Fri, Nov 28, 2003 - Page 24 News List

The little man with heart sends team off to a strong start

AP , DENVER, COLORADO

Earl Boykins is a blur on the court, darting here, zigzagging there, handling the ball as if it were a yo-yo.

At 1.65m, the NBA's smallest player is a marvel in a sport dominated by giants. Coming off the bench, he has teamed with rookie sensation Carmelo Anthony to help lead the surprising Denver Nuggets to their best start in eight years.

"When you're out on the court, no one really cares about your height," he said. "They only care about what you're able to do. So I don't think of myself as a 5-5 player. I think of myself as an NBA player."

Nicknamed Earl the Squirrel in college because of his size, Boykins now is known by his teammates as Earl the Pearl. So small as a child that he was carried around in a gym bag, Boykins has turned his size into a big-time advantage.

One of the league's quickest players since breaking in with the New Jersey Nets in 1998, Boykins penetrates, dishes, disrupts and plays full-court defense. Now he has added scoring to his repertoire, averaging 13.5 points in an early bid for the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award.

He has scored in double figures in 10 games this season for the Nuggets, who were 8-6 going into Friday night's home game against the Dallas Mavericks. That includes 11 points in the fourth quarter of a 106-101 win over the Orlando Magic on Nov. 14, when Boykins finished with 27 points.

"When you're 5-5 you have to be able to do everything," he said. "Because anything you can't do, the negative people are going to hold it against you."

The negative people must include those NBA scouts who didn't think Boykins was worth drafting out of Eastern Michigan University.

"Not being drafted just set me back a little bit," Boykins said. "I always knew I would make it to this level. I just had to take the long road," including a year in the CBA.

Growing up, Boykins admired the play of Isiah Thomas, but he idolized his father, Cleveland police Officer Willie Williams, whose skills were on display only in neighborhood pickup games. By age 13, Boykins was invited to join those games.

Teammates say he is tough, and Boykins proves it. Although he weighs just 60kg, he can bench press 135kg (300 pounds).

"It's a shame that there's that 5-5 label on who he is," coach Jeff Bzdelik said. "He's not only quick, but he can make shots, can finish on drives, can create for his teammates. And he's a tenacious ... defender. He's just a darn good basketball player."

Boykins' instant offense has been a revelation. His best year came last season when he averaged 8.8 points at Golden State.

"Just more minutes," he explained. "The more minutes you get on the court, the more opportunities you get to score. It's just that simple.''

Denver's major free-agent acquisition in the offseason was point guard Andre Miller, but GM Kiki Vandeweghe knew he needed a competent backup if the team was to run at a feverish pace as planned. Boykins was a perfect fit, and he was signed to a five-year, US$12 million contract.

The signings reunited Miller and Boykins, who played together in Cleveland in 1999-2000.

"I'm part of the foundation as this franchise rebuilds," Boykins said. "I'm getting the chance that I didn't get in other places."

A crowd favorite in Denver, Boykins has made a habit of being a scoring threat late in games. With Golden State last season, he scored at least 10 points in the fourth quarter 12 times.

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