The MJ of Dwarves


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.

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.”

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.

“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.

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.

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.

The next year in California, the Towers challenged the Statesmen at the National Games on their home turf. The Towers destroyed them.

In 2011, they blew them out for gold again, in Nashville, and a third time this year, in Dallas. Brown isn’t shy about basking in the revenge. “There’s a lot of animosity,” he says. “The tables have turned. You gotta understand, we only get to play once a year against other little-people teams, right? So the competition is very heated, very intense. It’s going to be a battle to the end.

“And guys claw to win these games, because there’s another side to this,” he says. “The dating side of the convention, which, you know—” he hesitates for a second. “It’s like the lions in the jungle. People play for bragging rights. And now the Towers have dominated on the court, and I don’t want to say it but . . .” He smiles. “We’re seeing the fruits of our labor now.

“It gets pretty wild,” Brown finishes. “It gets crazy.”

Swanson and Tompkins went to the parties and made friends, but, alone for most of their lives, the brothers were set in their ways. Tompkins says he’s not attracted to the women, even the groupies who throw themselves at him. Swanson himself only dated average-size girls until he asked out a little person this year in Dallas.

Brown met his girlfriend at the 2009 convention, when he was chairman. It was a big summer for him, he says, because that year he also helped lead the LPA to declare October Dwarfism Awareness Month, while officially denouncing the word “midget” as a slur.

“I took advantage of my status,” he says, talking about his girlfriend. “Sometimes you gotta be a boss.”

Brown’s third goal for the Towers is to win the 2013 World Games, the dwarf Olympics, next summer at Michigan State. It’s the first time in 20 years that the games will be held on American soil. The Towers fully expect to win, and they’re holding monthly practices to be sure. But their star isn’t in New York.

He’s thousands of miles away, in a bar, in front of hundreds of fans, almost all of them white, the whole lot of them screaming and yelling and shitfaced. The noise blends with the smell of beer and sweat and cascades into the miniature boxing ring in the center of the room. They’re cheering his name.

“The Athlete!” they call to him as he climbs to the top buckle. “The Athlete!”

Jahmani Swanson is on the Extreme Midget Wrestling Federation tour. It’s his day job, touring across the United States. Sometimes they put on a few shows a week in one town—in Texas, Oklahoma, Nevada—before moving on. The Athlete isn’t the main attraction, but he’s one of the crowd-pleasers, extremely athletic and cast as one of the good guys, like the Rock when his name was Rocky.

The Athlete is airborne, flying, fully extended. He hangs in the air for a second, then collides bodily into his opponent. Baby Jesus struggles to get up, but the Athlete, shirtless in black trunks, black tube socks, and tennis shoes, is already on his feet.

Baby Jesus turns slowly, dazed. That’s when the Athlete takes off.

He jumps, corkscrewing in the air until he’s facing away from Baby Jesus, kicking his legs up until he’s parallel to the ground. He latches on to the back of Baby Jesus’s neck. Then he falls back to earth, pulling Baby Jesus with him, and they crash together in a heap.

The Athlete lands on his back. Baby Jesus lands on his face.

The Athlete rolls over for the pin. He hits Baby Jesus with his finishing move, the RKO. Baby Jesus’s eyes are squeezed shut, the only sign of life the slow heaving of his barrel chest. That sucker’s going nowhere. The place goes nuts.

Swanson picked the character of the Athlete for himself. “One of my friends was doing it,” he says, explaining how he wound up on the Midget Wrestling circuit. “I was interested as a kid growing up, I was into wrestling, so I wanted to try to experience it. I adapted real quick.”

It’s acting, of course, all of it, but Swanson can act. It’s also tough on the body, especially on dwarves’ smaller, more fragile bones, but Swanson has a great body. Still, the money isn’t great. He walks away on an average night with about $200. He gets more if they sell out. The traveling is brutal. But it has allowed him to move to Los Angeles, where, he hopes, he’ll become a star.

That’s the whole goal: to be discovered, to get rich, and, most important, to get famous. And though the LPA has criticized the Extreme Midget Wrestling Federation for exploiting stereotypes and profiting from the long-standing notion of dwarves as buffoons, it’s just another job to Swanson.

Swanson at his core is an entertainer, and that’s why earlier this year he left his family, his home, and his daughter for L.A. “I don’t plan on doing this for long,” Swanson says, on the road toward the wrestling troupe’s next show in Lawrence, Kansas.

Sabrina, whom he’s away from for the first time in his life, is torn about the wrestling. “I’m scared for him getting hurt,” she says. She still cries when her sons get knocked down playing basketball with average-size players.

She doesn’t think her son is a buffoon, but she knows there’s a tightrope little people have to walk in show business. And, of course, there’s Nah’ima, who’s four now. Her legs are starting to bow a bit, but she’s already dribbling a basketball.

To Swanson, the circuit and separation are a means to an end. He just wrapped up a gig as a “stuntchkin”—a munchkin’s stuntman—on the set of Oz: The Great and Powerful, which comes out next year. Swanson wants to get some speaking roles, and from there, his own reality show, like Little People, Big World, except with black people.

“All these other reality shows that come on, they’re not reality. There’s something missing, and I’m that something missing,” he says, sure of himself. “I wanna shine. I want to touch people; I want people to feel me and my life, to understand that you can amount to anything, whether you have one leg, or . . .” he trails off.

“Whatever you want to do, you can do it. I want to show them the bumps. I want to show them the bruises. Everyday-life stuff. The good and bad, you know?”

He thinks for a second. “I want the world to love me.”