How 5-foot-2 UMBC phenom Darnell Rogers found a place in the tallest game in the world

Darnell Rogers has been a critical piece for a UMBC team with the inside track on an automatic NCAA tournament bid. Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

(This article was originally published on Jan. 29, 2021. UMBC will play Vermont for the America East Championship on Saturday, with the winner advancing to the 2022 NCAA tournament.)

BALTIMORE -- When UMBC's starters were announced during a November 2019 game at Florida Gulf Coast, an unusually ecstatic ovation went up for one of the Retrievers' guards.

Darnell Rogers, a known figure to Florida Gulf Coast fans but hardly a returning star, was the recipient of the cheers. Rogers had been a nonfactor during his one season with FGCU, totaling 18 points in 21 games, before transferring to UMBC following his freshman year.

"The place goes crazy. Immediately," UMBC coach Ryan Odom said. "It's unheard of."

For the 5-foot-2 Rogers -- believed to be the shortest scholarship player in Division I men's basketball history -- the love was nothing new. He's used to interesting crowd responses from opposing fans. During a game at LSU last season, fans were oohing and aahing when Rogers would make a basket. At a tournament in Jamaica, the crowd would boo when Rogers was subbed out of the game and cheer when he was sent back onto the floor.

"That's everywhere we go," Rogers said. "The crowd goes crazy."

On this night, the cheers would give way to a different, less enthusiastic reaction from the FGCU faithful. The player who had once been a relative afterthought went out and scored 21 points in a key early-season road victory for UMBC.

"When he would score, there was a murmur through the crowd," FGCU coach Michael Fly said.

The performance was not a fluke -- Rogers led UMBC in scoring and assists before getting injured last season, and he has continued his strong play in 2020-21 for a 10-3 Retrievers team (at NJIT, Sunday and Monday, ESPN+) with serious and realistic designs on an NCAA tournament berth.

Rogers' height has long been the first thing people notice about him, but the novelty of a 5-foot-2 player showing up in the tallest business in sports has finally yielded to a new sentiment that some at Rogers' previous stops had not been quite ready to acknowledge.

The guy can play.

Here's an inside look at Rogers' incredible path to stardom, what it means and what comes next.

It would be accurate to say Darnell was not gifted with his father's size. Shawnta Rogers has some length on Darnell ... at 5-4. Shawnta Rogers also was an unforgettable player to anyone who saw him -- a George Washington Hall of Famer who led the Colonials to three NCAA tournament appearances in the late 1990s, earning Atlantic 10 Player of the Year honors in 1999 after averaging 20.7 points, 6.8 assists and 3.6 steals. After playing one season in the short-lived International Basketball League, Rogers played 10 seasons in France, Italy and Belgium. Darnell accompanied his dad throughout that journey -- he speaks fluent French -- and Shawnta's career offered proof positive that vertical limitations would never be an acceptable excuse.

"He's not the tallest; we're not the tallest," Shawnta said. "It gave him a sense of believing in himself and never letting doubt get in the way. It made him stronger to see that I was able to do it, so he was able to do it. Regardless of what anybody said."

Darnell would travel back to the United States during the summers, where he would spend most of his time playing basketball and football with the other kids in his East Baltimore neighborhood near Sinclair Lane.

This was not a neighborhood filled with kids of common athletic ability. There was Rogers' brother, Terrell (the family giant at 5-8), who would play Division I basketball at Delaware. Across the street was Aquille Carr, the 5-6 YouTube and basketball mixtape sensation who committed to Seton Hall out of high school but ended up playing professionally instead.

Behind Rogers' house was Fish Smithson, a free safety who signed with the Washington Football Team out of college at Kansas and last played for the Baltimore Ravens. Cyrus Jones, who played cornerback at Alabama and has spent time with the New England Patriots, the Ravens and the Denver Broncos, also hung around Rogers' neighborhood because the two families were close.

Growing up playing ball with top athletes who were bigger and older gave Rogers much-needed toughness.

"He took his bumps and bruises at an early age," Shawnta said. "His brother was three years older than him. ... He ain't have that quit in him. He kept getting up and going. Kept getting up and kept getting up."

When Rogers left East Baltimore, he found he still had skeptics to convince. Rogers elicited bewilderment from spectators and recruiters when he started alongside future NBA players Harry Giles, Grant Williams and Josh Okogie at Chris Paul's Nike-sponsored grassroots program. The looks of opponents suggested Rogers didn't belong.

"They used to overlook him," said Okogie, who played with Rogers both for CP3 and at Shiloh High School in Snellville, Georgia, after a Rogers family move. "He would embrace the challenge. You have to beat him; you couldn't just back him down or take him in the post. He used to just dominate."

The experience wouldn't attract the interest of any high-major Division I programs -- questions about his size endured -- but Rogers was good enough coming out of high school to pick his father's alma mater, George Washington, over a number of mid-major schools.

But fate prevented Rogers from following in Shawnta's decorated footsteps at GW -- he decommitted and decided to do a year at Believe Prep in South Carolina after Colonials coach Mike Lonergan was fired.

Rogers subsequently resurfaced at Florida Gulf Coast, but he found himself stuck behind veteran guards Brandon Goodwin and Zach Johnson and rarely saw meaningful minutes. Head coach Joe Dooley then left for East Carolina, and Rogers wasn't guaranteed a significant role by the Eagles' new staff. So he went to New Mexico Junior College in a quest to locate both his rhythm and his confidence.

Knowing that coaching moves and depth-chart decisions would remain beyond his control, Rogers harkened back to the basketball training he had received from Shawnta, concentrating on the basics of his game.

"When I was young, I used to always play at one speed," Darnell said. "He said you have to slow down, play slow to fast, fast to slow. I used to be at one speed, all over the court, trying to steal the ball from everybody, basically trying to guard everybody. He was telling me to slow down, think the game more as I got older."

The season in New Mexico moved Darnell back onto the radar, which was where UMBC's Odom and his staff found a player who had once been right in their Baltimore backyard.

Rogers' high school and AAU teams attended camps at UMBC, plus his family name still carried weight in the area. So Odom was familiar with Rogers.

"The first time I saw him, I was like, 'Oh my gosh. This is unique,'" Odom said. "He doesn't allow his limitations from a size standpoint impact him. He tries to make it an advantage for him. That's what I love about him. He doesn't have any fear. "

The fall of 2019 found Rogers at UMBC -- a 20-minute drive from where he lived near Sinclair Lane. He was home. For the first time since he'd been a prep phenom, Rogers would finally receive a real, extended chance to show how he could impact a team. He'd finally found a place where he fit in and was welcomed by his teammates and by the school -- somewhere he could be himself.

Despite receiving little fanfare entering last season, Rogers raised eyebrows by putting up 20-plus points three times in UMBC's first seven games. He became a viral sensation after video emerged of him running through and around LSU in a nationally televised contest. The dropping jaws over how a man of Rogers' size could hold his own was something neither new nor distracting.

"The attention's good," Rogers said. "I don't like the 'heart over hype' saying; just say I'm better than him. I don't mind the hype. It comes with the game. Hype is good in basketball. ... More followers and viewers to UMBC."

On the offensive end, Rogers showed the ability to consistently drive into the lane and finish in traffic against bigger defenders. He was a pest defensively. He also revealed himself to be a surprisingly good rebounder, grabbing multiple boards in every game he played. A lot of that came from Shawnta, who at 5-4 averaged at least four rebounds per game in each of his four seasons at George Washington.

"It's really just awareness ... seeing where the ball's going to bounce," Darnell said of his rebounding. "For me being a good shooter, I'll know where my ball is going to go as soon as it releases my hand; I'll know if I'm going to make it or miss it. I pretty much do the same thing when I'm looking for rebounds. I'll see if the ball is gonna bounce left or bounce right. I'll just run to it and get to the ball faster than my opponents. That's really it."

"He plays big," Okogie said. "He rebounds; he'll try to do a lot of stuff; he loves to attack the paint. He finishes around way bigger defenders. His size isn't a disadvantage. ... I never looked at him as 5-2. How he plays, it doesn't feel like he's that short. He's as big as anyone else out there."

Amid the emerging adulation came another bump in the road. Rogers suffered a hamstring injury in late November 2019 and missed the rest of the season while battling a variety of left leg injuries. He was close to returning a few times, but then abductor and groin injuries popped up. Rogers would take a medical redshirt, but what might have looked like another missed opportunity was spun into something more like resolve -- Rogers had proved at last that he was good enough to play at this level. UMBC had an America East title-contending team returning under Odom. The doubts about what he could accomplish were gone. Yet Rogers felt like the doubters still hadn't seen everything he could do.

"They haven't," he said earlier this season. "They will this year, though. If I stay healthy the whole year, they will."

Among the exhilarating moments that came with college basketball's Nov. 25 return after last season's pandemic-shortened campaign, Rogers' appearance on the court was right up there. He scored 13 points in 31 minutes against Georgetown on opening night as the Retrievers put a serious scare into the Hoyas of the Big East.

A few games later, Rogers poured in 16 points in a win over Delaware, adding a game-high eight rebounds just to remind the world of that part of his game.

"He's maybe the most unique player I have ever coached against," said Blue Hens coach Martin Ingelsby. "He has the ability to impact the game in so many ways, and it's nearly impossible to simulate him on a scout team. He quarterbacks their team, scores it, draws fouls and is a pest on D. Just an all-around team guy who does whatever UMBC needs. I have an even greater appreciation for him as a player and leader."

Through 13 games, Rogers is averaging 8.5 points and 2.3 assists, making a team-high-tying 20 3s on the season and ranking in the top five in the America East in steal percentage.

"It doesn't matter who he's playing against, he's an attack guy," Odom said. "It goes back to, he's been that size his whole life. He knows how to make up for it. ... He's more used to playing against others than they are used to playing against him."

Odom isn't surprised to see Darnell continuing to turn heads. Neither is Rogers' dad -- he never has been surprised, in fact.

"I see the same Darnell I've always seen," Shawnta said last season. "Size matters to people, whether you're doing good or not. In this game, it matters -- but I don't want it to matter to him."

If UMBC reaches the NCAA tournament, Rogers' height figures to be a topic for new and casual college basketball observers caught up in March Madness. But Rogers' history suggests it probably won't be long before they're talking more about his impact on the game than his stature.

"I've played with everybody, played against everybody," he said. "I always felt like I played better than my matchup. I've played against 6-5 guards, smaller guards. I've just always been able to hold my own. I never got bullied or anything. Nobody blocks my shot when I shoot; I can finish at the rim at my size. ... I belong, and I can play."