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‘He’s got no fear’: How 5-foot-2 Darnell Rogers became a trash-talking UMBC basketball star

Vermont's Justin Mazzulla keeps control of the ball under pressure from UMBC's Darnell Rogers during a game Feb. 18, 2021.
Vermont's Justin Mazzulla keeps control of the ball under pressure from UMBC's Darnell Rogers during a game Feb. 18, 2021. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

Darnell Rogers is undaunted.

At 5 feet, 2 inches, Rogers can give up sometimes a foot or more to opponents on the court. And as a senior point guard for the UMBC men’s basketball team for the second year in a row, he has heard his fair share of court chatter.

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“They’ll be like, ‘Oh, you’re little, you’re small,’” he said last week during a Zoom interview. “And they’ll add other words to it that I can’t say. That’s really all I hear. I don’t hear that much trash talking though. I’m usually the one doing the trash talking.”

So what has Rogers said in response?

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“I say a lot of stuff that I don’t want to say on here,” he said with a smile.

Teammate and 6-foot-9 senior forward Brandon Horvath said he has been on the receiving ends of a few verbal barbs from Rogers during practices. “He just says I’m weak most of the time,” Horvath said.

Asked to repeat the most creative jab he has heard from Rogers, Horvath said, “I don’t know if there’s anything that I can really say. He does kind of get under your skin sometimes with the way he plays and what he says. I’ll just leave it at that.”

Rogers proved long ago that he is no circus act. A starter in 25 of 26 games he has played in the past two seasons, Rogers leads the Retrievers in steals (1.4 per game), ranks third in points (9.8) and 3-point percentage (.380) and is fourth in assists (1.9).

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UMBC's Darnell Rogers moves the ball against Vermont's Ryan Davis during a game Feb. 18, 2021.
UMBC's Darnell Rogers moves the ball against Vermont's Ryan Davis during a game Feb. 18, 2021. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

With Rogers manning the point guard role, UMBC (14-5, 10-4 America East) joined Vermont in sharing the league’s regular-season championship — the program’s first such title since 2008. By virtue of a tiebreaker, the team also earned the No. 1 seed, a bye to the semifinal round, and homecourt advantage throughout the conference tournament.

Retrievers coach Ryan Odom said Rogers has overcome any doubts about his lack of height.

“Darnell knows how to score,” Odom said. “He’s trying to put pressure on the defense because he shoots the ball so well. He’s never let his size become a negative for him. He’s always been positive, and I think that’s what I love most. He’s got no fear. That was one of the reasons we were happy to offer him a scholarship to come here.”

The path for Rogers, whose full name is Shawnta Darnell Rogers Jr., might be unorthodox, but not unexpected. He is the second son of Shawnta Rogers, a Baltimore native who starred at Lake Clifton High School and George Washington University (where he earned Atlantic 10 Player of the Year honors in 1999) as a 5-foot-4 point guard.

Darnell Rogers, whose older brother Terrell attended Delaware and Central Florida before finishing his career at Division II Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, as a 5-9 guard, was born and raised in Baltimore. He said he shuttled between Baltimore during summers and France during school years because his father was playing professional basketball in France, Italy and Belgium.

His time in France helped him learn to speak French. Rogers declined to call himself fluent, but said he could hold up his end of a conversation, which he will do with Polish teammate and junior forward Szymon Wojcik, who speaks French.

“It’s like his second language,” Rogers said. “So he just started talking back. I didn’t know he really spoke French until he told me. So every day, I’ll talk to him in French and stuff like that.”

When Rogers was 9 years old, the family settled in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Baltimore native and NBA standout Muggsy Bogues lived after a 10-year career with the Charlotte Hornets as a 5-3 point guard and the shortest player in NBA history. Bogues said although he could not recruit Rogers to join him at United Faith High School when he was the head coach there from 2011 to 2014, he shared some of his wisdom with Rogers.

“I wanted him to focus on changing the game on the defensive aspect of it, pressuring guys and making it difficult for them to get across half-court and get into their offense,” recalled Bogues, who is an ambassador for the Hornets and the NBA. “He already had a great knack for scoring the basketball and having those playmaking skills, but I thought that if he could get that [defensive] part, coaches and everybody would look at him real seriously in that regard to where he was running the team because he’s a heck of a player. He’s very challenging when you’re playing against him, but I just wanted him to get his opportunity and showcase his ability to be able to play on that next level.”

Around the same time, Rogers drew the attention of Odom, who was an assistant coach at UNC Charlotte from 2010 to 2015 and watched Rogers perform at the university’s summer camps.

“So I knew what Darnell was capable of,” Odom said. “I mean, he was in the eighth grade playing with high school kids, and he never let his height at that point become a negative factor for him. So I already had in my mind what he was capable of.”

Rogers said his confidence in his abilities are a by-product of his father’s success in basketball.

“It’s always been natural,” he said. “I’ve never doubted myself. I’ve seen what I was able to do out there on the court, and I just stuck with that.”

After graduating from Indian Land High School in Indian Land, South Carolina, Rogers spent one year at Florida Gulf Coast and one at New Mexico Junior College, where he averaged 14.0 points, 3.7 assists and 2.5 rebounds. Although he did not get much playing time at Florida Gulf Coast, Rogers said he appreciated the experience at both stops.

“Playing at Florida Gulf Coast and playing behind those great guards there, I feel like I learned a lot and got a lot better that year even though I didn’t touch the floor,” he said. “And then going from there to my JUCO, just getting back into the flow from not playing and getting back into the rhythm of my game because it’s definitely a big difference when you’re sitting out and you’ve got to get your rhythm back. So that was also a good experience.”

In his first season at UMBC, Rogers played seven games, starting in six, and 14.0 points, 4.3 assists and 3.4 rebounds before suffering a season-ending leg injury. But one of his memorable outings was a return to Florida Gulf Coast on Nov. 9, 2019, that involved his 21-point, four-rebound display in the Retrievers’ 65-61 win.

“They begin to announce our starting lineup, and this place is packed,” Odom said. “There’s probably three to five thousand [fans] in there. They announce one of our first guys, and it’s ‘Boo!’ And then they announce Darnell, and the entire place went berserk. And he didn’t really play down there. That’s the crazy part about it. They were on their feet screaming for this guy.

“That was pretty cool. He didn’t really impact the program other than practicing, but they all loved to see this kid. It was really special to see that. And then as the game went on, he scored 21 points or whatever he did in that game, and the crowd went crazy. They were almost cheering for him. Not that they wanted us to win, but they obviously wanted to see him do well, which was pretty neat.”

UMBC guard Darnell Rogers drives around LSU forward Emmitt Williams during a game Nov. 19, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La.
UMBC guard Darnell Rogers drives around LSU forward Emmitt Williams during a game Nov. 19, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La. (BILL FEIG/AP)

Taking that next step to playing in the NBA might be the most challenging stage for Rogers. Despite the recent success of players such as Earl Boykins, Nate Robinson and Isaiah Thomas, Bogues said shorter players such as Rogers will run into the height barrier preferred by NBA scouts.

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“To compete at that level, it’s about what you bring to the table,” Bogues said. “That’s why I always felt, especially these days, you had to tell the kids, ‘You have to be strong with the defensive part to a degree because if we can’t change the game in that aspect, then it kind of minimizes the purpose for you being out there because they always feel like a bigger guard can do what you do.’ But I think if a guy can handle himself and not be taken advantage of down there on the post or out there on the perimeter, hopefully, he can continue to break that barrier and let these pro scouts know that he is capable of playing on that next level.”

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Rogers has been the subject of better-than-average scrutiny from the media since arriving at UMBC’s campus in Catonsville. A team spokesman estimated that he has received at least 12 interview requests for Rogers, who said he does not tire of the questions about his size.

“It’s been happening for a while, ever since I was in high school,” he said. “I’ve always had a lot of interviews and stuff. So I’ve kind of gotten used to it.”

But when asked if he wished outlets would focus more on his basketball than his height, Rogers replied, “I definitely do because I feel like I’m a basketball player first. I don’t feel like my height plays a part in it, what I can do on the court. I feel like I can do everything.”

Bogues said he hopes players like Rogers will continue to aspire to play in the NBA.

“I get ecstatic,” Bogues said of a generation of players following in his footsteps. “I’m waiting to see him come along someday. The game is now global, and you’ve got a lot of kids dreaming in the Philippines and in India and in China, and if they can see someone in the league who looks like them, that goes a long way. So I hope I can be on this Earth when that day comes.”

A few Davids among many Goliaths

At 5 feet, 2 inches, Darnell Rogers would be the shortest player to make it to the NBA. Here is a list of the shortest players to play in the NBA since 1981.

Name; Height; Notes

Muggsy Bogues; 5-3; Played for four teams, including the Charlotte Hornets (1988-97)

Earl Boykins; 5-5; Played for 10 teams, including the Denver Nuggets (2003-07)

Spud Webb; 5-6; 1986 winner of the Slam Dunk Contest

Greg Grant; 5-7; Played for six teams, including the Philadelphia 76ers (1991-92, 1992-93, 1995-96)

Keith Jennings; 5-7; Played for the Golden State Warriors (1992-95)

Charlie Criss; 5-8; Played for three teams, including the Atlanta Hawks (1977-81, 1983-84, 1984-85)

Kay Felder; 5-9; Played for three teams, including the Cleveland Cavaliers (2016-17)

Calvin Murphy; 5-9; Shortest player inducted to the Hall of Fame

Nate Robinson; 5-9; Only three-time winner of the Slam Dunk Contest (2006, 2009, 2010)

Yuta Tabuse; 5-9; First Japanese-born player in the league

Isaiah Thomas; 5-9; Shortest player named to an All-NBA team (2017)

America East Tournament

TBA@UMBC

March 6, 2 p.m.

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