The NBA I Grew Up Watching: The Undersized Underdogs

We’re used to basketball withdrawals in August or September, not mid-March. But here we are, feeling a weird emptiness without the NBA after the league rightfully and smartly shut things down on March 11.

It didn’t take long for us to realize how much we love hoops and how much more we’ll cherish it once it’s back. During the unforeseen interruption, the staff at The Basketball Writers have been sharing stories and insight about the aspects of the game that inspire us the most.

Today, I’m here to talk about the little guys.

Like many fans throughout the sport’s history, I gravitated to some of the NBA’s shorter players and was motivated by their success in a sport filled with towers. As someone who was always one of the shortest players on the court, I could relate to these diminutive pioneers.

Watching them thrive on the world’s biggest stage made me believe I could be good at the sport despite being undersized.

Don’t get me wrong, I was in awe of Michael Jordan as much as any kid growing up in the 90’s (do yourself a favor and check out Bob Bajek’s awesome TBW piece on the Bulls). However, when it came to personal inspiration and motivation as a young fan and player, I became more captivated by the compact maestros.

Here are a few guards on the shorter end of the spectrum that inspired my love of the game:

Avery Johnson: THE GRITTY GENERAL

Height: 5’10”

Years Active: 1988-89 to 2003-04

Stingy, crafty and skilled, the “Little General” served a crucial role in the San Antonio Spurs’ rise to prosperity. While twin towers David Robinson and Tim Duncan earned much of the national acclaim, Johnson was the setup man whose end-to-end energy was the heartbeat of San Antonio’s attack.

After bouncing around the league during his first few seasons, he enjoyed the prime of his career as the Spurs’ quarterback. Johnson posted five different seasons with seven-plus assists per game, and he epitomized the basketball virtue of seeking the best shot for his teammates.

As a scorer, Johnson did most of his work from mid-range or closer, often using what we now term as the “Rondo fake” during drives to the rim. He used hesitations, quick cuts and tight angles to find buckets. And although he wasn’t a prolific perimeter shooter, he hit the championship-clinching corner jumper against the Knicks during the final minute of Game 5 of the 1999 NBA Finals.

Some short guards shine because they’re incredibly agile or dynamically talented. That wasn’t the case for Johnson. The Little General had some speed and skill, but he was more of a model of the scrappy, underdog guard. He excelled primarily because he was tenacious and diligent in his craft.

Jeph Duarte of Pounding the Rock noted how Johnson’s peak coincided with Gregg Popovich’s rise to head coach in 1996:

With Pop now head coach, Johnson began to flourish. The Little General was running the floor. Johnson designed the spacing and pacing, while all his teammates benefited from his ability to work himself into the paint just as readily as he could feed the shooters. He could shake his defender and moved well without the ball.

It wasn’t surprising that Johnson’s passion for the game led him to coaching. During his tenure as an NBA and NCAA skipper, he’s exuded the same enthusiasm and competitive fire that made him an overachieving player.

Kevin Johnson: UNDERRATED ASSASSIN

Height: 6’1″

Years Active: 1987-88 to 1999-00

Growing up, a couple of cousins I looked up to were huge fans of Kevin Johnson and the Phoenix Suns, so they helped me appreciate how electrifying he was. It’s impossible to overestimate his value to those late-80s and early 90s Phoenix squads.

KJ delivered a potent mix of scoring and playmaking that catalyzed the Suns’ offense. He was an aggressive slasher, talented mid-range shooter and prolific passer. He had a tremendous feel for keeping opponents off-balance, and he had the handles and body control to maneuver to the rim against almost anyone.

I wouldn’t classify him as an elite athlete, but he could climb the ladder when he needed to.

His relentlessness and fearlessness on drives to the rim are what I remember the most. Johnson was tireless in his efforts to get to the hoop, even if he was in a crowd and guarded by taller foes. He averaged more than seven free-throws per game during the prime of his career.

He also averaged eight-plus assists during eight seasons, including double-digit dimes for four straight years from 1989-1992. His skill as a table-setter amplified the scoring prowess of Suns standouts like Charles Barkley, Dan Majerle and Tom Chambers.

With Johnson at the helm, the Suns were top-five in Offensive Rating for seven straight seasons (1988-89 to 1994-95). That’s a monumental accomplishment that doesn’t get talked about enough.

Johnson tangled with some of the NBA’s best franchises of all time throughout his career. That included the Showtime Lakers, the three-peating Chicago Bulls and repeat champion Houston Rockets. Johnson’s frequent runner-up status should be viewed as a badge of honor much more than a disappointment.

John Stockton: A GIVER AND A THIEF

Height: 6’1″

Years Active: 1984-85 to 2002-03

Height and vertical agility are extremely valuable traits in basketball. John Stockton was proof that you didn’t need them to be an elite player.

He dominated the game laterally and horizontally, carving out a Hall-of-Fame career fueled by surgically precise passing and deft defensive hands.

While I was in awestruck by MJ’s dominance in the 1990s, I was also moved by his championship adversary. Stockton’s resourcefulness and world-class skills sparked Utah’s onslaught to the top of the Western Conference. He led the Jazz to five Western Conference Finals, including back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals.

Many fans know Stockton as the NBA’s all-time assists leader, and deservedly so. His vision and timing along with Karl Malone’s picks, pops, dives and dunks shredded the league for nearly two decades.

But Stockton’s also the league’s all-time steals leader, so let’s shed some light on his thievery.

He was such a disruptive defender because he had tremendous anticipation, timing and hands. Just as Stockton saw plays develop before others on offense, he also diagnosed plays early on defense. He often blindsided ball-handlers with swift robberies as a help defender, intercepted unsuspecting passers, and blew up would-be layups by sliding into optimal position.

Stockton was one of several Hall-of-Famers whose careers were trumped by Air Jordan. But much like Kevin Johnson, we shouldn’t let tough comparisons diminish how remarkable Stockton’s career was.

Ernie DiGregorio: The showman SNIPER

Height: 6’0″

Years Active: 1973-74 to 1977-78

“Ernie D” was before my time, so I’m bending the rules a bit. But he’s getting a shout-out here because my Dad enlightened me about D’s outstanding passing abilities. After a standout college career at Providence, DeGregorio gave Buffalo Braves fans their money’s worth in the mid-1970s during his brief, yet dazzling career.

The 6’ point man had a playmaking repertoire as deep as anyone outside of Pete Maravich at that time. He manipulated defenders with misdirection plays and no-look dimes, and his long-range passing accuracy was incredible.

He routinely zipped behind-the-back darts on the money, and he could execute those smoothly with either hand. DiGregorio steered defenders to lean one way, shielded with his body and slung countless behind-the-back passes. The bullseye dime at the 1:20 mark of this montage is my personal favorite:

Ernie D only played five full seasons in the NBA thanks to a knee injury, yet he made the most of his time. He led the NBA in assists per game and free-throw percentage during his rookie year, and he set a new NBA record free-throw percentage in 1976-77 (94.5 percent). He also helped take the Braves to the playoffs twice.

Could DiGregorio survive in today’s NBA? Probably not. But the beauty of sports is that we can appreciate players for what they brought to their respective eras.

THEIR LEGACY LIVES ON

These standouts and several others like Spud Webb, Muggsy Bogues, Damon Stoudamire, Nick Van Exel and Allen Iverson paved the way for the remaining undersized dynamos in today’s game. Their playing style, perseverance and innovation among the trees is emulated and perfected among diminutive heroes today.

Chris Paul has Stockton’s two-way craftiness. Kemba Walker has Iverson’s shifty offensive moves. Kyle Lowry has Avery Johnson’s tenacity and leadership. Trae Young has DiGregorio’s long-range passing flair. The list goes on.

Length and vertical agility are increasingly valuable in the NBA, but there will always be avenues to success for little guys who want it bad enough.

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