The MJ of Dwarves

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

Swanson needed to know about his people.

"C'mon," Sabrina chided him. "You have a daughter now. You need to go and learn."

The first, most important reason people go to the LPA conference is to learn about dwarfism, how to take care of themselves, and how to care for their loved ones. Medical and technological expos are held all day, addressing the needs of every known form of dwarfism, of which there are more than 250.

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.

Swanson begged off, saying he had to work. His brother, though, was 16. He was out of school for the summer and didn't have a vote in the matter. He went alone on the first day, walked inside, and stopped in his tracks.

"I was shocked. Until I went to the convention, I didn't know there were a lot of us," Tompkins says. At the hotel, a couple thousand dwarves and their families milled about. Most of the counters, tables, and chairs were lowered. Everything was made for little people.

Tompkins was a teenage boy and didn't know a single person, so he went to the game room. That's how he found out about the Dwarf Athletic Association of America's National Games, held yearly at the conference. He signed up for basketball. Like his brother, he'd grown up playing with average-size people on the streets of New York. And like his brother, he was good.

Tompkins asked his brother to play, but Swanson declined. Tompkins ended up on the New York Towers, a hodgepodge of tristate-area players put together by Clinton Brown, the chairman of the Brooklyn convention and the self-titled general manager of the Towers.

"Even though I'm small," Tompkins says, laughing, "I'll be thinking I'm big sometimes. I'm the guy who's always getting blocked." When he drove to the hoop at the National Games, no one was waiting to reject his shot. "I was like, 'We got this.'"

It was shockingly easy to him, a relief, and a rush, playing against people his own size.

But the one-day, double-elimination tournament was grueling, and Tompkins's new team had run out of gas by the third game. They just weren't good enough. The Towers didn't medal, and the eventual champions were a West Coast all-star team, the Statesmen, put together by two celebrities, actor Marty Klebba (Goldmember, Hancock, and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) and Zach Roloff from Little People, Big World.

The second reason a lot of little people go to the conferences is for love.

"When you're a person who is very—" Brown says, pausing, searching for the right word, "diverse from the rest of the culture, and then you walk into a room with people exactly like you, it's like a breath of fresh air. Because finally, you are not the different one in the room. You can be yourself, and you don't have to worry."

Brown, 28 then, with sandy hair and a thick Long Island accent, had attended conferences since he was 18. Brown has diastrophic dysplasia, a rare form of dwarfism. A dwarf among dwarves, he stands just over three feet tall. Walking is difficult, so often he uses a scooter to get around.

Because basketball was the most popular event at the National Games and the champions were the biggest stars, the Statesmen were mobbed at the nightly parties, where young men, women, and, often, alcohol mixed before the dwarves split into groups and went to different bars in the city.

After the tournament, Tompkins told the Towers his older brother was even better than him. No one believed him. So he dragged Swanson into the gym.

As soon as Brown saw Swanson play, he was hooked. The Towers general manager walked right up to Swanson. "You better come play with us."

Swanson was unstoppable.

"I've never experienced that. I never used my size," he says.

Although he fashioned his game after the best ever, MJ, as the new point guard for the Towers, his impact resembled that of a different NBA legend. The Towers don't keep official team statistics, so when asked, Swanson coyly plays at saying he doesn't keep his own stats before pride makes him spill. He averages almost 20 points, seven assists, and eight rebounds a game, numbers eerily similar to Magic Johnson's championship rookie season, when the 6-foot-9 L.A. Lakers point guard dominated too-small opposing players.

Swanson was never intimidated by average-size players. "Just because there are a bunch of dudes who are seven or six feet tall, it doesn't mean I'm not going to get on the court," he says. "I'm going to prove to them that my size doesn't have anything to do with my game."

But as a Tower, his size was an advantage. With Swanson playing, Brown immediately set three goals for the Towers. The first was to win DAAA national gold three straight years.

After the New York conference, the Towers started practicing once a month. They also trained for the 2010 National Games in Anaheim while accomplishing Brown's second goal: to spread dwarfism awareness by playing in games against New York teams of average-size players. They took all comers. Once, they played against a semipro men's team. Another time, they played against a college girl's softball team. There were only two rule changes: All rebounds had to hit the floor before an opponent grabbed it, and all passes from opposing teams had to be bounce passes. The Towers won more than they lost.

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