Height is a massive advantage in the game of basketball. It turns out, it’s easier to influence the game if you’re closer to the goal. And so, professional basketball players tend to be very, very tall. That makes it all the more impressive that, against all odds, these 13 guys have managed to thrive as the shortest NBA players in history. I went with 13 because those last 4 guys are all 5′ 8″ tall.
It is wildly difficult to thrive in the NBA when you’re under 6′. For almost half a century now, average height in the NBA has hovered around 6′ 6″. Everyone on this list is under 5′ 8″ tall. If you’ve ever hooped in a mismatch yourself, you know it takes some work. Just imagine trying to perform at a world class level on a stage where your average opponent has 10″ on you.
So this is a list of the shortest NBA players in history. But if you ask me, this is also a list of some of the greatest hoops heroes of all time. These guys all played the game on the hardest settings, and as you go through the list, you’ll find that they’ve still all managed to leave their mark.
The Shortest NBA Players in History
What’s fascinating here, is that not a single one of these guys is currently in the league. If you look at the 10 tallest players in NBA history, there are currently several players who are still currently active. Not the case here.
Muggsy Bogues (5′ 3″)
Bogues was able to use his insanely small size as an asset in this sport built for height. The guy’s speed, agility, motor, and court perception had him competing on an incredibly high level, even as the shortest NBA pro of all-time. Bogues basically cannot ever get enough credit.
I flipped on Hardwood Classics awhile back to land on an old Charlotte Hornets NBA Finals appearance. Muggsy Bogues was in the lineup, and immediately apparent on the court. You can’t miss this guy buzzing around the court at top speed. It’s dizzying.
And it’s fun to imagine what would have happened if he had just been a little taller. It may well be that his height was part of his advantage. Would he have had the same chip on his shoulder, the same drive to succeed, if he had been taller? Or would he have just had the same court vision and limitless motor if he was 6’2″ and completely dominated the league?
Earl Boykins (5′ 5″)
Out of Cleveland, Boykins was easily among the top High School players in his region in the late 90’s. But at 5’5″, his viability in the NBA was understandably questionable.
Teams weren’t willing to take the risk, and Boykins did not get drafted. However, he was able to pick up short contracts with a variety of NBA teams in his early years. And finally, in his 6th season (2003-2004), he found a long-term contract and a key role with the Denver Nuggets.
In the end, he would have a pretty impressive NBA career, stretching from 1998-2012 with a brief stint in Italy. Boykins currently coaches High School basketball in Texas.
Mel Hirsch (5′ 6″)
Mel Hirsch played 13 games for the Boston Celtics during the inaugural 1946-1947 BAA season. This was the first officially recognized season of the NBA, and the first season of the team known today as the Boston Celtics, one of the two oldest NBA teams in existence.
And Hirsch stood for 40 years as the shortest player in NBA history. It took Muggsy Bogues to jump up and grab the title away from him in 1987.
Spud Webb (5′ 6″)
There wasn’t much faith that Webb would be drafted. Plenty of scouts predicted he would end up in Europe, or playing with the Globetrotters. But Spud Webb ended up going to the Pistons in the 4th round of the 1985 draft.
But the Pistons apparently got spooked, because they released Webb before the season even started. Back on the grind again, he managed to get a tryout with the Hawks. This time he nailed it, and by opening day he had secured a roster spot.
He would go on from there to a remarkable career. He did well with the Hawks, but had an even better run with Sacramento later on, averaging over 10 ppg and playing over 30 minutes a game in each of his 4 seasons with the team.
And of course, we can’t overlook the fact that, in 1986, Spud Webb won the dunk contest. He beat out Dominique Wilkins and remains to this day the shortest dunk contest champion of all time.
There’s a solid case to be made for Spud Webb as the greatest sub 6-foot hooper of all time. It’s between him and Muggsy for sure. He’s currently the President of Basketball Operations for the Mavericks G-League Affiliate, the Texas Legends.
Red Klotz (5′ 7″)
Klotz only played 11 games with the Baltimore Bullets of the BAA in 1948. That’s more than enough to earn him the title of the shortest NBA player in history with an NBA title (so long as you count the BAA, of course).
Klotz was a true hooper. He played actively in the earliest days of pro basketball and is credited with the formation of the Washington Generals, a team that toured with and played exhibition games against the Globetrotters for over 40 years.
Playing with his team, he would become widely recognized as the losingest pro hooper in history. The Generals were built as foil to the Globetrotters, designed to lose as part of the show, and they lost over 14,000 games to the Globetrotters. They won 2. Only 1 was officially recognized by the Globetrotters.
But one of those games came on Jan 5, 1971, where, at the age of 50, Klotz hit the game winner. Red Klotz’s impact on the game is sure to be minimized, but a character like this is just right to stoke the fire in that special kind of basketball heart. Red passed in 2014 at the age of 93.
Wataru Misaka (5′ 7″)
Wat Misaka was born in Ogden Utah in 1923, second generation Japanese-American. In a time and place where not being white earned you a firm position on the fringe of society, especially in Ogden, Utah, Wat found some complicated tolerance in his athleticism.
Misaka played High School ball, and went on to play for the Utes in College, going all the way to a 1947 NIT title. And that same year, he was drafted to the Knicks in the BAA draft, becoming not only the first NBA player of Asian descent, but the first non-white player to play in the NBA. Interesting to note another iconic hooper of Asian descent playing for the Knicks.
He would only play 3 games before getting cut, at which point he elected to return home to Utah to pursue an engineering degree, at the time an equally lucrative and far more reliable career path. Wat lived out the rest of his days in Utah, passing in 2019 at the age of 95.
Greg Grant (5′ 7″)
Greg is notable for having been discovered on a playground court in his hometown of Trenton, New Jersey. He had been a High School star, but had dropped out of college and was working at a fish market when he was spotted and recruited to local Trenton State College.
At Trenton State he would go on to lead Division III scoring in 1989. Grant was selected 52nd by the Phoenix Suns in the 1989 draft.
Grant would go on to play for 6 NBA teams between 1989 and 1996. His story is detailed in his autobiography, 94 Feet and Rising: The Journey of Greg Grant to the NBA and Beyond. He would go on to coach basketball in Trenton, where he grew up, and currently runs a sports academy there.
Keith Jennings (5′ 7″)
Jennings had a solid College Run with East Tennessee State University. He won the auspicious (if not necessarily coveted) Frances Pomeroy Naismith award in 1991. This is an award given to men under 6′ and women under 5′ 8″ who excel at the college level.
He went undrafted in 1991, but entered the league under free agency and was playing for the Warriors by 1992. He had 3 decent seasons with the Warriors. He started 24 games in his final season with the team.
However, in 1995, he was drafted to the Toronto Raptors in the expansion draft. The Raptors never let Jennings touch the court. It’s a bummer, as he may have had another season or two with Golden State.
Jennings went on to coach at the college and Hiugh School level. He currently coaches at his alma mater, Culpeper County High School, in Culpeper, Virginia.
Monte Towe (5′ 7″)
Let’s not bury the lede here. Monte Towe is credited, along with his NC State teammate David Thompson, as the inventor of the alley-oop. One might imagine that the beloved technique was born of Towe’s desire to be involved himself, in the bombastic yet unattainable dunking action. I suppose the play could have gone both ways, with Thompson dishing. I haven’t found any footage from those 1972-1973 NC games to confirm.
Towe would join the ABA’s Denver Nuggets alongside Thompson. That 1975 Nuggets team would appear in the ABA finals, marking the teams first and final championship finals appearance until they claimed the title in 2023.
Given the ABA’s interest in theatrics, those 1975 Nuggets would have been well aware of the value of drafting this notable duo. The following year, the Nuggets joined the NBA. While Thompson would remain for some time, Towe was waived after that Nuggets inaugural NBA season.
Yuta Tabuse (5′ 8″)
Heralded as the ‘Japanese Jordan’, Yuta played 4 games wih the Phoenix Suns in 2004, becoming the first ever Japanese-born player to see court time in a regular season NBA game.
Tabuse spent a number of years bouncing around development leagues in the US, but never made it back to NBA play, outside of several Summer League appearances.
In 2008, Tabuse returned to Japan. He continues to play professionally in Japan for Utsonomiya Brex of the Japanese B. League, impressively deep into his 40’s at this point.
Charlie Criss (5′ 8″)
Another legendary Hawk to add to this list, Charlie Criss went a stretch in the early eighties as the shortest player in the league. His most successful run was in 1981-1982 season where he played for the San Diego Clippers alongside Bill Walton, starting 20 games and averaging around 13 PPG.
Criss returned to the Hawks in 1983 where he would retire in 1985. Spud Webb joined the team the following year. I wonder if that helped them see the advantage of a little guy in the lineup when they picked up Webb.
Criss would go on to coach in the minors. And older Hawks fans may recognize Criss as a onetime color commentator for Atlanta.
Dino Martin (5′ 8″)
Dino was among the first Georgetown Hoyas to go pro. He played a couple of season with the Providence Steamrollers of the BAA and went on to coach Boston College for a time, Bob Cousy taking the position shortly after his departure.
An interesting little bit, relevant only to deep fans of 70’s comedy. Martin’s other sport was tennis, and after coaching Boston College, he became a tennis pro at Kirtland Country Club in Willoughby, OH. The son of a close friend and fellow pro, Doug Kenney worked for Martin at the club while in High School.
Doug Kenney is the co-founder of National Lampoon and a producer and writer of both Caddyshack and Animal House. Kenney’s impact on American comedy is difficult to overstate.
Willie Somerset (5′ 8″)
Somerset played 8 games for the Baltimore Bullets during the 1965-66 season. While that was his only season in the NBA, he would go on to 2 more seasons in the ABA, where he put up far more impressive stats.
Markquis Nowell (5′ 8″)
Markquis Nowell went undrafted in 2023, then picked up a 2-way contract with the Raptors in July. After a great showing at Summer League, he seems to have secured a deep roster spot. So, while Nowell has yet to make his first official regular season NBA appearance, he’s got a real strong chance at seeing his first trickle of NBA floor minutes this season and taking the throne as the shortest active NBA player and the only name on this list to be currently rostered.
The most impactful bit of information here, something quite flattering to the human spirit, is that these guys are able to compete against overwhelming odds. And it’s clear hat the type of character required to do this is noteworthy beyond just basketball, as there are some fascinating stories in here.
I had a friend once who had tattoo’d the words, ‘virtue thrives under oppression’ on his forearm. It’s root is a latin phrase, and the phrase itself commonly appears as a family motto or element of a family crest. I don’t suppose that height was in any way what the original author had in mind as ‘oppression”, but it works for my understanding.