Nate Archibald: ROCKET MAN
The Nate Archibald Interview
By: Michael D. McClellan | Friday, November 26th, 2004
The story starts here, in the drug-infested, gang-ravaged projects of New York’s South Bronx, a place where bullets fly and dreams evaporate in near synchronous rhythm, a concert of violence that engulfs even the heartiest of souls and swallows them whole. It begins with a boy, painfully shy and wispy small, playing on the mean streets of the Patterson housing projects, gleefully dribbling a basketball, impervious to the dangers lurking on every corner. He is unable to explain his connection to that rubber orb, and only years later, after his hall-of-fame legacy has been cemented, can he give pause and appreciate it for its true value – a life raft in a sea of temptation, a vehicle that delivers him from the clutches of abject poverty. He shoots at the basket in the driving rain, too small to reach the rusting rim, too young to comprehend the vile graffiti sprayed onto the wall just beyond. He sprints under the noonday sun, dribbling hard and fast, his shoes barely touching the pavement, sweat racing down a face so boyish it takes decades for time to catch up. How many children, just like him, hear the drumbeat of the drug-pushers and succumb? How many of them grow old trying to escape? How many more sit in prison, a murder rap on their résumés, contemplating what might have been?
He grows from child to teenager, the basketball jammed under his arm as he makes his way home from the PSAT community center, the smile on his face in stark contrast to the rundown apartment complex towering over him. It is as if that dirty ball, worn smooth from hours of poundings on the South Bronx asphalt, has mystical powers that protect him from the dangers that threaten his place in the universe. It is a shield, a force field, impermeable to Patterson’s undercurrent of torment and despair. Latin jazz rolls down from the open windows above, the timeless rhythms of Eddie Palmarie, the lone remaining companion in a day that started with thirty boys playing pickup in PSAT’s dimly lit gym. His smile widens. Nathaniel “Tiny” Archibald is decades away from enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and being recognized as on the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players, but on this humid summer evening he is doing something far more impressive: He is staying alive.
His father leaves not long after, walking out on a wife and seven children. Archibald is fourteen, the oldest of the seven, and if ever there is a time when things could turn sour, this is it. But a funny thing happens to Archibald on his way to becoming a statistic; he steps up and fills the void left by “Big Tiny”, playing the dual roles of father and brother as effortlessly as he negotiates a basketball court at full sprint. The men who work at the community center, those who give so freely of their time and energy, provide Archibald with an outlet for coping with the pressures of such responsibility. They become a surrogate parent by lending an ear, offering advice and, perhaps most importantly, making sure that the promising teenager stays in school. The impact is profound and is still felt now, as Archibald chooses to help New York’s disadvantaged youth rather than cash in on his hall-of-fame career.
But that is down the road. High school beckons, and Archibald envisions himself the catalyst for DeWitt Clinton’s basketball powerhouse. Clinton is Willie Worsley’s team. He is two years older, the best player to ever put on a Clinton uniform, and the pride of the South Bronx. A playground legend, Worsley is also Archibald’s idol. Archibald often thinks of what it would be like to team up with the talented, high-flying senior, but those dreams are dashed when he is cut from the final roster. Suddenly, this future basketball phenom – the same player who will later lead the NBA in scoring and assists in the same season – finds himself at a crossroad; with his grades rapidly deteriorating and his heart telling him to drop out of school, Archibald turns to community sports director Floyd Lane, who convinces Archibald to give school another chance. There are basketball benefits as well; Tiny makes the team as junior, and is All-City by the end of his senior season.
The transition to major college basketball is complicated by poor grades; Archibald, for all of his effort in the classroom, lacks both proper focus and effective study habits. He enrolls at Arizona Western Community College with an eye on joining Worsley at Texas Western, and is hit with culture shock. It is his first extended stay away from home, and away from the concrete jungle that is the South Bronx. It is his first time on a college campus. He is homesick, two time zones away from his family, and unsure of his capacity to succeed in the classroom. Once again he ponders whether school is right for him, once again he reflects on Floyd’s words, and once again he decides to stick it out. Gradually, things get better; he enlists the aid of on-campus tutors, who help plan study sessions and prepare for tests. He becomes an active participant in the class. He makes friends.
And then, there is basketball.
He hits the hardwood with the same passion as that young child in Patterson, a rocket man outracing everyone on his way to the hoop, a human projectile hurtling his way through another 30 point performance. The team’s results are equally impressive; Tiny and his mates win 35 games while only losing one, doing so by scoring points in bunches and drawing gasps on nearly every play.
While Archibald spends his lone season at Arizona Western, Willie Worsley – all 5’-6” of him – is busy making history with legendary coach Don Haskins and the rest of his Texas Western hoops team. The Miners, starting five African-American players, meet Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats for the 1966 NCAA men’s basketball championship. Rupp’s Runts, as they are affectionately called, are all 6’-5” or shorter. They are also all white. Archibald watches on television as history is made, the first time an all-black lineup wins an NCAA title, and he finds himself dreaming again – dreaming of playing with Worsley, of orchestrating a fast break that drops jaws and leaves opponents in its wake. This time, he is prepared. He has, quite literally, done his homework, and earns a scholarship to play ball at Texas Western – newly minted as the University of Texas at El Paso.
Three seasons at UTEP bolster Archibald’s fledgling reputation as the rare point guard who can score and distribute the basketball. He averages more than 20 points-per-game, no small feat in Haskins’ defense-oriented system, and proves equally adept at chalking up assists. The NBA takes notice, especially after a series of college All-Star Games in which Tiny more than holds his own. The clincher is the 1970 Aloha Classic, in which the diminutive guard scores 51 points and piques the interest of Cincinnati Royals head coach Bob Cousy, himself an NBA hall-of-famer known for his backcourt wizardry with the Boston Celtics. Cousy meets with the 6’-1”, 160 pound Archibald before the game, talking basketball and swapping stories of their childhoods spent growing up in New York. A mutual admiration develops as the hoops legend, who hails from Queens, bonds instantly with his South Bronx counterpart.
The Royals posses the fifth overall pick in the 1970 NBA Draft. The talent pool is deep; Detroit selects Bob Lanier first, and then marquee names such as Rudy Tomjanovich, Pete Maravich and Dave Cowens are snatched off the board. Cincinnati, in desperate need of a big man, selects Sam Lacey fifth. Immediately, the agonizing wait begins: Will Archibald last until the second pick in the second round, nineteenth overall, which is where the Royals pick next?
Somehow, Archibald slides out of the first round. When the San Diego Rockets choose Niagara’s Calvin Murphy with the first selection in round two, Cousy wastes little time grabbing his man. Training camp confirms that Tiny is a score-first point guard, yet Cousy’s faith never waivers. He knows that the rookie is young and athletic, and that Tiny – now also known as Nate the Skate for his seemingly effortless end-to-end, full-court sprints – has been pushing the ball and scoring baskets his whole life. Changing that mindset won’t happen overnight. So he gives Archibald the reigns to the offense, along with the green light to shoot the basketball. He uses the practices to mentor his protégée on the art of quarterbacking an NBA team. Archibald averages 16.0 points and 5.5 assists, respectable numbers, but he is also turnover-prone and has trouble making adjustments on the defensive end.
The turnovers continue to plague Archibald during his second season, causing Cousy and General Manager Joe Axelson to briefly consider trading their prized pupil. The move is ultimately vetoed, and Archibald responds by playing the best basketball of his young pro career. By midseason he is on the All-Star Game bubble, but toiling for the moribund Royals doesn’t help his cause. Feeling slighted, Archibald goes on a scoring rampage over the second half of the season; his 34.0 points-per-game average over that span removes all doubt as to whether this 6’-1” rocket man can succeed on the NBA stage.
The Royals, struggling on the court and at the box office, relocate to Kansas City following the 1971-72 season. The franchise also changes its name to the Kings, and Archibald responds with a season for the ages: The third year pro becomes the only player in NBA history to lead the league in scoring and assists in the same season. The numbers – 34.0 points and 11.4 assists per game – are simply mind numbing. Archibald is selected to play in his first All-Star Game, and is also honored with a place on the All-NBA First Team. The pride of Patterson has beaten the odds – the drugs, the violence, the poverty – on his way to basketball stardom.
Despite this newfound celebrity, there are reminders of Patterson’s dark reality at every turn. A brother is arrested for robbery. Another is brought in on drug charges. Yet another suffers a drug overdose. These are the grim situations that Tiny had been able to avoid as a child, the life-altering events that had ruined so many of the friends he’d grown up with. Through high school he’d been able to protect his younger brothers and sisters from such dangers. Now, he is too far away to help. He flies home, again playing the role of father-figure, and begins to work through the most challenging period in his family’s history. His siblings listen to him as they always have and, over time, their mistakes are overcome.
The next five seasons bring both success and disappointment on the basketball court. Archibald suffers an Achilles tendon injury during the 1973-74 season, cutting short his campaign after 35 games. He rebounds with All-NBA First Team efforts the next two seasons, averaging 26.5 and 24.8 points-per-game, respectively. The individual accomplishments are wasted, however, as the Kings continue to struggle in the win column. Losing forces the team’s management to trade it’s most marketable talent, and Archibald suddenly finds himself going back home: The New York Nets are Archibald’s new employers, a team that represents a fresh start for the quicksilver point guard. A foot injury ends his 1976-77 season after just 34 games, the second major injury in four seasons. He is then unceremoniously traded to the Buffalo Braves, tearing his Achilles tendon before the 1977-78 season and never playing a game in a Braves uniform. Suddenly, Archibald is being talked about in the past tense. He is a player who can’t stand up to the rigors of NBA basketball, a player whose best days are in the rearview mirror. And when he is traded yet again, this time to the Boston Celtics prior to the start of the 1978-79 season, yet another label is whispered in connection with his name: NBA journeyman.
Archibald’s arrival in Boston is met with skepticism. He is overweight, a problem that robs him of his trademark quickness. His is rusty from inactivity. He is on another struggling team, this one trying to rebuild following NBA titles in 1974 and 1976. The Celtics, however, are far different from any of his previous stops. They are being rebuilt yet again by team patriarch Red Auerbach, the man responsible for all thirteen of the team’s world championships. Auerbach envisions Archibald as a pass-first point guard, the kind of player who will distribute the basketball to a new set of weapons – weapons that he has yet to add to the roster. The team struggles mightily that first season, finishing with a 29-53 record, and there are almost as many questions as answers: Will Auerbach, fed up with a meddling owner, bolt for the New York Knicks? Who will replace Dave Cowens as coach? Will the team continue to bicker internally, falling deeper into the abyss, or will there be a turning point that leads to yet another championship?
The turning point comes the following season, in the form of a country bumpkin named Larry Bird. With Bird taking the league by storm, a rejuvenated Cowens running the court, and a young Cedric Maxwell playing solid basketball, the Celtics win 61 games in 1979-80 and reach the Eastern Conference Finals. The arrival of Robert Parish and Kevin McHale a year later puts the team over the top; the Celtics win a classic seven-game rematch against the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals, and then defeat Moses Malone and the Houston Rockets for the team’s fourteenth championship banner. Archibald, his career seemingly derailed, quarterbacks that ’81 team to perfection. He is the player that Cousy had predicted he would become. He is the NBA All-Star Game MVP, All-NBA Second Team, and a world champion.
Archibald’s retirement came during the 1983-84 season, as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks. Had he not played four vital seasons with Larry Bird, his legacy might have been that of the young gun who never figured out how to subjugate his own game for the good of the team. Or that of a player too small to withstand the pounding that goes on at the NBA level. Instead, Archibald once again listened and learned, and in the process became one of the greatest players in league history.
Celtic Nation is honored to bring you this interview.
You were born on September 2nd, 1948 in the South Bronx’s Patterson housing projects. Please take me back to those early years – what stands out most about your childhood, and how were you able to rise above the drugs that were so prevalent at the time?
A lot has been written about Patterson and my growing up there, and about how horrible it was supposed to have been. A lot of that negative stuff comes from people who write about the projects but haven’t lived there, so you have this misconception that it was a dangerous, drug-infested place where you ran for your life every day. I’m not saying that there wasn’t trouble – every neighborhood has it’s problems, and you have to deal with them, but Patterson wasn’t as bad as it has been portrayed in print. Journalists who haven’t lived there do their research, but it’s not the same because they didn’t grow up in the projects. I don’t remember seeing a bunch of abandoned cars all over the place, but I’ve read about them in articles that people have written about Patterson. There just weren’t a lot of cars of any kind when I was growing up – most folks took the train or the bus. I don’t remember people throwing garbage from their apartment windows, but I’ve read about that happening, too. The stories made it sound like you needed an umbrella to keep from getting hit with all of the trash being poured onto the sidewalks [laughs]. But that just wasn’t the case. Patterson was clean. The buildings were clean.
It was a tight community. People looked out for each other – the parents and grandparents knew each other, they visited with their neighbors, and they ate at each other’s tables. That closeness was part of what I called my survival kit, which helped to keep me out of trouble. I had the community center and all of the programs it offered. I had sports. I had the school. It all played a part in keeping me from falling victim to bad influences such as drugs, crime and violence.
Growing up we didn’t have a lot of material possessions, but we made the best out of the situation. There was always food on the table. My mother made the best cornbread, and we always had beans and grits to eat. Meat was considered a luxury. Steak, chicken and fish were served on special occasions. There were seven of us to feed, so she made whatever food we had stretch as far as possible. And although we didn’t have a lot, we shared what we did have. Everybody looked out for one another. People got along. When I go back to Patterson now, I can tell that there is a big gap in that closeness between neighbors. Growing up, if any of us did something wrong the other parents would report on it. They were given permission to slap us on the backside if we got out of line, and then we knew we’d get it again when we got back home [laughs]. Today, people don’t want to get involved. That’s unfortunate.
I played basketball and softball, but I didn’t play football – I couldn’t afford the equipment and wasn’t really big enough anyway [laughs]. The games drew people together and gave us all a common bond, regardless of our backgrounds or ethnicities. It was beautiful. Patterson had a large Latino population, but by living there you understood that the term “Latino” was an umbrella that covered many different groups of Latin communities. There were Puerto Ricans, and there were Dominicans. There was a distinction. Each group had it’s own identity, and things that made them unique.
There was always music being played. Folks would dance to all different kinds of stuff, because the words really weren’t the important part. You might not understand the words to a song written in Spanish, but everyone could understand the beat. The music crossed all boundaries. I remember listening to the Latin music and loving it. I was a fan of artists like Eddie Palmarie, who played what is now known as Latin jazz. Those are some of the things that stand out in my mind.
You attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where you failed to make the basketball team during your sophomore year. Two years later you were All-City. Please tell me about Floyd Layne, and the role he played in your decision to stay in school and continue playing basketball.
Floyd was a very important man in my life. He was one of my many mentors growing up. He was well-known for playing basketball for City College [Manhattan] in the late 1940s and early 50s. He played on the City College team that won the NIT championship and NCAA championship in the same year which, I believe, has only happened once in the history of college basketball. I think that they defeated Bradley in the finals of both tournaments. A year later, the point-shaving scandal erupted and Floyd was caught up in it. He received a suspended sentence for his role, and he was eventually able to restore his public reputation. He later became the head coach at City College during the 70s and 80s. He’s also in the school’s athletic hall of fame.
Floyd was the sports director at the community center in our neighborhood. The center was also known as the PSAT, and it was a positive outlet for me because there were so many programs to get involved in, including basketball. It was a haven for me, a safe place to do constructive things and to stay out of trouble. The center was always open – it had an after-school program and an evening program, and it brought people together in ways that gave them hope. There was a big cafeteria, a gym, and other rooms to play sports in. There were rooms for music, singing and dancing. It was a big part of my survival kit.
I didn’t make the basketball team as a sophomore at DeWitt – I was just a scrawny, skinny kid who liked to play the game – and who was also floundering in the classroom. I just wasn’t a good student. I was a drifter, and at one point I considered dropping out of school. Floyd mentored me. He convinced me to stay in school and get an education, and he also asked me to consider going out for basketball again. He talked to Hank Jacobson, who was the coach at DeWitt at the time, and convinced Hank to take another look. But Hank was gone by the time my junior year rolled around. He had been replaced by Bob Buckner, who had played basketball with Bobby Knight at Ohio State. Bob turned out to the be best thing for me – he was a disciplinarian who provided an open forum and who made players compete for spots on the roster. He didn’t care what had happened last season. Everyone started off with a clean slate, and players had to prove themselves all over again if they wanted to play on his team. I probably benefited more from the coaching change than anyone because I wasn’t even on the roster. It was a fresh start. His attitude was, “Last season doesn’t matter – what are you gonna give me now?” And he rewarded the players who bought into that. I was a much better player by then, and I really responded to him. I made All-City as a senior and I don’t think we lost a game all year. It was a major turning point in my life.
Following graduation, you left New York to attend Arizona Western Community College. How did you end up so far from home?
I had a scholarship to play Division I basketball, but my grades weren’t good enough to qualify. So I had to go to Arizona Western, which was a small school and the perfect place for me at that time in my life. Leaving New York, it was good to go to a small environment where I didn’t disappear in the shear numbers of students. The people there were genuine, the classes were small, and the transition from high school to college wasn’t as dramatic as it might have been at a bigger school. I was able to get the attention that I needed – there was plenty of tutoring available to help with the coursework, and there were resources available to help me learn how to learn. Arizona Western was like my Noah’s Ark in a giant, confusing ocean of higher education. It really prepped me for the rest of my academic life.
And I had fun at Arizona Western – not many people know this, but I wanted to stay there two years instead of one. Our team went 35-1, which really made it hard for me to leave. The system was really suited to my style of play – we were constantly pushing the ball up the court. It was a fast-breaking attack. We ran at every opportunity. I think I averaged 29.5 points-per-game that season, and most of those baskets came in transition. But it wasn’t a run-and-gun, street-ball offense. We played smart on the court. We worked really hard on revving up the offense, and this philosophy was the exact opposite of the system in place at Texas Western. When I transferred there, Coach [Don] Haskins had just won a national championship with a defensive-oriented system. It was more disciplined. More structured. It was obviously successful – Coach Haskins is a hall-of-fame legend – and I gladly fit my style of play into it, but my time at Arizona Western stood out from a pure enjoyment standpoint. Who wouldn’t have fun running the court and scoring all of those points [laughs]?
After one season at Arizona Western, you accepted a scholarship to play at the University of Texas at El Paso (formerly Texas Western), where you averaged 20 points per game over three seasons. Please tell me about your time at UTEP.
UTEP was a huge transition. It was a much bigger campus and I was on my own all over again, so my initial feeling was one of being lost. I’m glad I had that year to adjust, because I wouldn’t have been ready in the classroom. That year in Arizona taught me how to study, and how to use my time productively. Who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t gone to school there first. I would have been even further behind, and I might not have made it.
And there was also a transition on the basketball court, no doubt about it. I had to sit and learn. I had to wait my turn. Willie Worsley was on the team. He was a little older than me, and he also played ball at DeWitt Clinton – I was a sophomore when he was a senior. Back then no one knew who Nate Archibald was, but Willie Worsley was a player with the big-time reputation. He led the city in scoring as a senior – he averaged more than 30 points-per-game and was considered the best basketball player in New York. He never backed down from a challenge. The man always put on a show. He was also a big summertime player, so I got to play with him a little bit. I always tell people that when Willie was playing, I had the best seat in the house. Why? Because I was on the bench when he was busy doing all of those crazy things on the court [laughs].
Willie was on the Texas Western team that beat the Kentucky Wildcats in 1966. He was recruited by Coach Haskins – Coach grabbed a lot of talent out of New York City. That 1966 championship team had three players on it from New York City high schools – Worsley from Clinton, and two players from Morris High School in the Bronx; Nevil Shed and Willie Cager. I knew those guys because we played summer-league ball together, and having familiar faces there meant everything when it came to choosing UTEP. The fact that they had just won the national championship didn’t hurt, either [laughs].
Seriously, having those guys there made it much easier for me. I’d never been to Texas, and I knew nothing about El Paso. It was a huge campus – I’d never been on a university campus before, not even in New York – so it was something completely new to me. Everything was foreign because I was seeing it for the first time, and that made it very intimidating.
Playing ball at UTEP was a big adjustment up in a lot of ways. It was a natural-but-painful progression, but that’s the nature of the game. The farther you progress the less fun it becomes, and the more like work it becomes. Think about it; basketball in junior high was all about learning the game. High school was more about standing up to the competition and handling the pressure. All along the way you’re moving up, striving for the next level, preparing to test yourself against better and better players. So, college ball was more demanding and far less fun than any of the ball I’d played before. It was hard work. There was much more running and conditioning involved. I made the adjustment, even though it wasn’t easy, by pushing myself to succeed at that level. I was in shape mentally as well as physically. Today, guys miss out on that by going straight from high school to the NBA. They get lost by coming out too early and not getting a good foundation in college. Coaches just don’t have the time to teach the fundamentals that players should have learned at the college level, so that leap to the pros is huge. Some make it and some don’t. All of them have to rely on shear talent and ability at first, until they can figure out how to play the game the right way. And the guys who do go the college route don’t always stay long enough. They see the money to be made, and a lot of them are gone after one season. You just don’t have NBA-caliber guys staying four years anymore. They watch ESPN and see other guys that they’ve played against, and they decide to leave because they think they’re better. It’s sad. For every Kobe and LeBron there are ten more players like Omar Cook, guys that don’t make it and have nothing to fall back on. No education. No college degree. Nothing to carry with them into the rest of their lives. Sooner or later the dream dies for these guys, and then what? A failed basketball career isn’t going to get them the good jobs in the big companies. We need to do a better job of educating these players.
As you’ve just mentioned, Coach Haskins led UTEP – then known as Texas Western – to the 1966 national title, a victory forever known for its political and social consequence. That same year, he became the first coach to start five African-American players at the major college level. What did these milestones mean to you, and did they factor into your decision to play Coach Haskins?
It meant a lot because it was for the national championship, but it just happened to be five black guys playing against five white guys. That undertone brought the game a lot of attention because of the whole segregation thing, because it was televised and being played for all the money. For me, knowing those guys was more important. I’d played ball with Worsley, Cager and Shed. I could identify with them because we’d grown up in the same environment. So when I arrived a year later it wasn’t such a big deal to fit in. They understood what it was like to grow up in New York.
Playing basketball at UTEP was just the next progression for me. As a student-athlete you start out by keeping the grades to compete, and then once you’re on the team you start to fight for minutes. Then you want to take minutes away from the guys at your position. That all comes from being hungry. Back then I wasn’t hungry – I was 150 pounds ringing wet – back then I was starving [laughs]. I think that goes back to growing up without a whole lot. Like I said before, we didn’t have meat on the dinner table very often – but then we never missed a meal, either. Our mother worked at Alexander’s, which was a supermarket in the neighborhood, and she always made sure the family had food on the table. We ate a lot of bean soup. And we were always right there ready to eat at 5PM, because she used to say, “The kitchen is open from 5:30 until 7 o’clock, but not a minute longer.” And she meant it. Come 7:01 the kitchen was closed and we weren’t going to get anything else to eat. It’s a lot different today. Young kids today have pocket money, and most of them are spoiled when it comes to food. They can look at something and say, “I’m not going to eat that.”
We were a very close family, and still are to this day. Back then only two people had keys to the apartment – my mother and my older sister. And just like dinner, there came a time when you’d better be in the apartment or the door would be locked. I remember coming home and banging on the door, and my sister refusing to let me in. She’d say, “I’ll only let you in if you promise to do the dishes.” And that was deal. We still laugh about it today. You have to understand that our father left when I was fourteen, so we all took turns filling his shoes. It must have worked, because there are five undergrads in our family, and three with masters. I’m still going to school because I believe you never stop learning. My sister is working on her PhD. And that all goes back to our mother. She insisted that we go to school and get our degrees. So even after I went to the NBA I knew I’d go back and finish the work needed to graduate. My mother would see me, or call me, and it was always the same. She’d say, “Where’s my degree?” And that’s the way she looked at it. That was as much her accomplishment as it was ours.
To her, the fact that I played professional basketball never ranked with what any of us accomplished in the classroom. I understand that now. I remember when I was playing for the Nets, and the Philadelphia 76ers were coming to town. I had a broken bone and wasn’t going to be in the lineup. That afternoon I stopped by and my mother was getting all dolled up. I said, “Where are you going?” She said, “To the game.” She never went to the games, but Dr. J was going to be on the floor that night and she loved watching him play. It wasn’t that she didn’t like watching me; it was just that she was more interested in my education. She was a great woman. So my decision to play at UTEP had a lot more to do with these things than with any of the black-versus-white stuff that the media talked about. It was important, but it wasn’t the biggest thing that put me in El Paso.
You scored 51 points in the 1970 Aloha Classic, and were subsequently drafted by the NBA’s Cincinnati Royals. Your head coach was former Celtic legend Bob Cousy who, coincidentally, had also grown up on the tough streets of New York. Please tell me about Mr. Cousy, and what it was like to play for him.
This is a fact – before I went to Hawaii, I played on a Phillips 66 team in Idaho. It was a collection of college players showcasing their talents for the pros – collegiate All-Star games – and Haskins sent me up there to play. The games were rough. There was a lot of bumping and banging, a lot of people getting knocked to the floor. I played three games and was running for my life the whole time [laughs]. But my scoring average was impressive, which helped generate some interest, and I played well against some of the best talent coming out that year. I always wanted to excel against the guys in my class, no matter who it was. I was excited whenever I got the chance to play against the likes of Dave Cowens, Pistol [Pete Maravich], Rudy [Tomjanovich], Charlie Scott, or any of the others. For me, it was a great challenge. I took the mindset that I was a bandit and they were on my hit list, and I wanted to play against them so bad. I knew I had to be in great shape to stand out against them. I kept myself in great shape. Always well-conditioned and ready to run.
When the All-Star games were over, a couple of guys ended up not going to Hawaii and I took one of the slots. The trip wasn’t a new experience for me; I’d played there because UTEP was in the WAC with the University of Hawai’i. So I just wanted to stay loose, have fun, and learn some more about myself as a basketball player. I scored 51. Cooz was there. I met him for the first time in Hawaii and it was really special for me. I’d had seen him on television, and I knew all about his career with the Boston Celtics. He was the Royals coach at the time. He took me aside before the game and said, “I’m going to be talking to you.” I didn’t say much – I was pretty quiet at the time – but in the back of my mind I’m thinking, “Why do you want to talk to me?” After the game we sat down together and at first he didn’t say anything about drafting me. He just wanted to know what my intentions were, and whether I was interested in playing NBA basketball. I froze up, went completely blank. I told him that I didn’t know for sure, but that I hoped to play in the NBA. He said, “Well, we’re looking at players for the upcoming draft, and you’re one of the guys that we have in mind.” I didn’t believe it. To hear the great Bob Cousy say that he was interested was just too much, almost like he was blowing smoke at me. But he was true to his word; the next thing I know, I’m a member of the Cincinnati Royals and Cooz is my coach.
I always tell people that Bob Cousy was like my step-dad, that’s how much I think of him. Even though he’s from Queens and I’m from the Bronx, I never held that against him [laughs]. It was great to play for him. He gave me a shot at pro basketball when none of the so-called experts thought I could play in this league. And for him to think of me that way, well it only gave me more confidence and really helped my development. He was one of the greatest point guards to ever play the game, so I listened to everything he said. Our conversations were guard-to-guard. He understood the position so well, and he knew what I was going through as far as learning to play the game. He made me understand what it was to be a leader. He envisioned me being more of a floor general and less of a scorer, and he said, “One of these days you’re going to change the way you play the game. You’re going to become more of a quarterback and not so much of a scorer.” That’s what happened. I ended up winning that championship in ’81 with the Celtics of all teams, and I didn’t score a ton of points. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Cedric Maxwell – those guys were going out and getting the points. My job was to run the offense and keep the team flowing, just like Cousy had said way back in my rookie season.
A lot of guys get drafted and don’t get a chance to play, but Cooz was a man of his word. He gave me the basketball and said. “This is your team. Run it. Score points in transition. Get guys up-and-down the court.” He had all this faith in me, even at such a young age. It shocked me, really, because I wasn’t ready for that much responsibility. You’re talking about a guy who is twenty-one years old, and he’s asked to run an NBA team. I just wasn’t ready. He expected me to be a more vocal leader, but that wasn’t my nature. I didn’t do a lot of talking. I let my game do that. Later on he complimented me on that first season, but thought that I didn’t speak out enough. I just told him that I led by example. I think he came to understand that.
You averaged 28.2 points-per-game in only your second season in the league. You were particularly hot down the stretch, averaging 34 ppg after the All-Star Break. What happened?
I don’t know that it was by design, it was just a matter of getting on a roll. At that point in my career I was one of the primary threats on offense. I just went out and played the game. If the shot was there, I was going to take it, and if not then I wanted to find my teammate. Early on, I was a scorer first and a quarterback second. Cooz knew that I’d have to change my game, that I’d do it eventually, but he didn’t put the clamps down to get his point across. He gave me the freedom to play. He trusted that I’d take good shots, and that I’d distribute the ball if there was a better option on a given trip down the court.
The Royals moved to Kansas City prior to the 1972-73 season, changing their name to the Kings. You averaged 34.0 points and 11.4 assists, becoming the only player ever to lead the league in both categories in a single year. What did this accomplishment mean to you then, and what does it mean to you now?
That was never by design, either. It was something that just happened. I never went out on the court feeling as though I was going to make history that way – I just wanted to help the team win. I went out and played the game. Cooz gets a lot of credit for that record, because he gave the chance to play. He gave this skinny kid the chance to go out there and do his thing, and in a lot of respects I became an extension of Cooz out on the court. Some coaches are good for bigs, and some are good for guards. Cooz helped me to analyze what was going on out there, and he really helped me to make good decisions. I think that’s why I was able to lead the league in scoring and assists in the same season. I could quickly dissect the situation and instinctively know when to take the shot versus giving up the ball.
Our team that year was different from all of those great Celtics that Cooz played on. We didn’t have a Bill Russell. We didn’t have a Tommy Heinsohn. We didn’t have a K.C. Jones, or a Sam Jones, or a Jim Loscutoff. We didn’t have the old guys to learn from, the guys who’d been through the playoff wars and had walked away with championship rings. We were learning how to communicate without the benefit of great veterans who’d been there and done that. But we did have guys like Johnny Green, who took me under his wing and helped me understand the game better. Johnny had led the league in field goal percentage. He was a great target on the court. I looked for him when we needed a big basket. He was on the receiving end of a bunch of my assists, and he was also the wise sage who gave me a lot of great advice.
Leading the league in both categories in the same season was a very satisfying accomplishment, but not one that outranks winning the championship in ’81. It was just something that all came together – we were running at every opportunity, and scoring a lot of points in transition. I just played my game, which blended perfectly with the philosophy in place at the time.
You suffered an Achilles tendon injury the following season, but 1974-75 marked your return to greatness. You averaged 26.5 points and 6.8 assists, returned to the All-NBA First Team, and the Kings reached the playoffs for the first time in nine years. What was it like to finally taste the postseason?
The single biggest factor was probably the return trip that I made to New York after I tore the Achilles tendon. I went back to work with the youth in the neighborhood, and all of these kids were so supportive. They were saying, “Tiny, you can still play. You can come back from this injury. You’ve still got it.” And here I was in New York, supposedly mentoring them, and they were ones imparting the wisdom. It made me work hard to regain my speed. I didn’t want to let them down.
Coming back, I had the quickness that made me such a dangerous player. All of the self-doubt was gone; I was healthy again, and it showed in the way I played the game. Years later, I had suffered some nagging injuries and ended up being traded from the Nets to the Celtics. I weighed 240 pounds when I got to Boston, which was a far cry from the 170 pounds that I carried in my prime. Red [Auerbach] took one look at me and said that if I didn’t lose the weight that I wouldn’t play. It wasn’t that he didn’t want me, because he did. He just didn’t want two of me [laughs]! So Red told [Celtics’ trainer] Ray Melchiorre to help me lose the weight. Ray put me on a diet; skim milk with Raisin Bran for breakfast…no sugar, no butter, no jelly. I love fried eggs, but he cut those out, too. I could have them hardboiled, and that was it. Lunch was a dry salad – no dressing – and no tomatoes. Dinner was skinless meat, broiled. Nothing to drink but water and grapefruit juice. And if that wasn’t enough, Ray made me wear a fat suit when I worked out [laughs]. He was into scuba diving, so he brought one of those scuba suits to the training facility and had me put it on. It wasn’t a short suit, either – it was one of those long ones. Putting it on was no problem, but taking it off was almost impossible [laughs]. But it all worked, because the weight came off and I was back to my playing weight to start the season. I had my speed back, and I was back to running for my life [laughs].
But to answer your question, it was a dream season because we finally made the playoffs. We had solid players on that team – Jimmy Walker, Nate Williams, and Sam Lacey to name a few. Scott Wedman was a rookie that year, and he really helped us. But we lost to the Chicago Bulls in the playoffs, so that was a big disappointment. Anytime you’re eliminated it’s a bitter pill to swallow.
You mentioned that Scott Wedman was your teammate while with the Kings. Ironically, you would both go on to win NBA championships with the Boston Celtics. Please tell me about Scott.
Scott was a really good player. Those first couple of years he was kind of in the shadows in Kansas City, because he was a young guy just getting started and he wasn’t one of the focal points of the offense. But as time went on he became one of the team’s stars, and one of the better players in the league. He could shoot the lights out. Nobody in the league shot it any better. He was a role player when he went to Boston, which was a big change for him, but he really wanted to win a championship. He knew that he’d never take Larry Bird’s spot, and that his job would be to come off the bench and provide a spark on offense. That’s exactly what he did, and the Celtics won two championships with him on the roster.
You averaged 24.8 points and 7.9 assists during the 1975-76 season, again earning All-NBA First Team honors. The Kings, however, struggled in the win column. Was there ever any doubt that you’d win an NBA championship?
It was frustrating, but I just kept playing my game. I was never satisfied when we fell short of the ultimate goal. It had been like that since I’d started playing basketball. We added Bill Robinzine through the draft, but we just didn’t put things together like I thought we would. We won 31 games and missed the playoffs, so to me that was a huge step backwards. It didn’t matter what I’d done as an individual. We didn’t get it done as a team, so there was some doubt about contending for a championship.
The next couple of seasons were marked by injuries and trades, as you moved from the Kings to the New York Nets and Buffalo Braves. Please tell me about this period in your life.
It was a difficult time for me as a professional basketball player. I was hurt and I only played in 34 games for the Nets. We didn’t make the playoffs, and then I ended up being traded to Buffalo – and didn’t play at all during the 1977-78 season. So it was a very challenging period for me mentally. I had to deal with the injuries, and at the same time stay positive and focused on coming back.
You were traded to the Boston Celtics on August 4th, 1978. Despite a rocky start, the Celtics would soon add such hall-of-fame talent as Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. At what point did you believe that a championship was in your future?
That first year in Boston was ugly. We won 29 games and didn’t have much hope. Satch Sanders started off as the head coach, but he was fired and Dave Cowens took over as player/coach. On paper there was some good talent on that team – Cowens, Chris Ford, Curtis Rowe, Jo Jo White, Don Chaney – but the mixture wasn’t right. We even had young guys like Cedric Maxwell and Rick Robey. Bob McAdoo was on the roster for twenty games or so. But there was just so much turmoil and negativity that things went from bad to ugly, and they just stayed that way.
Larry Bird was drafted as a junior eligible, so we had to wait a year to find out what kind of player he was. He was our hope, although the press kept saying that he was too slow to play in the NBA, and that he couldn’t jump or shoot or play defense. When he arrived, and we actually got to see how good he was, that was when I started to believe that we’d compete for a championship.
Larry was easily one of the greatest players I’d ever played with. Everyone calls him Larry Legend, but I’ve always liked to call him Larry the Professor. He was so smart. He could analyze things on the court, and then diagnose a play almost before it even happened. He dissected his opponent. And while he might not have had the greatest physical tools – he wasn’t going to jump through the roof like a Dominique Wilkins – he was a master of the fundamentals. Nobody was any better at doing the little things collectively, like boxing out and making the extra pass. He had the highest basketball intellect that I’ve ever been associated with. It was a privilege to play with him, and also with Kevin and Robert. They were the heart of our team and the reason we won it all in ’81.
The 1979-80 Celtics won 61 games and reached the Eastern Conference Finals, eventually losing to Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers. You were once again an All-Star, and a big reason for the turnaround. How did your role change with the arrival of a young Larry Bird?
My role changed every year, which goes back to what Cooz told me my rookie season. That first year in Boston I didn’t play lot, at least by my standards. I wasn’t sure where I fit in or if I’d remain on the team. Red and I had some interesting conversations – he loved to walk through the locker room and tell you about the great Celtic teams that he coached during the 50s and 60s, and about all of the championships that he won on the parquet. Red would also sit you down in his office, which was a smoke-filled room loaded with championship mementos, and he’d try to motivate you to play up to those standards. I remember sitting down with him one day, the cigars stinking up the place, and he wanted to welcome me to the team. He said, “Tiny, I’m not sure where you’re gonna be by the end of the season. You’re out of shape and overweight, and I want guys who are in shape. I’m just not sure if you’re gonna be any good. You gotta compete. To be in this picture you’d better want to win.”
That was classic Red. He knew he needed a quarterback to run his team, especially since he was assembling such a talented front line, and he wanted to motivate me to be the player that I was before the injuries. But he also knew that he needed a player who could distribute the ball, someone who didn’t need to score a ton of points, and by that time in my career I was more than ready to share the load offensively. I’d been a big-time scorer, but I hadn’t gone deep in the playoffs. I wanted a ring. The pieces were coming together. Max [Cedric Maxwell] was already there, Larry was there, and Robert and Kevin were on their way the following season. And with Larry on the team we were able to turn it completely around. We only won 29 games my first season, and then we won 61 games the next. At the time it was the biggest turnaround in NBA history. Larry was the focal point of the offense, and that was fine with me. The next year we had Robert and Kevin, as well as M.L. Carr, so there were a lot of options. And we were all close, which was the best part. Max and I were like brothers. We stayed in the same house, we went to his home in North Carolina during the offseason, and we had a lot of great times together. The camaraderie on those teams was unbelievable. Nobody can take that away. The practices were real battles, and they made us closer as a team. There were fights, but that’s only because the intensity level was so high. Nobody was giving up, not even for a minute. And the individual records didn’t matter. We were all after the same thing, which was to be recognized as the best in the world.
The following season you were named the MVP of the All-Star Game. After suffering so many injuries in recent years, how did it feel to be recognized as the best of the best?
It was special. I was healthy again, and I was on a team that had a chance to win it all. I never doubted my ability, so it was good to be able to remind people that I could still play the game at a very high level.
The 1980-81 Boston Celtics came back from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat the 76ers and advance to the NBA Finals. Please take me back to that classic series. What stands out in your mind after all these years?
Nobody was giving up. There was no quit on that team. Philly was the team to beat, they had the big lead in the series, and we just kept playing as hard as we could. Larry told us to take one game at time, and we were able to focus on that. All of the games were very close, and very intense. Those last three games all went down to the wire, and they reminded me of the great Red Sox-Yankees series, with the Red Sox coming back from a 3-0 deficit to win.
People may forget this, but our best battles back then were against the 76ers. They had Doc [Julius Erving], Andrew Toney, Bobby Jones, Caldwell Jones, Darryl Dawkins, Doug Collins, Steve Mix, Lionel Hollins, and Maurice Cheeks. Philly was loaded. We had to beat them just to get to the Finals and face the Houston Rockets. It was a great series, probably the best I’ve ever been involved in.
You reached the NBA Promised Land one series later, defeating Moses Malone and the Houston Rockets for the 1981 NBA championship. What was it like to finally win basketball’s ultimate prize, and do you think you appreciated it more after having been through so much?
It was like Christmas. There are probably a lot of guys who’ve had a much better career than myself, guys who haven’t won a championship. You look at players like Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing and you feel for them, and at the same time you realize how lucky you were to win it all. I was fortunate and lucky to get to play early on, and to learn how the game was supposed to be played. I was able to persevere through the injuries and keep learning the game. I was just thankful to be a part of that team, and to have the ball in my hands. Everything that Cooz talked to me about as a rookie ended up coming true. I was the quarterback on a championship team. I accepted my role and I did the things that made my teammates better, and we were able to run the table.
You have been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and have been recognized as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players. What do these honors mean to you?
They are the ultimate honors. Red and Cooz were right there at my induction ceremony, and just having them as a part of it made me relax. I was able to take the podium and speak about my career. I had been so nervous beforehand, but they helped me keep it together. Afterwards they told me that I stole the show, and that I’d talked about everything.
In 1993, you were honored for your work with New York City’s youth by then-Mayor David Dinkins. You’ve always gone back home – coaching clinics, donating equipment, giving your time. How have these experiences enriched your life, and how have they impacted the lives of others?
I love teaching. When I look at my childhood, I realize how important it was to have safe havens to keep kids away from drugs and gangs. Activities such as basketball are so important in that regard. League play teaches kids the importance of sportsmanship and discipline, things that I learned early on because of the people who donated their time and energy to make a difference. And education stands out above all. It’s the foundation that helps to keep kids from doing crazy stuff. It’s important to help these kids understand that they lose out if they don’t have an education. That’s why I keep going back. I want to help instill the values of sportsmanship and education in children at the earliest age possible.
Final Question: You’ve achieved great success in your life. You are universally respected and admired by many people, both inside and outside of the NBA. If you could offer one piece of advice on life to others, what would that be?
Live life to the fullest, and remember that a rich life is not one measured by money or material possessions.