March 10, 1986 12:00 PM

Here’s an etiquette tip: If you’re ever in the company of Spud Webb, do not stoop to telling him short jokes. Spud’s size—or the lack of it—is a sore point. Yes, at 5’7″ and 130 pounds he is the smallest player in the history of the National Basketball Association. And yes, it’s truly amazing that a guy his size could win last month’s NBA Slam Dunk Contest over some of the league’s most eminent high rises. But Spud doesn’t want to hear about it. “I’d rather be thought of for my ability,” he says. “I just want to play basketball and forget all the other stuff.”

Unfortunately, even his own team can’t forget it. To avoid the embarrassment of missing connections, his Atlanta Hawk teammates celebrate each of his small miracles with a congratulatory round of low fives. And on Spud Webb Night last November the Hawks handed out souvenir stickers, not posters. “Spud’s just too small for a poster,” explained a team official.

How small is he? Just ask Jim Valvano, Spud’s coach at North Carolina State. The first time he laid eyes on Spud, Valvano and the assistant who’d been recruiting the kid went down to the airport to meet him. Valvano was expecting a guard, but not a candidate for Ripley’s Believe It or Not! “All I see is this little kid staring up at me. He looks like maybe he’s 12,” says Valvano. “I told my assistant, ‘If that’s Spud Webb, you’re fired.’ ”

Fortunately for the assistant, Spud, a transfer from Midland College in Texas, wasted no time living up to his promise. “He was spectacular,” says Valvano. “He dominated games, and he made me a believer.” Now in his first year with the Hawks, Webb adds to the ranks of the converts each day. Darting about the court like a crazed hummingbird—”I’ve never seen anyone play that fast under so much control,” says teammate Dominique Wilkins—he works furiously to ignite the Hawks’ fast break and to drive to the basket. Once he gets there he calls out the air force. That’s his great equalizer in the land of the NBA giants: Webb’s vertical leap is a phenomenal 42 inches. Putting it on display during last month’s slam dunk shootout, Webb took first place—and $12,500—by launching himself into a 360-degree playground fantasy jam with the hang time of an NFL punt.

The second of five children, Webb was born in Dallas, where his parents run the Webb Soul Market, a convenience store right around the corner from the Cotton Bowl. His nickname, bestowed on him while he was still in the cradle, has nothing to do with his size, his shape or his feeling for tubers. “I was born around the time the Russians were going into space,” he explains. “And when a friend of my father’s saw me in the hospital, he said I had a head like Sputnik.”

Away from the court, Spud shares a house in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta with rookie teammates John Battle and Lorenzo Charles. He earns $70,000, the NBA rookie minimum. The money doesn’t figure to change him, physically or otherwise. “Spud doesn’t like a lot of attention,” says Wilkins. “He hears so much about being the little guy who does the amazing dunks that sometimes it gets to him.” Napoleon would have known the feeling exactly.