.) Lightning. After a slow start there in 1998, he found the fast lane, tearing through such biways as Sioux Falls, S.D., Fargo, N.D., Yakima, Wash. and Fort Wayne, Ind. with afterburners of 21.6 points and 9.3 assists per game.

And in order to establish himself as a pro prospect at all, he had to compile the necessary college credentials, which he did in record-setting fashion at Eastern Michigan University. He left the Ypsilanti campus as an honorable-mention All-American, the nation's second-leading scorer, EMU's career assists leader and its second all-time scorer.

Those achievements did not seem possible just four years earlier, when Boykins' coach listed him at 5-7 on his roster because he was embarrassed to list his actual height and admit to having such a diminutive player on his team.

Boykins shattered his coach's inferiority complex with his own bold confidence. He told his coach that he would become the best player he had ever coached, and he did precisely that. He won the starting point guard job as a freshman, went on to start 121 games over the next four years, and led EMU to 87 wins during that span.

Eastern won two Mid-America Conference championships and made two NCAA Tournament apperances during the Boykins era. Behind Boykins' 23 points, the Eagles knocked off Duke in the opening round of the 1996 NCAAs.

To arrive at Boykins' definitive crossroads, though, you would have to drive south across the Michigan/Ohio state line, head east and keep going until you reached Cleveland -- 126th and Buckeye streets, to be exact.

It was there, you see, that Boykins wore out his sneakers on his very first proving ground, the backyard courts where he and the neighbor kids would go at it from dawn to dusk, and quite often beyond that.

One of those kids was Ruben Patterson, who now reports for work just four lockers away from Boykins.

As both Boykins and Patterson learned, they had to establish themselves in Cleveland and survive its mean streets before their basketball careers could take them anywhere, let alone the NBA.

And Boykins faced one significant hurdle that Patterson did not.

"I wasn't always the shortest kid in my class," Boykins said, "But I was never the tallest."

The story goes that Earl Boykins' first significant exposure to basketball came as a 3-year-old, when his father, Willie Williams, would carry him along in his duffel bag when he went to the neighborhood recreation center to play basketball.

Earl must have been an attentive onlooker, because it was during the ensuing years that his aspirations to become a player began.

"My inspiration was my dad, Willie Williams," Boykins said. "He was the basketball player that I wanted to be like. He was the guy that I wanted to be better than. And he was my inspiration."

Williams, who has spent the past 27 years on the City of Cleveland police force, 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."

Boykins has had that confidence -- and the tenacity to do whatever it takes to get what he wants -- for as long as Patterson, his lifelong friend, can remember.

"Earl always used to talk about me not being a great basketball player back when we were kids," Patterson said. "I was a football player. Whenever we played basketball, Earl was always like, 'You suck. You suck.' We were about 12 years old.

"He was always littler than me, so he always wanted to talk trash. He was always so competitive, he always loved the game of basketball, and he has a great heart."

Boykins and Patterson no doubt left a strong impression in their neighborhood.

"As kids, man, we were the stars of the street," Patterson said. "We lived on the same street. I'll never forget that. My uncle and his auntie have a baby together. Our families grew up together as kids, playing cards and playing basketball. Later on, we played AAU basketball and traveled together. He's just a wonderful friend."

Patterson says watching Boykins back then evoked much the same reaction that other players, coaches and fans have when they see him play now.

"It's always been the same, watching him play, ever since he was a kid - 'Look at that little so-and-so ... watch what he's doing out there,' Patterson said. "He'd just go out there and bring it. He'd always go at you. He always plays so hard, and he don't care how big you are; he's going to go at you. That's what I've always loved about him."

As Boykins and Patterson reached their teens, they continued to pound the neighborhood pavement, strengthening their friendship and honing their basketball skills.

Keep reading ... Part II