This is one of my favorites. I feel very blessed to have been able to do the things I have in life. But many of the highlights are not the big-ticket items, the meetings with famous people or celebrities that others often ask about. It’s the interaction with some really remarkable regular people, or great artists who are past their glory days and looking back, often in thoughtful, reflective modes. Tiny Archibald is a little bit of all of both, one of the greatest basketball players ever – I would argue the game’s greatest little man ever – and a truly humble, smart, thoughtful dude. Standing on a Harlem elementary school playground rapping with him ranks way up there in my life’s experiences.
The story is close to a decade old. He has long since earned his PhD. Congrats, Dr. Archibald.
Original Old School: The ProfessorSLAM 37: Nate “Tiny” Archibald is willing to tell today’s players what it takes to win.
by Alan Paul
Nathaniel Archibald stands on the searing blacktop playground of Harlem’s PS 175. School kids on their lunch break fill the air with the sound of play, running all around him as he stands with his hands in the pockets of his sweats, eyes hidden behind dark shades, body trim in a dark polo shirt. At first glance, Archibald could be any gym teacher in America. That is, until he starts talking about playground moves and shifting his weight from one leg to another, rolling his shoulders and flipping his hands with a grace that’s anything but average. A grace which made Tiny Archibald one of the greatest point guards ever to play the game.
The 6-1, 160-pound Archibald is the only player to lead the league in assists and scoring the same year. He did it in ’73, his third NBA season, when he scored 34 ppg and dished out 11.4 apg. He also averaged 46 minutes that season, typical of the full-tilt effort he gave through six seasons with the Cincinnati/Omaha/Kansas City Kings [Don’t ask.–Ed.], over which he averaged 25 ppg and did it all. He missed the entire ’77-78 season with a torn Achilles tendon, then moved on to the Celtics, where his numbers went down but his efficiency went up. In ’81 he led the team to their first Bird-era title. He retired in ’84 and was a no-brainer selection to the Hall of Fame (’90) and to the 50-Greatest team selected in ’96.
But Archibald’s stellar NBA career is only the tip of his very deep iceberg. He was a New York playground legend before he entered the league, and even more of one after, returning to his hometown to play summer ball every year. Even at the height of his pro career, Tiny dazzled the fans at the Rucker tournament, often bringing with him NBA teammates like Dave Cowens. “I’ll never forget watching Tiny go off up there,” recalls Dr. J. “He was incredible to watch, scoring at will.”
Whether the venue was a slab of asphalt or the Boston Garden, Archibald’s game was marked by lightning quickness and a fearless ability to penetrate, taking it right at the heart of the opponent’s defense, where he could finish or dish with equal aplomb. His moves were legendary and he played with extreme flavor, even though he never dunked in the NBA—proving that there’s more than one way to keep it real.
Since the end of his playing days, Archibald’s star has only shone brighter, even if many fewer can see it. After serving as an assistant coach for three years, two at his alma mater, the University of Texas El Paso, where he worked with Tim Hardaway, Archibald returned home to the Bronx. He got a master’s degree from Fordham University and is currently working on his doctorate. He has continued to work with the community, running boys and girls clubs, serving as recreation director for a homeless shelter and for the past several years teaching at PS 175, which is where you must go to find him. Tiny Archibald does not seek the spotlight, so the spotlight must seek him.
“Tiny is the best,” says New York Post and NBC commentator Peter Vecsey. “He is very dedicated to the kids and the community, and he asks nothing from nobody, expects no privileges. He has never changed one iota from the moment I’ve met him. He’s just a great human being, and as straight and real as anyone you’ll ever meet.”
SLAM: You grew up in New York in the midst of many, many great players. Who did you pattern your game after?
ARCHIBALD: My idols were Lenny Wilkens and Bob Cousy, but the greatest ballhandler I ever saw did not play professional ball. His name was Ed “Czar” Simmons, and he was a guy from Brooklyn who played on the Brooklyn USA team with Connie Hawkins and Roger Brown—two ABA players—and Jackie Jackson. He was a chubby guy who always wore a hat. Back then, when you played ball, you didn’t wear jewelry or watches or anything other than a uniform. But here was this grown man with a cap on, taking command of a fabulous team—passing the ball anywhere, telling guys what to do. I loved watching him play in the Rucker, but there were so many great players. Earl Manigault, Helicopter, Pablo Robertson—a great ballhandler and assist man.
Two really great ones, who were more or less my contemporaries, were Pee Wee Kirkland and Joe Hammond. They both could have been pros, especially Pee Wee. His potential was unlimited, and he could adapt to a structured game. He wasn’t some all-flash guy. He went to Norfolk State, was the CIAA MVP and All American, [got] drafted by the Chicago Bulls, and he walked out on them. There are lots of stories about what he did—the bags full of money and the drugs. Well, I only knew Pee Wee when it came to basketball, and he could play. Joe Hammond was maybe not on the same level, but he was also a great player. He got drafted by the Lakers but never went to camp.
SLAM: What about big guys?
ARCHIBALD: No secrets there. Kareem was awesome from the first time I ever saw him play, when we were kids. I played with Wilt and I saw him play against the Brooklyn Pros, when he was in the Baker league [from Philadelphia]. Of course, Wilt was great and so were others, but Kareem was so fluid in motion and did so many things. I never saw another big guy who could move like him.I’ll never forget watching him in Morningside Park, scrimmaging against pros when he was a high school kid. He went to Power and I went to Dewitt Clinton and we played each other, but I didn’t get to play too much. He was ahead of me, and I was a bench player until my senior year. But just sitting and watching him was a beautiful thing. He just dominated in college—they had to change the rules and outlaw the dunk when he got to college, and when he left, they put it back. It’s just amazing to me that I came through the same [Rucker] program as that guy.
SLAM: You played in the Rucker growing up and kept playing after you were an NBA star. What did you like about it so much?
ARCHIBALD: Everything—the competition, the fans, the crowd. A lot of guys don’t play at all in the offseason. After their season is over they go around and talk highlights: “I did this, I did that.” Us guys didn’t have to talk about it. We just said, “You did what? Fine. Get on the court, and show me again.” I loved that. You take the competitiveness of a professional league and bring that flavor outdoors, and suddenly you’ve got a whole new game. You’ve got the music booming, you’ve got the crazy fans screaming and betting. I think that type of atmosphere is great. I loved the Rucker, and when I wasn’t playing in it, after my playing days were over, I was coaching.
SLAM: Once you were established as an NBA star, did other guys really come after you?
ARCHIBALD: Sure. They’re not impressed. Guys that did not play in the NBA lived and died for the summer to play against established guys. You was on the most wanted list, because you made it to the NBA and they didn’t. They didn’t care if you were an all-star, an all-pro, whatever—they were out to get you.And I knew where they were coming from; when I was coming up, I lived and died for the summer so I could come in and play against established guys like Connie Hawkins and them on Brooklyn USA. Oh, just to step on the court and say, “Yeah, I played against the Hawk!” And he was tremendous up there. Just unreal, as good as anything you’ve ever heard. He could do it all, and his whole team was phenomenal.
SLAM: Did you feel like it was important for you to just come back and be a presence in the community?
ARCHIBALD: I’ve always come back to New York, whether I was playing or coaching or running programs in the South Bronx. Probably one of my biggest downfalls is that I can’t seem to get out of here. It’s like a wall is around me. But I’ve been fortunate, and New York has been good to me in a lot of ways, in life and in basketball—I got to play with and against so many great players coming up.
SLAM: Are you still working on your Ph.D.?
ARCHIBALD:Yeah. It’s been good, but it’s not as big a deal as people make it out to be. After my basketball playing days were over, I was kind of in a gray area, and I wanted to go back to school to pursue my education. Because I really wanted to do something with my life. I coached for three years—as an assistant at Georgia, then for two years at UTEP—but I felt something was missing. I came back to New York and enrolled at Fordham and got my masters in adult education supervision and administration. Then I got my professional degree, and now I’m just trying to do another degree. That’s all a Ph.D. is—the next degree.
SLAM: Did you have any particular role models in life rather than basketball?
ARCHIBALD: Sure, I had a lot of good mentors and role models. There was Floyd Lane, Hilton White, my high school coaches Hank Jacobson and Bob Buckner, who all taught me how to behave as well as how to play ball. But if I wanted to model myself after anyone, it was probably my dad. He was quiet, tough, determined, and he got things done. No, he never played basketball, but that’s the way he was, and that’s the way I am. And I like to help pass that on. That’s one of the reasons I want to be involved in the school system; you have to give these youngsters an opportunity to learn life skills as well get an education.
SLAM: Do the kids here know who you are?
ARCHIBALD: Most of them do, but I don’t make a big thing out of it. A couple of them are always bugging me to play them one-on-one, but I’ll tell you what: watching the moves these kids have, I don’t know how I ever got by doing the things I did. I think it was largely because of determination and sheer will. And, as I was saying, I had good mentors. That continued when I got to college and learned so much from Don Haskins. He was the Bear, and he was tough and intimidating, but he was a great, great teacher. The ultimate. He didn’t care nothin’ about the scoring. All he wanted to do was win and beat you at the chess game of basketball. And I learned a lot about defense from him, playing matchup zones, although he insisted we only play man to man.
He had me playing the post at times. I said, “I’m no post-up player.” And he said, “Do this for me: Catch the ball, turn around, and if no one’s in your way, take it to the basket.” So I started working on that, and I realized it was easier to go 10 feet to the basket than 90 feet.
SLAM: Then you got to the NBA, and your first coach was Bob Cousy, one of the greatest guards of all time.
ARCHIBALD: Cooz was like an extension of my dad, and I was lucky to be on that team. He sat me down and talked to me about being the ultimate point guard. He knew I had the quickness and determination, and he gave me a chance when a lot of people didn’t think I could make it. I just tried to make the best of that chance.
He was an elite point guard, and he always had the ball in his day. That’s how it was played in the ’60s: you get the ball off the boards, you give it to the point guard. Not like today when everyone tends to be more flexible. We had Sam Lacey and Jimmy Walker on that team, bigger guys who could handle the ball, but Cooz wanted the point guard to handle the ball 80 percent of the time, because that was an extension of him. It was difficult to be thrown right into the fire as a rookie, but the game was a lot easier when you controlled the basketball and controlled the flow. So that really worked to my advantage.
Don Haskins was more or less the same way, and not only did I benefit from that, but so did Timmy Hardaway. Haskins wanted him to have the ball all the time, and his ballhandling improved dramatically as a result. His game got a lot better. He was a great penetrator and he had the crossover dribble when he got there, but he learned well and that’s why he has a complete game today. He always had a lot of heart and determination, and he got the great coaching to bring that out.
SLAM: It must have felt good when you finally got to the Celtics and were on a really good team for the first time, where you didn’t have to do all the work.
ARCHIBALD: It was great. And Cooz knew something like that would happen for me. A couple of times, he said to me, “You’re dong a lot of work, playing a lot of minutes. You’re beat up and battered. But one of these days you won’t have to do all the scoring,and you will be able to let it all come to you instead of always having to bring it.” A lot of guys are statistics crazy—they need to be scoring or rebounding or dishing a ton in order to be one of the men. I wasn’t like that, and Cooz knew it. He was saying, “One day you are going to get a chance to be a quarterback on a great team They’re going to need your experience and knowledge, and you will be the ultimate winner.” And it came.
I led the Celtics in assists, but it wasn’t a whole lot [7.7 apg], and I didn’t score all that much [13.8 ppg]. I had great players around me, and it was a lot of fun. It made the game a lot easier. It’s really a pleasure to play with guys that have the same determination that you have and will do anything to win. I was finally in a position to play a normal point guard style. Which I loved. I didn’t have to worry about just playing that penetration game, and when I did it, it was a lot easier. I just got a chance to play with the best front line in basketball history, which made my job a lot easier. And after I left, that front line was still in place, and they just had a changing of the guards. As long as you have Larry, Kevin, Chief and Maxwell in place, you just change the guards. And that’s all they did. When I left, they brought in Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge and just kept rolling. Because no one was gonna stop McHale, Bird and the Chief.
SLAM: Did you ever feel intimidated taking the ball to the hole against bigger guys?
ARCHIBALD: I did, but you just keep your head up and make things happen. I mean, Wilt was a dominating force, for instance, but if you had the angle, you could take him, or anyone. When you go to the hoop, there are only four things that can happen to you: You can get your shot blocked, you can get fouled, you can get it off, or you can pass it down for an easy shot. Three of those things are good. I knew guys who were bigger and stronger than me, but I always thought I was quicker. If I could get to that basket, get to that slot, before they committed to get there, then I could score.
SLAM: You were well known for your spectacular drives. Did you practice the actual moves, or were they all improvised?
ARCHIBALD: Of course I practiced them. You have to put in your time. People say today’s generation of players lack talent. Bullshit. They have the talent, but they put in less time than we did. First of all, we didn’t have videotapes that we watch over and over. So the videotape was in your head. You saw a move and then you had to do it over and over again until you think you got it right. That prompted us to just put in time, and practice hours are key.
SLAM: Everyone who knew you says that you played ball from sun-up to sundown. What sort of things would you practice when you were alone?
ARCHIBALD: Getting to the basket, getting around the invisible man. You do dribble drills, penetration moves, head fakes, practice going under the basket and making a right hand shot after coming in the left side. Work on perfecting your balance and body control. Basically, just doing a lot of unique stuff, so that when you get in the game you know what to do. Those moves don’t just happen.
Take Tim [Hardaway] and his crossover machine-gun dribble. I guarantee that he didn’t get that in the NBA. I saw him do that in high school and college. At UTEP, when practice was over, he was out there practicing his moves against the invisible person. Those are the things you get into. It’s a mental part of the game where you work things out so much that you condition your brain to think, “I don’t care who’s guarding me or how many people are in front of me. I’m going to score.” That’s how I learned, and that’s how we all played when I was coming up.
SLAM: Do you think that’s no longer the case?
ARCHIBALD: People gave us discipline and taught us respect. I see a lot of kids today who are great but don’t have the discipline and respect. It’s about your game fitting into the team concept. If you’re a guard, it’s not just about breaking people down, it’s about running your team. You put a guy in a park environment, and suddenly it’s about show. It’s not about winning, it’s about entertainment. And I know that people always say to me, “Yeah, B, it’s all about entertainment anyhow. It’s a game.” But no—it’s about winning, not about show.
If I do a great move, it’s to create a basket, not to look slick. It’s unfortunate that some of us were born with big ears, because we’ll do a great move and hear the cheers, and instead of continuing the move with the purpose that we had—scoring—we say, “Whoa, rewind. I wanna hear that again!” so back up and try it again, but then I never complete the move. Which means there’s no purpose to the move. All I want to hear is people saying “great move.” But the purpose is to score! The purpose is to pass. The purpose is to do something creative with the ball and be creative, not to just keep on doing the show game. If you can break someone down, go by them and score, don’t try to do it again. Don’t figure if one machine-gun crossover is good, six are better. I see that all the time. The game goes on; it doesn’t stop when you do that.
Whether or not someone can figure this all out, grasp this knowledge, is a key to whether they can make it from a playground environment to a more structured one, no matter how much talent they have. And college basketball is probably one of the biggest determining factors of whether or not a guy will make it. Guys always say, “Why I gotta go to college?” Because you’ve got a lot to learn.