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, Saturday and Sunday, 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.