ATLANTA — Standing next to bulky center Tree Rollins and other Atlanta Hawk players moments before the start of practice Monday morning, Anthony (Spud) Webb looked like a twig in a forest.
An outsider might have thought that Rollins was being awfully nice talking to that ballboy for so long. But then, Hawk Coach Mike Fratello gave an order and Webb bounced into line for a layup drill instead of fetching the water and handing out towels.
The common reaction the first time folks see Webb actually playing among the giants who dominate National Basketball Assn. rosters is to gawk and wonder if Webb is for real or if the mascot decided to join the drills as a prank.
Webb stands 5 feet 7 inches, wearing thick socks and his elevator sneakers, and weighs 135 pounds on a pasta day. But 32 games into his rookie season, the little man has left little doubt that he can play in the NBA.
As the Hawks' backup point guard, Webb is averaging 6 points, 3.1 assists and even 1.1 rebounds while playing about 14 minutes a game. He does it with a 42-inch vertical leap, legs that move faster than a cartoon character's and, as Fratello often says, a heart as big as his entire body.
The NBA has a long history of short players but, according to league officials, Webb is the most diminutive. Charlie Criss, who once played for Atlanta, was 5-8. Calvin Murphy was 5-9, as was Slater Martin, who played in the 1950s for Minneapolis and St. Louis. Monty Towe, formerly of the Denver Nuggets, was 5-7 but apparently listed his height as 5-8.
Webb tells you that he doesn't particularly want the distinction of being the smallest man ever to play pro basketball. Just as he didn't want to be known as the smallest all-state prep player in Texas, the smallest junior college All-American at Midland, Tex., Junior College and a latter-day Monty Towe at North Carolina State.
He also tells you that his nickname is short for Sputnik, because, at birth, a family member thought little Anthony's head resembled a Soviet spaceship. So, please, no jokes about Spud being a small fry.
Overcoming small-minded people who feel he's too short to play basketball has been a continuing struggle for Webb, who is as unassuming in manner as he is in stature.
"I never think about my height," said Webb, whose team will play the Clippers tonight (4:30 PST) at the Omni. "I just go out and play. Other people talk about it. If I have a good game, they are amazed. If I have a bad game, they say he's too short to play. You get used to it."
There is not a trace of bitterness in Webb's voice. He said he was fortunate to have made the Hawks as a free agent after being cut by the Detroit Pistons before training camp even began. He often smiles impishly, as if playing in the NBA is crashing a private party to which he wasn't invited.
Likewise, Webb has become a big attraction in Atlanta and around the league. Sportswriters like Spud because he's the only NBA player they don't have to look up to. Women fans at the Omni and elsewhere call him adorable. Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta's superstar forward, treats Webb like a kid brother.
"You look at Spud and you just want to pull for him," Fratello said.
Fratello also is 5-7, so he knows what it's like to be short and play ball against the big boys. Layups are swatted back in your face, jump shots need to be launched with extreme arch to avoid the same fate, and jumping for rebounds is often a futile exercise.
"Spud has added something to the NBA," Fratello said. "He's so easy for people to identify with. He's more like real people. People see all these giants playing in the NBA and don't think of them as real . That's why Spud's so popular, but I am reluctant to make this a circus. And I don't give Spud preferential treatment."
Webb's NBA odyssey has not become a freak show, but the Hawks have taken advantage of his popularity.
In the media guide, the Hawks make it clear that Webb's favorite food is shrimp .
Instead of having a poster night for Webb, as they did with other players, the Hawks recently held a Spud Webb postage stamp night. Every fan got a small sticker with Webb's likeness on it.
Atlanta management, looking for a gimmick, talked about changing Webb's number from 4 to .4. The NBA shot down that request, which is fine with Webb. In fact, Webb turned down an appearance on "Late Night With David Letterman" because he didn't want to be lumped in with what he labeled as sports freaks such as Chicago Bear lineman William (The Refrigerator) Perry and hefty Atlanta pitcher Terry Forster.
It has been accurately pointed out in stories that Webb has succeeded despite the dimensions of his body, not because of them.
"Everybody pays so much attention to me, and I have no control over it," Webb said. "Publicity-wise, it's great. I did a shoe commercial (he dunked over Chicago Bull power forward Orlando Woolridge) and that was fun. As long as it's not negative publicity, I don't mind at all."