by | Mar 12, 1998 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

It’s Earl’s World now.

I see Earl Shirts and Earl Shorts. I see Earl Shoes and Earl Laces. I see Earl-y Bird Specials and Earl-y Breakfast Combos, with Earl Toast and Earl Jam
— not the kind of jam you usually talk about in basketball, although he can do that, too. Well, he says he can jam. Says he dunked once or twice back in high school, just to show the guys he could. But now, he sighs, “I don’t really see the point. Why risk hurting myself for two points? I can get two points with a lay-up.”

You see that? Logic. That’s an Earl Trait, too. He’s Logic-earl.

Wait. I gotta write that down.

Get ready, folks. Earl-y Days and Earl-y Nights. Can’t you feel the headlines simmering for this guy? Oh, sure, he’s low to the ground. Sure, the top of his head is just 65 inches above earth. But has any player soared more in recent weeks in the state of Michigan? Has any player been held in — and you’ll note my choice of words here — higher esteem?

Earl Boykins, with 89 points in three tournament games, has led Eastern Michigan to the golden arches, the gateway to glory, the NCAA Big Dance. Tonight it begins. The Eagles take on Michigan State. I have watched a lot of basketball. I can smell a star a mountain away. I see Earl coming over the mountain.

Wait. Earl Comes Over the Mountain. Good marketing slogan.

I gotta write that down.

“If he were 6-foot-3 . . .” I say to his coach, Milton Barnes.

“If he were 6-foot-3,” Barnes interrupts, “he’d be the best player in the country.”

The best in the country? Well. Consider that, at 5-feet-5, one of America’s shortest college guards, Earl is still the second-leading scorer in the nation, averaging 26 points a game. He leads his conference in scoring and three-pointers. He owns his school’s career assist record, and with a good game tonight will own its career scoring mark as well.

This is a rhapsody in the making. A soon-to-be national story. I want in on the ground floor.

Wait. That could be his nickname. “Earl — the Ground Floor.”

I gotta write that down.

Bring on the Spartans

Can you imagine if Eastern knocks off Michigan State tonight and advances to play Princeton or UNLV, maybe upsets one of them as well? The story will be Nation-earl. You can almost predict the headlines. The New York Times will write: “Diminutive Guard Leads Unlikely Team.” The Washington Post will write:
“Boykins, Same Height as Monica Lewinsky, Leads EMU.” USA Today will write:
“Earl Is One Of US.”

The embrace will widen. And why not? Isn’t this just the kind of guy basketball needs? Let’s face it, fans feel less and less connected to this sport, at the college and certainly at the NBA level. These guys are so rich, so aloof, so arrogant, so …big.

But not Earl. He is up to your lapel and nearer your heart. He plays with ferocity but maintains a quiet, unassuming manner. He is not Napoleon. He sees nothing wrong with being 5-5.

“When I guard bigger guys, they stop playing their usual game,” he says, sitting on a wooden box in a gym, looking very much like a student. “Big guys spend most of their time trying to push me around and bump me. They try to post me up. They think it’s an individual battle.

“I throw them off. It’s my advantage. If I were 6-foot-1, they’d probably play better against me.”

When life gives you lemons, make Lemon-earl.

I gotta write that down.

Bring on the world

This is a story with unlimited potential, the son of an Ohio cop who learned the game from his dad, his role model. This is a kid who fights against stereotype. When he was cut by the USA Basketball squad during tryouts a few years ago, Earl asked why. They said they were afraid he wouldn’t handle taller players in international competition. What did he do? He came back the next year and led the United States to a gold medal in the World University Games. Now they’re talking about drafting him second round in the NBA.

Earl’s World.

Forget Spud Webb. Forget Muggsy Bogues. Earl didn’t look to them when he was growing up. “My game wasn’t like theirs. I was more like Isiah Thomas.”

So imagine another Isiah — in a smaller shoe size. Imagine that kind of tenacious play, quickness, sharp-shooting, ball-control. Then imagine a sweet-smiling kid who, the other night, at his senior banquet, surprised everyone by taking the microphone and thanking his teammates individually for what they had done for him during his EMU career.

He also prodded each one lightly to become a better player.

I see David Letterman posting him up. I see Jerry Springer doing a show, “My 6-foot Sister Is in Love With a Shorter Man!” I see Oprah shouting, “You go, Earl!”

I see America falling in love, round by round, with a guy who makes us feel that all things are possible, even when we’re told they’re not. Call Earl Klugh. Call Earl Scheib. Call Earl The Pearl and the Duke of Earl. They are in danger of losing their name recognition.

Coming over the mountain. The Ground Floor. I don’t know how far the Eagles will go, but I know how far Earl’s story could rise. This is just the beginning, men. Just the start. This is gonna be big, really big.

So to speak.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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