On a cold, winter weekend on the brink of Christmas, the average New Yorker might travel into Manhattan to visit Rockefeller Center, Times Square, or any other holiday-juiced tourist trap. But I—a sixteen-year-old, up-and-coming journalist who currently writes for opencourt-basketball.com and created his own Facebook page, NBA Buzz in 2011—chose to layer up, throw on sweatpants, lace up my Nike’s, and head into New York City.
I was set to officially begin my journalism career.
Fast-forward a forty-five-minute LIRR train ride, numerous subway stops, and a quarter-mile walk to the Upper West Side’s Frederick Douglass housing projects in Harlem, New York. An hour-and-a-half commute to hear the story of Jahmani “Mani Love” Swanson, a 4’5”, 103-pound professional streetball basketball player, the “Michael Jordan of little people.” I was even lucky enough to take him one-on-one.
The thirty-year-old Mani Love ground his way through criticism as a young man and overcame adversity from most who crossed his path. Instead of words, he would simply do it with a basketball. After hundreds of tournaments/pickup games in the parks of New York City, the man a whole foot smaller (and then some) than his opponents rose to fame in a city that has been called the “mecca of basketball.”
Millions of YouTube hits and crossovers later, Love eventually rose to the top, becoming the rarest of breeds: professional streetballer. This is not just the story of Mani Love the social media sensation, but Mani Love the person; the role model; the goal-oriented star in the making who teaches us that achievement means more than a man’s height.
What makes Jahmani “Mani Love” Swanson’s story so remarkable is his tremendous heart. Love competes on a high level and doesn’t back down from any competition. The game of basketball is meant for the big-man, not a man who is 4’5”—when we think of Muggsy Bogues and Spudd Webb, two NBA players who stand 5’3” and 5’6” respectively, we’re stunned by what they were able to accomplish during their careers. “Mani Love,” almost a whole foot shorter than Bogues, is currently dominating the professional streetball leagues.
Love baits you with every flashy ball-handling move in the book while glaring right into your corneas. Then he’ll hit you with a tight crossover. You reach for the ball because you think the little guy can’t cross you up—next thing you know, you have dirt in your mouth and you’re watching him from the floor. Love flings his body forward a few feet over the three-point line and floats a high-arcing shot over his next towering defender. Swish. You just got played.
Swanson’s signature move is squaring up the taller on-ball opposition, bouncing the ball through the opponent’s wide-spread legs, and then using his speed to race around the baffled defender, finding the ball on the other side. Oh, and don’t forget his alley-oop to a high-flying teammate. Swanson will defend any player, attempting to use his sneaky moves to give the opponent a four-foot, recurring nightmare.
The Douglass Projects have housed “Mani Love” since he was two. It’s where the legend of “Mani Love” began. In 1985, Sabrina Swanson—a little person as well—gave birth to her son. Both have achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism. But, giving birth to a little person was no concern for Sabrina; she was determined to give Jahmani the same happiness she had growing up—size didn’t matter. Sabrina and Alfred, Mani Love’s father, named their son Jahmani; which translates “Son of God.” Sabrina would become the focal point in her son’s life, giving him advice, and a shoulder to lean on—even today. With his father in and out of prison, his mother was all he had.
“My mom was the one to always keep me level, and would constantly tell me to not listen to the people who don’t know better,” Swanson said. “She would say, ‘you are what you are, people must accept you. If people won’t accept who you are, don’t associate yourself with them.’”
At 11 months old, Swanson picked up a basketball for the first time. Swanson recalls watching his idol, Michael Jordan, every time he was on TV, and remembers fondly MJ flying toward his signature cradle-dunk at Madison Square Garden in the late 1980’s. At the time, Swanson was so obsessed with Jordan that he’d take his uncle Cedric’s oversized Air Jordans and wear them around the house, impersonating MJ’s moves with his own basketball.
Swanson said that, after Michael Jordan became his NBA idol, “[he] was sleeping with a basketball, not a teddy bear.”
At the age of eight, Swanson found a new little teammate roaming around his house. Sabrina, now in another relationship, had a second son named Justin Tompkins. Tompkins, like “Mani Love,” was born with dwarfism. Justin saw his older brother playing so much basketball that he picked up on it as well. Basketball seems to run in the Swanson family: father Alfred and uncle Cedric were once spectacular players on the project basketball courts during the 1970’s. Two decades later, sons and nephews, Jahmani and Justin were making their own names for themselves on those same courts.
Even from a very young age, Swanson was never disappointed by his height. With the proper guidance from his mother and uncle, he was taught to be thankful for however, God made him. But did he ever want to be an average-sized person? Not in the least.
Swanson said, “I’ve never once woken up or went to bed saying, ‘God, I wish you didn’t make me this way.’ I’m happy to be this way, I’m doing everything normal-sized people do, and better.”
Sabrina Swanson raised her sons to appreciate everything life has given them, get good grades in school, and stay away from the dangers of the world—such as drugs, alcohol, crime, and bullying. To keep Swanson away from all of these things, his mother sent him to Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic school in Manhattan where he spent his elementary and middle school years. Though the taunts and jibes of his peers existed, the discipline of Catholic school students limited all that. Swanson knew—and was told by his mother who’s been through it—that kids will always judge and mock his size; it’s a given… he’s not a part of the norm.
After middle-school, Swanson attended Wadleigh High School, where for the first time, he played on an organized team through school. Swanson made the Wadleigh High basketball team all four years; junior varsity as a freshman, and varsity the next three years. The school basketball game, which is especially competitive and talented up in Manhattan, is extremely different than the streetball game. It was extremely tough to blend into the JV/varsity level for the streetball phenom. Because of his size, Swanson’s head coach let him know the deal.
Swanson remembered: “[On the JV level, and at the beginning of Varsity], the coaches were straight-up with me. They told me, ‘if I take you, you won’t play that much, but if you want to take the learning experience, and ability to get better, you’re welcome to do that.”
At the time, a teenaged Swanson didn’t understand the reduced play—but now, as a matured 30-year old man, he realizes why he his time was limited.
Swanson said, “Looking back on it now, I totally understand why. Other kids knew how to run plays, pay attention to things…my whole game was my ego. I could score better than them, but can I run a play as well as them? Can I get to my spot?” He continued, “The high-school level was my downfall [in my basketball career]. It was fun, but I was used to one-on-ones and running up-and-down the court all day long at the park. Now, in high-school, you have to play zone defense, you have to know a play, you have to be a voice with your teammates.” Swanson admitted that “high-school basketball was definitely a learning experience.”
With Swanson’s rise to mini-fame in high-school came growing popularity, as well as a growing number attending high-school games to watch him play. Everyone wanted to see what the little man—dubbed “Mani Love”—could do.
Wait, so how did Swanson acquire the nickname “Mani Love,” anyway? At 18, an older fellow in the neighborhood gave him the nickname because of all the love and attention he was getting. Girls, friends, classmates and everyone in between wanted to watch him play—when they did, they were stunned. After telling this anecdote about his nickname, Swanson ended with, “I’m about love.”
After high-school, Swanson’s life really took off. He was no longer a kid; he was quickly turning into a man. The scholarships kept rolling in from out-of-state schools, but he decided to stay near his family, friends, and lifestyle in Harlem. After four years, he finished his college experience at Monroe College in Bronx, New York. In the midst of studies, Swanson made money on the side working as a counselor at the Frederick Douglass Children’s Aid Society. “Mani Love” became a mentor for young children in this afterschool program. Two years after graduating Monroe College, Swanson and his longtime girlfriend, Tiffany, had a baby girl named Nah’ima. Though Swanson had his daughter with an average-sized woman, Nah’ima was a little person just like her father and grandmother.
“Nah’ima is my everything. My world. She makes me happy,” Swanson said.
Swanson’s brother, Justin, was the first person to officially get Jahmani on a notable basketball team, where his fame blossomed. In 2009, Justin Tompkins attended Little People of America—the country’s largest support group for little people—in Brooklyn, New York. Tompkins—who, like his brother, was playing well in the streets of Harlem—heard about the Dwarf Athletic Association of America’s National Games and instantly jumped on the opportunity. Tompkins, who has talents similar to his older brother’s, was now taking on fellow little people in basketball for the first time. Tompkins wound up playing in the convention that year for the “New York Towers” without Jahmani. After an unsuccessful tournament, the “New York Towers” needed a new addition.
The next year, Justin recruited Jahmani. Swanson dominated the opposition, to say the least. The addition of “Mani Love” made the Towers the best dwarf basketball team in the world. Jahmani, Justin, and the New York Towers have twice appeared on MTV’s Silent Library, and have dominated little people tournaments all across America since forming in 2010.
In the midst of major success with the “New York Towers,” another opportunity came about. Swanson was gaining so much recognition each time he took the court at an event or tournament that a professional streetball basketball team from Venice Beach, California named the “Beach Warriors” reached out to him and asked him to play. It was tough leaving the Douglass Projects, but Swanson accepted the offer, moving to Venice Beach, California to take part in the Venice Beach Basketball League. The VBL is no joke, nor was its newest star. The summer league begins every June and doesn’t end until September. The VBL takes over the basketball courts every Sunday to play its games—dozens and dozens throughout the day.
Twelve teams, all made up of NBA stars, NCAA, professional, amateur, and streetball stars compete every Sunday to take the weekly throne; Swanson is a member of one of those extremely high-quality teams. According to Swanson, the VBL is a “ton of fun.” The day consists of twelve events, including tournament games, fan fest, live music performances, art shows, and more. The league attracts hundreds of people, and when Swanson is on the court, he does not disappoint.
Around this time, Swanson became a part of the Extreme Midget Wrestling Federation tour. Swanson was paid around $200 a night while traveling all over the country doing a few shows a week.
“As a kid, I was a huge WWF/WWE fan, and the sport has always interested me. [Wrestling] was something I’ve always wanted to try,” Swanson said.
This was the perfect way for Swanson to express his showmanship. Just as he did as a wrestler, he uses the crowd’s energy and his own charisma to strive on the basketball court—instead of an “RKO” or the “Tombstone Piledriver,” he finishes opponents on the court with a crossover or step back.
If it weren’t for the Venice Beach Basketball League, “Mani Love” wouldn’t be as well-known as he is today. When ballislife.com—the most popular website for viral basketball, —saw Swanson’s electrifying moves, they posted his highlight reel, and the internet loved it. His reel went viral. In high-school, everyone and their grandmothers wanted to see what a 4’5” little person could do with the ball in his hand…now everyone and their grandmothers, all around the globe, get to see what this man can do.
A day or two later, Worldstarhiphop.com—the number one place on the internet which breaks new music videos, music artists, entertainment, and overwhelmingly viral videos—came across Swanson and instantly posted his highlights. The video went nuts; NBA players, celebrities, and news anchors retweeted it, sending it into the stratosphere. Next, Swanson was on the front page of Yahoo, then it was TMZ, then it was a featured article on Village Voice. ESPN and Good Morning America played his video too. Swanson, once a kid trying to make a name for himself in the streets of Harlem, was now an internet star. Swanson called it a “dream come true.” For weeks to come, newspapers flooded his apartment with his name on them.
“It was crazy,” Swanson said. “I had no idea who ballislife.com was. I went to bed one night, then next thing I know, my friends are texting me to get out of bed and go on Twitter.”
Now a true sensation, Swanson has fans—tons of them. Everywhere he goes, people want his autograph and a chance to beat him at basketball…even the celebrities. Since the viral video, Swanson has played a number of notable celebrities and sports figures in one-on-one games and has taken pictures with many. Swanson has been spotted with athletes like Jeremy Lin, David Beckham, DeMarcus Cousins, Beno Udrih, and Wilson Chandler. Celebrities and NBA players who’ve taken on the 4’5” man of muscle include Jamie Foxx, R. Kelly, Chris Brown, Tank, Lil’ Fizz, George Hill, former college star Corey Fisher, and his favorite football player of all-time, Terrell “T.O.” Owens. Owens was Swanson’s favorite matchup of them all, and taking on the 6x NFL Pro Bowler was not an easy task.
Swanson said, “[he] looked at T.O. as another player, not an idol.” In the video, Owens clearly does not take it easy on Swanson. Though he couldn’t drive to the rack on Swanson, because of his overwhelming height advantage, Owens took jump shots which were almost all uncontested and showed no mercy on defense. Swanson had to utilize every move possible to compete with his 6’3” opponent. Swanson made an outstanding comeback, defeating his trash-talking idol 15-14. You can find the raw, uncut footage of this epic battle on YouTube.
Swanson is sick and tired of hearing averaged-sized people complain while he struggles through similar trials without complaining.
Swanson said, “if I’m not making excuses, you shouldn’t be making any. If someone says you can’t do something, you should take that and knock it out of the park. You have to have the passion to do great things. Everything I saw myself doing at a young age, I’m doing it. It wasn’t easy, but it took hard work, and I accomplished my goal.”
In public, Swanson will do anything he can to avoid having people help him out because of his height.
Swanson said, “When I go to the supermarket, I don’t have someone get something off the top shelf. I got hops. I jump as high as I can to get it. That’s work for me to get better.” Listening to Swanson talk about his dedication to his craft can get any person motivated. His main punchline—proudly spoken in almost every video—is “don’t believe the height, believe the hype.”
In 2014, Swanson joined Court Kingz, an entertainment-style basketball team that fundraises community events for schools and nonprofits all over the United States. The team travels internationally, performing events, fundraisers, and streetball games in the United States, Asia, China, and other countries around the globe. The team consists of nine streetball-savvy players, all with their own nicknames; “Mani Love,” “Hot Sauce,” “Mr. Viral,” “Rim Reaper,” “Master Jeng,” ‘Jump Man,” “Jet Blue,” “Remix,” and “Zig Zag.” Swanson, the only little person on the team, is simply the hottest show in town. He throws alley-oops, flexes his signature ball-handling moves, pumps up the crowd, and revels in being the man everyone came to see.
Swanson said, ‘[Court Kingz] accepted me. After they saw my first few moves, they knew I was the real deal.”
For the majority of the year, Swanson travels with the team all over the world. A majority of travel is spent during their yearly China tour. In Asia, Swanson can’t move without being recognized.
“In Asia, I’m famous,” Swanson said. “I’m the closest thing to meeting Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant over there. [The fans] love it. If I take my jersey off to give away, [fans] go nuts and want it as a souvenir. They want to be a part of the hype.”
To start 2016, Swanson will tour the United States with Court Kingz, and he has added a new style trend while playing with the team. The organization has teamed with the Dada brand to bring Court Kingz their own signature sneaker. Each player matches with the same uniform, same sneakers, and same ego as they storm the court to defeat every opponent in sight. You wouldn’t even call it a true basketball game.. It’s more of a high-flying, highlight-making show—and a great one.
“Mani Love” has high hopes that the year of 2016 will be a significant one. Touring with Court Kingz and playing in the VBL will continue, but Swanson wants to expand even more.
“I want to make a viral, Uncle Drew-type video,” Swanson said. “Of me, going around the courts in New York City, dressed as a kid and destroying the youth competition. That would be something to see.”
Yes, it would, Mani Love. Yes, it would.
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