By Jeff Rozen
Tyler Ulis. We’ve all fallen in love with him- his heart, his fearlessness, and his dazzling point guard skills. How many of us would disagree with Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy’s assessment of him as “the best point guard in college basketball?”
Not many, especially if you live outside the sleazy confines of the Gene Snyder Freeway.
All this love for the little fella has me reminiscing about players who, though short in stature, stood tall on the court. This includes a handful of the NBA’s most legendary names. You have to start with the 5-10 Bob Cousy, the legendary guard from Holy Cross’s 1947 NCAA championship team. The Cooz, as he became affectionately known, is still considered one of the greatest point guards of all time. He teamed up with Bill Russell to lead the Boston Celtics to their first six NBA titles, establishing what is still the NBA’s greatest dynasty.
There have been others. Calvin Murphy, who played 13 years with the Rockets franchise, was a phenomenal scorer and at 5-9 is the shortest NBA player ever inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. That’s a worthy goal for Tyler! Then there was Muggsy Bogues, a defensive terror who at 5-3 was the shortest player in NBA history.
And who can ever forget Spud Webb and current mighty mite Nate Robinson, who, at 5-7 and
5-9 respectively, somehow found enough spring in their legs to win the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest?
Great memories, all. But if you’re like me, you can’t think about basketball for long without thinking of Kentucky Basketball. With that being the case, it’s impossible to consider the excellence of Tyler Ulis without recalling other Wildcat guards who, though vertically challenged, carved out a place in UK’s illustrious history- and in the hearts of the Big Blue Nation.
You have to start with Ralph Beard. He was one of Rupp’s immortal Fabulous Five, and there are many old timers who still contend that the 5-10 Beard was the greatest guard in UK history. Many who saw him compared him to Bob Cousy, and more than one believed he was even better. Tragically, Beard was forever tainted by the gambling scandals which engulfed college basketball in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. He played two years in the NBA, and was then banned for life for his role in point shaving while in college.
Fast forward twenty years. From the basketball hotbed of Mason County, 5-10 Ronnie Lyons was one of the most beloved Wildcats of the 1970s. A scoring machine for the Royals as a prepster, he became known for his speed, hustle and outside shooting on Rupp’s last team, and Joe B. Hall’s first two. He somehow picked up the nickname “The Worm,” and I can still recall Cawood referring to him by that moniker as I listened to his call on the radio.
In the early 1980s, the UK roster boasted not one, but two players under 6 feet, both from Kentucky and both crowd favorites. A special mention first to Leroy Byrd, who at 5-5 was the shortest player in modern history for the Wildcats. The Bryan Station product earned the nickname “Baby Magic,” though in truth he was more “Baby” than “Magic,” playing a total of only 149 minutes in three seasons from 1984-86.
More magical was the 5-11 Dicky Beal, a standout from Covington Holmes High School who was the starting point guard on the 1984 Final Four team which featured Sam Bowie and Melvin Turpin. Beal was hampered on and off by injuries throughout his career (1981-84), but when healthy he was one of the fastest and most explosive guards in UK history. Never a great shooter, Beal’s strengths were his blinding speed, leaping, and his ability to harass opposing point guards on defense.
Next in line was another Kentuckian, 5-9 Travis Ford of Madisonville. Ford- who originally signed with Missouri but transferred to UK after his freshman season- was a basketball wizard, a consummate point guard with deceptive speed and quickness. But what really set Travis apart was his phenomenal shooting. In 1992-93, Ford shot an incredible 52.9% (101-191) from three, helping to propel the Cats to their first Final Four in 9 years. For his career, he shot 44.5%, good for number 4 on UK’s all time 3-point field goal percentage list, which happens to feature some guy named Cameron Mills at the #2 spot.
(Maybe you’ve heard of him?)
And so, Tyler Ulis follows in the small but significant footsteps of these great Wildcats of the past. With his playmaking, defense, and scoring ability- his current season average of 13.4 ppg trails only Travis Ford’s 13.6 ppg in 92-93 among these players- Ulis may well turn out to be the best Little Big Man in UK history.