The MJ of Dwarves

Jahmani Swanson is the best little-person basketball player on the planet. And he's just getting started.

The scariest thing about Jahmani Swanson is that he's small. The second scariest thing is that he takes what you give him.

It starts with his floater, because he'd be nothing with-out it. He releases the high-arcing shot in the paint with either hand, and the ball starts just a few feet off the ground before it rises above the swinging canopy of arms—hangs 12, 13 feet in the air—and, miraculously, almost invariably, drops through the net.

The next possession, you back off of him, five feet or so. So he takes a step behind the three-point line, then propels his entire body inches off the ground and a yard through the air to generate enough power to get the basketball to the rim 25 feet away. That goes in, too.

Jahmani Swanson’s first official practice as a New York Tower, on Long Island.
Courtesy of the New York Towers basketball team
Jahmani Swanson’s first official practice as a New York Tower, on Long Island.
The Towers celebrate their three-peat in Dallas, July 2012. 
Justin Tompkins, back row, far left, Swanson, back row, second from right.
Courtesy of the New York Towers basketball team
The Towers celebrate their three-peat in Dallas, July 2012. Justin Tompkins, back row, far left, Swanson, back row, second from right.

What's amazing and borderline ridiculous about this whole scenario is that basketball is a big man's game, and Swanson— the man in front of you, arrogantly dribbling the ball at the top of the key a little too hard, a little too high, then jabbing left, watching you rock back on your heels before he slices back to his right—is a dwarf.

But not just any dwarf. He's the Michael Jordan of dwarves. At 26, he's in his physical prime. He's 4 feet 5, 105 pounds, and he's strong, alarmingly strong, like a pit bull or a puddle of piss.

But what makes him the Michael Jordan and not, say, the Jamal Crawford of dwarves is his defense, which is fundamental, ferocious, doesn't seem like it would stop anybody but somehow does.

When you advance the ball, he picks you up just over mid court, guarding you tightly, almost riding your thigh. You're not going to drive past him because he's quick, so if he doesn't steal it right then, he forces you to your off hand, where odds are you'll bounce it off your leg, lose the ball on the crossover, or, if you're smart, find someone else to pass it to.

For years, Swanson honed his game in relative obscurity, on some of New York City's most iconic, competitive basketball courts: West 4th, the Goat, the Rucker. But this year, he left Manhattan's Douglass Projects and moved to Los Angeles, where he plays for the Beach Warriors in the world-renowned Venice Basketball League. His teammates call him Mani Fresh, because he is.

A few weeks ago, someone decided to make a Jahmani Swanson highlight tape and upload it to YouTube. Someone else saw it and decided to put it on the front page of Yahoo! and ESPN and WorldStarHipHop, and Complex, and USA Today. Some other people clicked on it, almost 2 million times.

But the Beach Warriors are his other team. His main team, the New York Towers, is the best dwarf basketball team in the world. Once a ragtag collection of losers, they're now rock stars of a sort. They've twice appeared on MTV's Silent Library, and they've won more championships in the last three years than the Knicks and Nets have won combined, ever.

His teammates say he's the most athletic little person in the world, a claim that, if you're not a little person, isn't worth a damn. But as a high school senior, back when they called him the Wizard, NCAA Division I schools filled his mailbox with recruiting letters.

Rows of girls show up to his games to cheer him on. He's undeniably attractive, with bright, mocking eyes, taut arms, a six-pack, and hulking traps. Girls call him Mani Love, because he spreads it. When the Towers show up every year at the Dwarf Athletic Association of America's National Games, fans ask for his picture, his autograph, his phone number.

When Swanson's asked why he's such a sensation, he laughs.

"Everyone loves a winner."

The doctor told Sabrina Swanson there was a 50 percent chance that her baby boy would be born a dwarf, like her. He was. She was ecstatic.

She and Jahmani have achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism. She decided to raise Jahmani just as she was raised.

Sabrina was born in Guyana to a large family. Of her parents, six brothers and two sisters, she was the only dwarf. When the Swansons immigrated to the Bronx for the promise of a better life, one of the first things they did was take Sabrina to a pediatrician. "Don't treat her special," the doctor told her parents. "Treat her as normal as possible."

So they did. They made her wash the dishes, clean the bathroom, make her bed. She did everything but cook, because she was too short to reach the stove. "Don't let anyone call you 'shorty' or 'midget,'" her mother would tell her. "Your name is Sabrina."

She never saw herself as different, just short. "I never had any real bullying or anything," she says, then stops. "There was one boy in middle school," she remembers. "But it turned out he liked me."

Sabrina was pretty and developed early, and she used her stature to get acting parts in a couple of commercials. "I'm too cute, too pretty to be a basic little person in front of the camera," she says. "And I think with the media—it's just my opinion—they like dwarves who look more handicapped. We don't look like that."

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