Chris Lykes
Chris Lykes Credit: JC Ridley/Miami Athletics

Much of Chris Lykes’ life has been a battle. A battle against the snickers from judgmental strangers. A battle against basketball coaches and scouts convinced that, inevitably, his luck would run out. A battle against his body, that grew to 5 feet, 7 inches and then stopped, a stubborn refusal to cast him among the giants of the game.

Lykes declined to concede, and now he’s starring on one of the biggest stages in college basketball. His spirit has taken over where his genetics fell short. “Heart over height” has became his motto, and when he left D.C. powerhouse Gonzaga College High School for the University of Miami in the summer of 2017, he plopped himself in a tattoo parlor chair and had the phrase inked across his chest, so he wouldn’t forgot what had gotten him there.

“I just wasn’t going to let anybody tell me, ‘No,’” Lykes says.

In early February, the Miami Hurricanes sprint out of a darkened tunnel in John Paul Jones Arena and into the bright lights of the court in Charlottesville, Virginia. Lykes, the team’s shortest, but also most important, player, is in front leading the way.

The Atlantic Coast Conference’s eighth-leading scorer flings a ball toward the roof, catches it, and floats it through the basket, beginning the pregame lay-up line for Miami’s biggest test of the season.

On the other side of the court is No. 3 Virginia, a Tony Bennett-led juggernaut powered by its famed Pack Line defense, which calls for defenders to clog the paint and prevent dribble penetration. The Cavaliers play at the slowest pace in the nation, according to college basketball analytics website, bending the game to their will and turning hopeful opponents into helpless victims.

Stone-faced, Lykes pulls off his white warm-up shirt, ink peaking from beneath his No. 0 jersey, and whispers instructions in his teammates’ ears.

Miami wins the opening tip, and the ball flies into Lykes’ hands. He puts it on the floor and dribbles forward.

It’s never been easy for him to move in that direction. His father, Marvin, did not give him the LaVar Ball treatment growing up. He made no efforts to inflate his ego with platitudes or public declarations of greatness. Instead, Marvin relayed disses from anonymous sources. He told him the same thing other bolder critics said to Lykes’ face: You’re too short.

It didn’t matter that he had video game-like handles, could score inside over towering defenders, or could pull up from anywhere on the court. His height would catch up to him, they told him. Perhaps at Gonzaga.

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It took one Washington Catholic Athletic Conference game for the Mitchellville, Maryland native to dispel that narrative. Called on to provide a lift against Bishop O’Connell, which was led by future Maryland star Melo Trimble, Lykes scored 19 points off the bench. Gonzaga coach Steve Turner says that years later former Georgetown coach John Thompson III told him that Lykes defended Trimble better that game than anyone prior in the guard’s high school career.

“That was Chris’ coming out party,” Turner says.

But taunts from opponents did not cease, so Lykes weaponized them as fuel. By the end of high school he was Gonzaga’s all-time leading scorer (2,266 points) and was named The Washington Post’s 2017 All-Met Player of the Year, all the while earning comparisons to another undersized point guard from across the Beltway.

Tyrone Curtis “Muggsy” Bogues, who grew up in Baltimore, made the most of his 5-foot-3 frame, turning a legendary tenure at Paul Laurence Dunbar High into a 14-year NBA career. Using his low center of gravity to snatch steals, Bogues helped change the way the game’s gatekeepers thought of smaller guards.

He played alongside Bennett for a couple years on the Charlotte Hornets, and Bennett often recounts stories of Bogues when referring to Virginia’s 5-foot-9 point guard Kihei Clark. Bennett sees similar traits in Lykes, which is why he recruited him out of high school.

“He’s a gifted offensive player. He can glide. He can go,” Bennett said of Lykes. “Big heart.”

In advance of Virginia’s game against Miami, Bennett compared the Clark vs. Lykes matchup to that of Bogues vs. Spud Webb, a 5-foot-7 guard who played a decade in the NBA.

Within the first minute of the Miami-Virginia game, fans get a glimpse of that pairing. Lykes picks up Clark full court on the Cavaliers’ first possession, forcing the freshman to work to avoid a 10-second violation. He’s then called for a foul, swiping at Clark’s arm in pursuit of the ball. Less than a minute later, Lykes forces Clark to fumble the ball and drop it out of bounds.

Then he does something that has made him a star and fan favorite at Miami.

Driving to the lane, Lykes stops on a dime and pump fakes Clark and Virginia guard De’Andre Hunter out of position, only to sink a turnaround jumper. In the first half’s dying moments, he wheels around a screen and throws up a 3-pointer over Clark’s outstretched arms, falling hard to the floor as it swishes through the net.

He finishes the game with a team-high 16 points, four rebounds, and one assist, in Miami’s 56-46 loss. Lykes finds Clark afterwards.

“I like your game,” he tells him. “Keep working hard.”

Turner says Lykes’ sophomore season at Miami feels similar to his freshman season at Gonzaga, when injuries left the Zags’ roster full of holes and he first, “put on the cape.”

The Hurricanes will need the same. Coach Jim Larrañagais without his top three scorers from last season, having lost two to the NBA and one to the Adidas scandal, which revealed that several amateurs had been incentivized to attend certain programs via under-the-table payments. Deng Gak, a 6-foot-10 redshirt freshman, is out for the season with a knee injury.

Enter Lykes, the dynamic sophomore who regularly earns praise from coaches from around the ACC. At one point, he was in a three-way tie with Duke superstars Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett as the conference’s leading scorer.

He’s a role model now, dispensing advice to smaller guards back home and in his DMs. But the Hurricanes have struggled to find their footing. The team has a 9-12 record and is 1-8 in ACC play. As the postseason approaches, prognosticators are writing Miami off.

That does not sit well with Lykes. “I don’t like losing,” he says. “That’s something I’ve always had inside of me.”

The cynics drone on, recycling the same, tired criticisms of him. Lykes doesn’t look far for inspiration. He peers down at the phrase inscribed across his chest in ink:

“Heart over height.”