CLEVELAND — It says a lot about Earl Boykins that in the moments before a Thursday night ceremony to retire his jersey at his high school alma mater, Cleveland Central Catholic High School, officials were trying to find Earl Boykins.
Boykins was sitting in the bleachers of the St. Stanislaus Social Center with his family and friends. As usual, The Man of the Hour was flying very much under the radar.
Bad pun. Remarkable story, his is.
Before the dimunitive Boykins played 13 NBA seasons, before he helped beat Duke in one of two Eastern Michigan NCAA tournament appearances, he helped drive and before most gave him a second thought — much less thought he’d eventually have his jersey retired twice — he was just a "basketball junkie," a kid who first played in St. Stan’s bingo hall/gym adjacent to Central Catholic at age 10 and felt a tingle coming back Thursday night, even as he just caught up with folks before the ceremony.
"Great memories here," Boykins said. "The smell of the building is something I’ll never forget. It’s always with me."
Now, his No. 10 is retired here. Three years ago, Boykins’ No. 11 jersey was retired in a ceremony at the Eastern Michigan University Convocation Center.
"This one is more special than the college jersey because this is where it all started for me, here in this building," he said. "To have the opportunity to share this with my family and some of my closest friends, it’s truly an honor."
He went from MAC Player of the Year to undrafted by the NBA, from waiver wire to tryout to 10-day contract to three playoff seasons with the Denver Nuggets, and he did it the same way he always did — aggressively. At Eastern Michigan and in 12 NBA stops, Boykins was listed at 5’5, 135 pounds.
He’s never been accused of being 5’5 and a half.
That’s partly why he so easily blended in before and during a big rivalry game for Central Catholic against Villa-Angela St. Joseph Thursday night — Boykins looks more like 30 than the 38 he turns this June — before he was given the microphone for the chance to tell a few stories and give a bunch of thank yous. Former teammates and coaches were on hand, and among the many stories told was one of when Boykins was late for an open gym before his high school senior season and had to play with the freshmen on his team.
Boykins brought his team back from an early deficit, the story goes, and as this particular pickup game tightened, the rest of the varsity team decided to triple-team Boykins and let the freshmen beat them. When his team took possession needing one basket to win, Boykins launched a shot from around halfcourt, before the triple team could get to him, and by the time the defense watched it go in Boykins had run off the floor in celebration because he knew it was going in.
The stories get better with age.
He wasn’t even five-feet tall when he first played in the St. Stan’s gym. He said he didn’t have many doubters then — "just a bunch of people who said I was going to grow" — but worked like he did, dribbling tennis balls to improve his ball-handlings and stay low to the ground and spending hours working on his jumpshot. That growth spurt never really did come, but Boykins didn’t let that deter his dreams.
"When you’re five-feet tall and you tell everybody you’re going to play Div. I basketball, that’s when the critics and the naysayers come out," Boykins said.
Now almost two years retired, he’s splitting time between Cleveland and Denver while he figures what he’s going to fully throw himself into. Something basketball-related is the ultimate answer even if he’s not sure exactly what, and he already has launched Boykins Basketball Academy with camp sessions in the Denver area.
Asked for a bit of nostalgia, Boykins said his favorite game in the St. Stan’s gym came in 1993, his junior year, when Central Catholic beat VASJ for the first time.
"They were stacked," Boykins recalled. "They had Melvin Levett, who went on to play at Cincinnati, London Fletcher (who just retired from the NFL) and a bunch of other really good players. That was a big win for us."
The point guard for that VASJ team was Babe Kwasniak, son of then-coach Tedd Kwasniak. Today, Babe is VASJ’s head coach and his father serves as an assistant. Before Thursday night’s game, Tedd Kwasniak recalled the first time he saw a young Boykins play in the St. Stan’s gym.
"He was dynamite," Tedd Kwasniak said. "I told (ex-Cleveland State coach) Kevin Mackey he was going to play Div. I someday. I bet a lot of people that he would. He was a little guy with a ponytail, but people couldn’t stay in front of him."
Yes, clean-cut, low-key and low to the ground Earl Boykins had a ponytail before he got to high school.
"Coach Kwas has a great memory," Boykins joked.
Before Thursday night’s ceremony, the old coach and the old rival point guard embraced.
"You made me a lot of money," Kwasniak told him.
Boykins made plenty himself, too.
"I’ve truly been blessed," he said. "I had a unique talent…it’s hard to explain, but the game was never hard for me, at any level, including the NBA. It was just a matter of getting the opportunity, and once that happened I was able to take advantage of it."