The MJ of Dwarves

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

When Sabrina was a teenager, she started dating Alfred, a man from her neighborhood. In 1985, she became pregnant with her first son. They named him Jahmani. It means "Son of God."

For a short time, Sabrina lived in the Bronx with her parents. After work and on the weekends, Alfred would play basketball with Sabrina's brother in the neighborhood, so there was always a basketball around the house. When Jahmani was 11 months old, he dribbled it for the first time.

"He used to dribble it pretty good," Sabrina says, though the ball was almost as big as her son. Basketball helped Jahmani walk faster, and it improved his coordination. When he turned two, he and Sabrina moved to the Douglass Projects on Manhattan's Upper West Side. When he got older, he'd go after school and watch his uncle and father play. And every chance he got, he watched MJ on television.

Swanson, at rest
Courtesy of the New York Towers basketball team
Swanson, at rest

"Everywhere he went was Michael Jordan, Michael Jordan, Michael Jordan," Sabrina says. Jahmani knew he was different, like his mom, and that he'd grow up to be short like her. And like her, he didn't care much. He studied MJ's every move. He snuck into his uncle's too-large Air Jordans and dribbled a ball around his apartment. He was weaned on Jordan, and like millions of '80s babies, he grew up on the superstar's scoring titles, his MVP trophies, and his two three-peats. Jahmani thought he'd one day duplicate them.

When Swanson was eight, Sabrina, now in another relationship, had a second son. Like his older brother, Justin Tompkins was born with dwarfism. Like his brother, he played basketball. "It's hard raising black males, big or small, in New York City," Sabrina says. To keep her oldest son out of trouble, she sent him to Catholic school, kept him on sports teams, sent him to overnight basketball camps.

"Don't let your size be an excuse for nothing in life," Sabrina told them, and she raised them how she was raised: normal. Swanson grew up with good grades, dozens of trophies, and friends who played basketball. Private school sheltered him from the drugs, crime, and most of the bullying.

But Swanson was unique. Alone. "You always have someone judging you, people teasing you," Swanson says about growing up. "You gotta go through the staring, the teasing. When you walk down that hallway, you're the only one."

Swanson fought a lot. His little brother went to public school. He fought more.

"I always had a challenge. They always had to test me," Tompkins says.

"I'll always remember this one fight with this boy," he recalls. The fight was inconsequential, over something he can't remember anymore. For a while, they grappled. Then his opponent picked him clear off the ground and slammed him on a table.

"I got up on the table," Tompkins says, "and punched him. And all my friends—the whole school—helped me beat him up. That's when I got known. After that day, everyone respected me as a friend. Not just as a little person, but as a regular person."

The two brothers each did 100 push-ups a night before going to sleep. They never saw themselves as limited by little-people status. Swanson tried out for high school basketball. His sophomore year, he made varsity. He was small, but strong, fast, and a good ball handler. He started more times than not and averaged double figures in points. Girls flocked to him. His senior year, colleges started sending letters.

"He was the first little person they ever thought about giving a full scholarship," Sabrina brags. But he didn't go, deciding to stay home. "I think he was scared. Maybe it was just overwhelming for him," she says.

He ended up at Monroe College, a junior college in the Bronx, and played in leagues across New York. In one summer game, he matched up against Edgar Sosa, a 6-foot-2 point guard who went on to be a star at Louisville before going pro in Italy.

When Sosa's team played, everybody stayed to watch. At first, some onlookers laughed at Swanson. Then he scored, again and again. Soon he was juking flamboyantly with the ball, playing to the crowd. The jeers subsided. Every time he drove to the hoop or crossed someone over in isolation, the fans started jumping and yelling. He was just too entertaining. Swanson's team lost, of course. But they kept it close.

He finished at Monroe in 2006. Two years later, Swanson got his longtime girlfriend Tiffany pregnant. Like every girl he'd ever dated, she was average-sized. Like Swanson, there was a 50 percent chance of their child being a dwarf. She was. They named her Nah'ima.

"It makes everything important to you now," Swanson says about being a father. "You're the protector."

Sabrina understood that. So in 2009, when the country's largest, oldest dwarfism support group, the Little People of America, announced that its annual week-long conference would be at the Marriott in Brooklyn, Sabrina urged her sons to go.

Sabrina had seldom bothered to attend herself. She didn't need to, she reasoned. "I'm not feeling sorry for myself," she says. But Swanson had a daughter now, and she'd have to fight some of the same battles her family did.

« Previous Page
Next Page »