ATLANTA -- As a seventh-grader in Chester, Devan Downey would go to the neighborhood courts looking for a basketball game.
The big kids turned him away. Too short, they'd tell him.
Downey was only -- well, he can't remember his exact height -- but he was short, and he "always (has) been the shortest person on the court."
Time went by, and Downey hit a growth spurt that took him all the way to 5-foot-9. That remains Downey's height, but no one turns him away at the court anymore.
The USC point guard has proved himself at two levels, high school and college, and in two major-college conferences, the Big East and the SEC. As a freshman at Cincinnati, he was named to the league all-freshman team, and this season he was named to the coaches' All-SEC first team as a sophomore.
Now, his height is an afterthought.
"He's the little big man on campus," said Dion Bethea, who coached Downey's AAU team.
Downey follows a number of players who have overcome their height to do big things. The 5-3 Muggsy Bogues played in the NBA for 13 seasons. The 5-7 Anthony "Spud" Webb won the NBA dunk contest in 1986. Charlotte's Earl Boykins is the NBA's shortest active player, at 5-foot-5.
"I've been short all my life. So if somebody calls me short, there's no reason to get mad; they're just telling the truth," said Downey, whose counterpart at point guard today will be LSU's 6-6 Garrett Temple. "I think it just gives you an extra edge. You just take it personal, you're just willing to outwork the bigger guard."
Being fast also helps. Downey never has been clocked in the 40-yard dash, but his speed is evident. And being "low to the ground," as he put it, helps him maneuver around the basket for shots bigger players would have trouble attempting.
Despite his height, Downey seldom has his outside shot blocked. For that he can thank his unusual shooting technique -- taking the ball way behind his head -- which he said he developed as a reaction to being shorter than opponents.
But most of all, there is heart. It's what everyone says stands out about shorter players.
Texas' Rick Barnes has had a lot of experience coaching small guys. At Clemson he coached 5-11 Terrell McIntyre, and at Texas he has coached 5-11 T.J. Ford, now in the NBA, and current starter A.J. Abrams, who is 5-11.
"What those guys had in common was heart," Barnes said. "When they played, they didn't know they were small guards. They played big."
South Carolina coach Dave Odom was a small guard himself in college. These days, he and Downey see eye-to-eye when they face each other, though the coach wants Downey to improve his commitment to defense.
"The reason Muggsy Bogues played in the NBA for 10-plus years was nobody could take advantage of him on a continuous basis," Odom said.
Odom, who coached against Bogues, calls Downey "a better scorer than almost any" of the other small guards he has seen.
Gamecocks guard Zam Fredrick, no Yao Ming himself at 6 feet, remembers the first time he saw Downey play. Bethea had invited Downey to try out for his AAU team, the South Carolina Ravens, and team member Fredrick was skeptical.
That changed once he saw Downey play.
"As much basketball as I've watched and played, I know there's room for everybody out there," Fredrick said. "When you're small, everybody always gives you a hard time or doubts your ability to do anything. Not even with basketball, but life in general. You get this chip on your shoulder, where you feel like you've got to prove everybody wrong.
"It's not really a disease, it just comes with the territory. And if you wanna overcome that, you've got to constantly prove yourself over and over again."
Downey has that approach. His confidence is renowned, whether it's on-court trash talking or constant socializing off of it. Some call it cockiness, including Downey.
"When you're small, you've gotta have a big heart, and you can't back down from anybody. You've gotta have a cockiness to you," Downey said. "Some people might say you're arrogant and think like this, but they just don't know. If you're small at this level, you've gotta have that cockiness to you, or it's going to be real hard."
South Carolina vs. LSU (WAXN, cable channel 10 in Rock Hill), 1 p.m.
For a list of all of today's SEC games, see page 2C.