[A few months ago, I found an old magazine profile of NBA great Nate Archibald. It wasn’t too long, meaning the transcription would be light on my fingers, and I tapped it right out. There was only one problem: the article didn’t nearly do justice to the man they called Tiny. So, I’ve been sitting on that one, waiting for something better to come along.
I found that something better the other day puttering around my bookshelf. I have a dusty row of NBA paperbacks and, by sheer luck, I pulled out one featuring a long profile of Archibald. Its length wasn’t equally finger friendly. But the profile better captures the buzz that swirled around Archibald in the early 1970s, including the memorable season in which he led the league in scoring and assists.
This article comes from the prolific New York Times reporter Sam Goldaper and his 1975 paperback Hot Shots. I’ve condensed the text just a bit. Or, as we editors say, tightened it. But what follows remains fairly long, so I’ll stop my commentary right here. Enjoy the article, and hats off to the amazing Tiny Archibald!]
The South Bronx of New York City festers like a boil just across the Harlem River from Manhattan island. Junkies clog the bottle-strewn doorsteps and cops on the beat prefer to travel in pairs.
The entire area, inhabited predominantly by poor folks, is awash in despair. Youngsters grow up with a basketball in their hands and much of the hope for the community is in the tiny oases of playgrounds and community centers that dot the desolate streets of the neighborhood.
“It’s a jungle,” said a policeman at the desk in the 40th Precinct. “A kid growing up here has to really be on his toes. They play basketball around here from 8 a.m. to midnight, and they don’t even need lights. They shoot at the basket as if they had radar.”
Nate Archibald of the Kansas City-Omaha Kings grew up in that environment. Here’s the hope of every kid on the street who carries and shoots a basketball. He is remembered and talked about in the halls and classrooms of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, which he attended, and in the playgrounds and centers where everyone gathers to play basketball and emulate his twisting, daring moves to the basket.
Moreover, they are proud that Archibald, one of their own, not Jerry West, Walt Frazier, or Oscar Robertson, was the first player in the 27-year history of the National Basketball Association to win both the scoring and assists championships in the same season.
The 1972-73 season was an unbelievable year for Archibald. It was a season of fantasy when you consider that this mite other man, in his third pro season, zoomed to these Olympian heights:
- In winning the scoring and assist titles, he averaged 34 points a game and passed off for 11.4 assists.
- Piled up more assists (910) in one season than any other player in history, bettering the record (908) that Guy Rodgers established playing in 1967 with the Chicago Bulls.
- Scored most points (2,719) in a season by a backcourt man.
- Posted the highest scoring per game average of any guard (34.0) in history, surpassing Oscar Robertson’s 31 points a game during the 1963-64 season.
- Became the first guard in history to score more than 1,000 or more field goals with 1,028.
In addition to those eye-popping figures, Archibald was the first guard since Slater Martin played for the 1955-56 Minneapolis Lakers, (now Los Angeles Lakers), to lead the league in minutes (3,681) played.
And, putting some added icing on the almost unbelievable season, Nate Archibald scored 30 or more points in 61 of the 80 games he played. In 18 games, he scored 40 or more points, and, in three, 50 or more. As a playmaker, he was in double figures in assists in 56 games and had 10 or more in 14 consecutive games, another league record.
The pint-sized Archibald racked up these feats playing for a team that without Nate would probably have challenged the Philadelphia 76ers as the worst team in pro basketball. He also overcame double-teaming, illegal the zone defenses, and blatant attempts by opposing players to maim his small, reedy body.
Archibald played his first two seasons in Cincinnati, where the Royals found it difficult to win and draw fans. Before the 1972-73 season, the franchise moved and became known as the Kansas City-Omaha Kings.
As the Kings played better and drew more fans in their new homes in Missouri and Nebraska, it was largely due to the unstoppable little man from the Bronx. Archibald became one of the NBA’s biggest individual gate attractions as he wreaked havoc in almost every one of the 18 NBA cities. He contributed 35 points and 15 assists in an upset victory over the powerful Boston Celtics. He demolished the Houston Rockets with 51 points and 14 assists and threw a scare into the Knicks with 52 points and 15 assists, though Kansas City was beaten in overtime.
The game against New York was played in Kansas City, and the organist at the Memorial Auditorium played chase music every time Archibald got his hands on the ball. “Archibald and the music drove me crazy,” said Walt Frazier of the Knicks after the game.
The 1972-73 season also held many firsts for Archibald. He was selected to play in his first All-Star Game, was selected with Jerry West to the NBA’s All-Pro first team, and finished third behind Dave Cowens of the Boston Celtics and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Milwaukee Bucks in a vote of the players for the most valuable player award. The Sporting News named him as player of the year. He was the leading vote-getter in the All-Star balloting.
“I really didn’t have any concept of what the year would be like,” Archibald said. True, he and Coach Bob Cousy had talked about him operating the offense, but neither visualized what would transpire. Certainly not Archibald.
“Nuh,” Cousy said, “leading the league in both categories, I don’t think he realized it could be done, the guard scoring so much and still getting his assists. I didn’t think it could be done, either.”
The fact that it could be done was not born out of a desire to rewrite the record book. It was born,” Tiny said, “out of necessity. The necessity to win games.”
“As far as scoring, I didn’t think I could score that many points,” he went on. “But it got to the point no one was scoring.”
When that developed, Tiny said he took it upon himself to do both, scoring and assists. “I just assumed it (his dual role) myself,” he explained. “It was a long season, but not that long, because we probably won more games than in the last two years.”
But one of the highlights of the season had to be the NBA All Star game in Chicago. Archibald stole the show. With the East All-Stars leading by six points midway through the third, the All-Star Game paused for a moment in history.
“Nixon had announced a ceasefire . . .” said the public address announcer, relaying the President’s message that the war in Vietnam was near an end. Spontaneously, 17,527 voices rose up in an unexpected tribute to a single man. The leader. “We want Nate,” they cried, calling for the league’s leading scorer. The war had been around for 12 years, but Nate Archibald was in his first All-Star Game.
Maybe the crowd adopted Archibald because, at his height, he looked lost out there with all the big guys, but quickly showed that he belonged. He proved everyone wrong for overlooking him in the voting the season before, when he averaged 28.2 points, second only to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Nate lived up to his promise to enliven the All-Star Game, and brought the crowd to its feet with his fearless and fancy play. They oohed and aahed even when Archibald was not on the mark with a shot or pass. He was that spectacular. Driving past Lenny Wilkens, Nate left his feet and dipped a pass between his legs to Jerry West, who returned it just as fast, possibly catching Archibald off guard as his hurried shot bounced off the boards. Archibald came back to heave a half-court pass between bodies as though it were a baseball he was flinging. Again, the fans were in a frenzy.
Nate scored 10 points in the first period, sat out the second period and most of the third, and finished with a team high of 17 points. He also had five assists and was the runner-up to Dave Cowens of the Boston Celtics in the voting for the most valuable player. “I felt great,” Archibald said, “especially since there were two Chicago players on the bench (Chet Walker and Bob Love). Instead of chanting for their own players, they did for me.”
Cowens, commenting on the crowd reaction to Archibald, said, “They wanted him, that’s for sure. He can excite you. I smile myself when he does this stuff.”
But perhaps the biggest laugh came when the West All-Star team was announced. Nate was introduced right after Wilt Chamberlain, and Archibald said he felt a little silly standing there next to him. “I just wondered how people pictured us,” said Nate. “He’s one of the giants at the game, and I’m one of the little guys. It made it so obvious that I’m so small, and he’s so tall.”
Few teams around the league can agree on just how tall Archibald really is. About the only thing certain is that his name barely fits on the back of his No. 1 uniform shirt, and his warmup pants usually drag on the floor. It has been said that by actual measurements, he stands 6-foot-1 5/8 inches in his basketball shoes. But nobody will believe it. The NBA guide lists him at 6-foot-1, and there have been suggestions he was measured while wearing elevator shoes. In Chicago, he has been listed as “about 1 ½ feet shorter than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Milwaukee Bucks,” which would make him approximately 5-foot-8.
The other half of the Archibald guessing game involves his weight. He’s listed officially at 150 pounds, but a look at his greyhound body has brought puns that his pockets were filled with silver before he stepped on the scale. “He might be 5-foot-11,” said Dean Meminger of the Atlanta Hawks, himself listed as a suspect 6-foot-1.
Archibald is called Tiny or sometimes Little Tiny, a double diminutive that aptly describes him, but it has nothing to do with his height—which has been estimated to be closer to 5-foot-10.
From the time Archibald was born on April 18, 1948, his given name of Nathaniel has been almost nonexistent. On the ghetto streets, in the playgrounds, high school and college gymnasiums, and in the pros, he has always been Tiny Archibald.
“We always called him Tiny,” said Mrs. Julia Archibald, his mother. “The name has nothing to do with his size. He was rather a big baby, some eight pounds. We called his father Big Tiny, and him Little Tiny.”
But it hardly matters. His offensive moves in the NBA are no different from the tactics he employed in the playgrounds and schoolyards. He is one of the league’s fastest runners and dribblers, perhaps even faster than the 5-foot-9 Calvin Murphy of the Houston Rockets.
He readily outsprints opponents for breakaway baskets. In pattern situations, he often switches to his outside shot in an effort to draw out the defenses. Despite his size and that pro basketball is designed for the big man to cut off the little man’s drive, he shows no fears and completes his forays to the basket with one of his jackknife layups. Opponents oblige by sending him to the foul line.
Archibald has become a master at drawing fouls and converting them. During the 1974-75 season when he finished with 2,170 points, fourth best in the league, 652 of the points came at the free throw line.
Since Archibald came to the NBA in the 1970-71 season, opposing players have lamented that he is unstoppable on his drives, and he knows it. They marveled the way he slithers between players a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier in heavy traffic. In a game against the Boston Celtics, Archibald hurtled in for a layup, feinted toward the basket, glimpsed a defensive hand in the way, pulled the ball back, hesitated a split second, then flipped the ball into the net—all while in flight.
Kevin Loughery once said while playing in the Philadelphia 76er backcourt, “I think the only way to play Tiny is to drop off two or three steps and let him have the outside shot. You can’t give it to him uncontested, but it’s better to lay off than to let him penetrate by playing him close. He’s become a very, very good shooter, but I’d rather have him make 12, 13 field goals with three or four free throws and get his points that way than with 14 or 15 foul shots. When he’s driving and getting free throws, that’s also when he’s breaking down defenses, getting your big man into foul trouble, passing for his assists, and bringing the other guys on his team into the game.”
The combination of his quickness and fearlessness has enabled Archibald to survive in the land of basketball giants. “When I go to the basket, the big man has to adjust,” Archibald explains. “If the small man is quick enough, that will give him the advantage. Some guys say I must have a lot of heart, going to the basket. I tell them my heart is bigger than they think it is. I usually drive so much, the players push back off me. So, I’m hitting the jumper. When I go to the basket, I just try to beat my man or hit the open man. I’m either going to get two points, get fouled, or both.”
Joe Axelson, the president and general manager of the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, calls Archibald, “the most exciting player in the NBA.” Nate’s boss has often said he would gladly pay to see his star play if somebody asked him to purchase a ticket.
Archibald was so good that one night when he scored just 26 points and handed off for 16 assists, the local press recorded the performance as an “off night.” But, then again, Archibald spoiled them because two nights earlier he had scored 51 points and handed out 14 assists.
It has been a standard practice in the NBA for opposing coaches to discount super performances of opposing players, attributing them instead to a breakdown in defenses. There is an exception to every rule, and Archibald is the exception. “He is so great,” said Red Holzman, the coach of the New York Knicks. “If I didn’t have to play against him, I’d enjoy watching him.”
Holzman didn’t have to play against Archibald that Wednesday night during the 1971-72 season, but his Knicks did and they did not enjoy it. Nate scored 49 points in Madison Square Garden. He began by scoring 17 of his team’s 20 first quarter points. Not all came on drives. He would occasionally pull up and hit an open shot, a shot he’s improved since his rookie season.
For the entire game, he took 35 shots, prompting Dean Meminger to remark, “You saw it. What can I say, he’s 90 percent of the offense.” Archibald hit on 17 shots from the floor and made 15 of 16 from the free throw line.
If he entertained the Madison Square Garden fans in his second pro season, he almost didn’t get into the building during his rookie season. What happened was, Nate, whose boyish face yields enormously oversized eyes and smooth skin makes him a candidate for a shave every other month, came up to one of the entrances at the Garden without a ticket and tried to walk past the guard just as his teammates had done. He never made it. The man thought that Archibald was another kid trying to sneak in, and he had a standing rule that nobody gets in without a ticket.
“But I play for the Cincinnati Royals,” he protested. Archibald even tried to display his equipment bag as proof, but when he kept protesting that he was a player, the guard finally said, “And I’m the Queen of Sheba.”
As a passer, Archibald is equally devastating. Bob Cousy, one of the great passers in NBA history when he played with the Boston Celtics, and Archibald’s first pro coach, once said, “Nobody can stop Archibald. He has so much talent. I’d like to take credit for him. I’d like to say there’s a lot of me in him, but I can’t. I’ve taught him nothing. Tiny is pure Nate Archibald. What he does is his own creativity, his own flair.”
The comparison between Archibald and Cousy is natural. There is so much in Archibald that is reminiscent of the young Cousy, starting with the idea of the little man playing in the world of very big men.
On the court, Archibald used to look over to Cousy on the bench all the time. During timeouts, Cousy would reach out and lay a hand on him, even when Archibald was wandering around. “He has so much ability,” Cousy would say, “so much speed, so much quickness. I’ve talked to him at great length about taking charge, becoming a leader. I would tell him, when we’re running, I want you to be the one out there who’s on top of things. Anytime we went up and down the court three or four times without scoring, I would tell him to be the one to put the brakes on. He absorbs pretty well, and I tried to convince him that he really is the leader out there.
“He’s had the tendency to go schoolyard on you, though. He never disciplined himself as much as he should. I was always disciplined when I was playing, but then, I had nowhere near the ability to go to the basket that he does. He’s so good at that, it tempts him to be a little bit loose. He’s a playmaker, and I’d like to see that. When he makes a great pass, I feel better than if it had been a great shot. I think I appreciate a good play more than the average guy.”
Archibald has often said he could have not have progressed as far as a pro without Cousy’s help. “He made me think on the court,” Nate has said. “He taught me to know the situation, not to force a situation that doesn’t exist, and to look up and see the whole court.
“He made me aware my job was to run the offense, to get the guys to move and get the ball to them. I can make the move if I have the ball, but sometimes it’s hard for the other guy to know what I’m going to do.”
Tiny’s frantic whirling-dervish style developed in endless pickup games on concrete playgrounds and in community centers. “We played for dollars, quarters, and sodas,” Archibald recalls. “If you wanted to play, you put up your money. Money was difficult to come by. I couldn’t afford to lose a dollar, so I played a lot harder than the next guy to save myself. I did very well. A couple of bruises, but I’m still here.”
Archbold has come a long way from that 13-story Patterson Housing Project at 414 Morris Avenue, where his mother, Mrs. Julia Archibald, lived until recently when Tiny bought his family a home in Great Neck, on Long Island. “He makes me proud of the way he plays,” said his mother. “Tiny has never forgotten who he is and where he comes from, and I’m sure he never will.”
Archibald didn’t have the same chance most youngsters had growing up. His father, Nathaniel, walked out on the family in 1967 and hasn’t been heard from since. Tiny was forced to grow up quickly and become the man of the house. As the eldest of seven children (four boys and three girls), the 14-year-old Archibald bagged groceries at a supermarket and helped his mother keep the family together.
Growing up in the world of the South Bronx was not easy. People have little idea of the scope of the problems. “I’ve been through it all,” recalled Archibald. “In the streets, everybody was offering a high to you. The cat’ll say, ‘You my man,’ but he wants you to get high for old times’ sake. I’ve seen people hangin’ out on the street, all day, all night, just hanging out. They had no goals. It’s like they were dead inside.
Living in this environment, Archibald made up his mind that he wasn’t going to be part of that street scene. “I live in Kansas City now,” said Archibald, “and I can send my son to the store and know he’ll be safe, that someone is not going to rip off his money or beat him. You couldn’t do that where I grew up. Do you know what it means to be free of that kind of fear? I can’t live like that, and I’ve made sure my children won’t.”
Archibald has not turned his back on the people still choking in the breathless confines of the overcrowded streets in the South Bronx. “I beat it all,” said Archibald, and I have always felt I have a debt to repay those who helped me. I was lucky to meet a man like Mr. Layne. He kept me off the streets and got me going in basketball. He was our community director. He ran a lot of programs. He told me I had the ability. All I had to do was apply myself, and I could get to go to high school and college.
“When I was a junior in high school, that’s when I really got interested. He just captured my mind. Like he told me there were shower facilities at the school. Man, no one took showers. The center was open from 7 to 10 at night. After that, we would just go home, get something to eat and go to sleep. Mr. Layne got us to take care of ourselves, to take care of our bodies.”
The Mr. Layne whom Archibald alluded to was Floyd Lane, once a smooth playmaker of the City College basketball team that won the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Invitation Tournament championships in 1950. Layne made a big mistake. He was involved in the “basketball fix scandal” that year and overcame that stigma by earning a master’s degree at Columbia. Floyd is now the basketball coach at City College.
“Tiny’s father was not home,” Layne said. “I had to play a father role. I remember how he would haunt the gym at P.S. 18, an elementary school adjacent to the Patterson Project. I recall how he would sit in the far corner of the gym by himself and watch and study the movements of some of the heroes of the past who would come around a couple of afternoons a week to challenge one another.”
Mrs. Archibald said that her Tiny was something special, the way he coped with the daily problems of the ghetto. “He always listened,” she said. “And he appeared to have a goal for himself. He never gave me any trouble. The playground was one of the few way out around here. Tiny was always there, seven days a week he would shoot a basketball. He always said that basketball would help him get an education and even earn a livelihood. He was so right.”
Howie Evans, a sportswriter for the Amsterdam News, but then a director of a community center in the South East section of the Bronx, once wrote, “Tiny knew every hole and crack on the cement basketball court, which hid itself inside the Patterson Project where he lived. He played in scrimmage games, tournament games, one-on-one, halfcourt, anything, so long as he was playing.”
Evans also recalls the first time he saw Tiny play. He was the coach of Community Center 60 Dependables, and they had a scrimmage game scheduled against Chick’s Jewelers. “The game began,” said Evans, “and moved in typical playground style. The exception was the play of a small, skinny kid wearing baggy shorts. He played with a flare that was quiet, yet permitted him to dominate the contest. His manner was cool and deadly. It was hard to believe that he was only 12 or 13 years of age. Had it been a tournament game, I would have demanded to see his birth certificate.
“With 40 seconds remaining and my team losing by two points, Old Baggy Shorts was still in control of things as the clock ticked down to 20 seconds. Suddenly, Chick Stewart hollered, ‘To the hoop.’ Baggy Shorts made a move that froze nine cats, and waltzed through the lane for a basket that sealed the fate of my team and made it a memorable day for me.”
“’Who’s the kid?’ I asked Chick after the game.
‘They call him Tiny,’ Stewart told me. ‘I don’t know his real name, or even his last name. This is only the second game that he’s played for us.’”
For several years, unpaid and unpublicized, Archibald devoted his summers to coaching school kids in New York. He hoped that the influence of an NBA superstar would dim the appeal of the pushers and hustlers. Archibald doesn’t go back to flash his money or his fame. He returns as a coach. He advises, he sits and raps. He works with the kids to save them from the streets as basketball saved him.
“Wherever I go, they get help from me. I was raised on strict coaching, and that’s the way I was when I coached four playground teams in the summer basketball leagues.
“You can’t tell the kids one thing and do another. Some guys tried that, and it hurts more than it helps. They preach going straight, but later the kids see them outside drinking wine or smoking a joint. Drugs are a terrible thing. They are everywhere, not just in New York. I see it in every city we go to. There is a demand for athletes to help the kids, because the kids will listen to them. But not enough athletes do anything. Most of them just don’t give a damn.”
Nate does, and as of 1973, six of the youngsters he coached in the playground leagues were enrolled in college on basketball scholarships. “Kids can identify with athletes,” said Tiny. “they see you play on TV and then you come to the park and it impresses them that you care. Some of them. I tried to tell them that even if they can’t play in the NBA or the ABA, if they can play basketball, they can get a scholarship. Then they can get a college education and become an artist or Phys. Ed. teacher. They can become something.”
As Archibald’s reputation grew, the entire neighborhood wondered out loud why he was not playing for his high school team. Clinton had 9,000 students, and there was never a shortage of players trying out for the team. Tiny was listed at 5-foot-10 at the time, and that did not make him a prime prospect for the coaches to seek out. But more important, when Archibald started high school he just didn’t care. He cut classes, and his grades were very low. Even if he had made the team, Archibald would have been scholastically ineligible during his sophomore year.
The following year, Archibald went out for the team, but Bob Buckner, the Clinton coach, asked him to sit out the year and concentrate on his studies instead. At first, it was difficult for him to understand. Nate only knew that he was able to play with the best in the neighborhood, and he felt that automatically qualified him to play for Clinton, which always fielded some of the best teams in the city.
After constant lecturing on the importance of schooling by Floyd Layne; Hilton White, then a Department of Parks recreation man; and many former pros in the neighborhood. Archibald finally understood.
Archibald was later to say that Buckner’s decision, “was the best thing ever to happen to me. Layne made me understand that the only way I was going to go to college was through basketball. I wasn’t that smart upstairs, and I knew I had to go on scholarship. I knew I wasn’t going to go for any academic scholarship because he told me that you had to have a foreign language and your average had to be 80 or 90. That left me out.”
As a senior, Archibald finally played for Clinton, and much as everyone had expected, he led the team to the city championship and was selected to every all-star team. Constant study brought his grades to a respectable level, but his cumulative average was very low, the mistakes he had made as a freshman and sophomore came back to haunt him. He didn’t qualify for any of the glamour schools that had scholarships to offer.
With the help of Hilton White, Archibald wound up at Arizona Western Junior College. He concentrated on the books for one year and then transferred to Texas at El Paso (UTEP) on a basketball scholarship.
Shortly after enrolling at Texas at El Paso, Archibald learned that the ghetto had finally devoured two of his younger brothers. “It started in the house,” Archibald recalled. “There was nobody to supervise the older ones, and the younger ones were on their own and got into trouble. I felt for my brothers. There was no way to help. I tried talking to them on the phone, and they promised they would straighten out, but if you’re not there to keep on them, it’s difficult.”
For a time, Archibald even thought of leaving school, but again he listened to wiser heads who convinced him he could better serve the needs of his family by remaining in school and receiving his degree. At first, Tiny also experienced the feeling of loneliness and isolation. UTEP didn’t offer much social life for black students, and the Southwest was territory foreign to a kid from the city ghetto. Until he left to attend Arizona Western, Archibald never had been out of New York state. Nor had he been inside Madison Square Garden until he played there as a Cincinnati Royals rookie.
Archibald solved the problem of loneliness by returning home and marrying Shirley Dixon, the girl who for a long time sat quietly in the gyms, and stood outside the barbed wire fences of the city playgrounds and scrutinized Tiny’s every move. Since the age of 15, Shirley had understood the turbulence in Tiny’s life and his struggle to make something of himself.
Although Archibald’s feats at Texas at El Paso were legendary, he received little national acclaim. Tiny played at a time when all the glory was reserved for Pete Maravich’s scoring antics at Louisiana State and Calvin Murphy at Niagara.
Used primarily as a playmaker, Archibald still managed to average 19.9 points a game for UTEP, then known as Texas Western. In his three seasons, he scored 1,459 points, a school record. Eddie Mullins, the UTEP sports information director, famed for his descriptive similes, had a field day with Archibald. Newspaper stories and press releases read: “More shots than a hospital” . . . “More moves then a chess tournament.” Mullins gave him the nicknames of “The Magician” and “Nate the Roller Skate.”
Nate was scouted during his college days by Larry Staverman, the right-hand man of Joe Axelson and Draff Young, then the assistant to coach Bob Cousy. “They brought back rave scouting reports on him,” said Axelson, “both in Nate’s junior and senior years. Cousy and I had never seen him play in college, but on their strong recommendations, we selected him on the second round of the 1970 draft. We considered him a “sleeper.’
“We found later, from talking with at least a half a dozen teams, that they also had him in the sleeper category and were going to draft him on the second round. Actually, we got Archibald for Adrian Smith, because it was San Francisco’s draft choice we used to draft him. It was part of the trade for sending Smith to the Warriors.”
“Still, Cousy and I never personally met him until we went to an all-star game in Memphis. We were all staying at the same hotel the afternoon of the game, and I telephoned him to come to our room for a formal meeting.”
From there, the story goes that Axelson and Cousy decided to have a nip of Scotch. It could be, too, they wanted to strengthen their courage a little before bracing their prize captive. Axelson called room service and asked for a bucket of ice. Shortly thereafter came a timid tap on the door. Axelson opened the door, and there stood a fellow not much bigger than a bellhop.
In fact, at first glance, Axelson did think the young man was a bellhop. Surely this couldn’t be Nate Archibald, whom Staverman and Young had touted so highly. Axelson didn’t know what to think. For the moment he wasn’t sure whether his two scouts had played a trick on him or that he had really drafted a bellhop.
Thereafter, Axelson and Cousy were to follow Archibald to a series of postseason all-star games. Tiny had to prove himself. In the five postseason games, he averaged 38 points. His best showing was in the Aloha Classic held in Hawaii, where he really turned out the island. As Cousy and Don Haskins, Tiny’s college coach, watched from the stands, Archibald scored 51 points. Cousy turned to Haskins and commented that he didn’t know Nate could score that many points.
“Well,” replied Haskins, “don’t feel too badly. I had him for three years in college and I didn’t know it either.”
As for Axelson, he drafted Archibald on the second round, but had to pay first round draft prices to sign him. On April 15, 1970, in the plush office of Ambrose Lindhorst, the Cincinnati Royals’ legal counsel, it was announced at a news conference that Nate Archibald had been signed to a “very good” three-year contract.
Earlier in the day, Archibald had toured the Cincinnati Gardens, where the Royals played their home games, and was fitted for a uniform. Even the smallest one, the suit left behind by husky Odie Smith, swallowed up the slender Archibald. Tiny had to be fitted for a tailor-made uniform.
Archibald easily cast aside cracks about his size. Oozing with confidence, boosted considerably by his all-star game showings, he said, “What I lack in size, I’ll make up in speed. I’m the sleeper in the league. While they’re double-teaming the superstars, I’ll speed in. I’m a flashy basketball player. I’ll throw the defense off. I have a lot of trick moves, behind my back, through my legs. I’d like to lead the fastbreak.”
Six days after the announced signing of Archibald, the Cincinnati Royals traded Oscar Robertson, one of the greatest names in pro basketball, to the Milwaukee Bucks for Flynn Robinson and Charlie Paulk. Axelson was later asked if he could foresee Archibald topping Oscar Robertson as the favorite of the Royal fans?
“Remember,” Joe Axelson replied, “Oscar was something like 6-foot-5. Big guys don’t get much sympathy. Fans identify with the little guys. This kid will put fans in the stands.”
From the start of the Cincinnati training camp, Archibald showed that he was destined to become the Royals’ floor leader. He averaged 13 points in preseason play, and was selected the outstanding rookie at the team’s preseason banquet. “Archibald took over from the time he set foot in our camp,” Cousy said at the time. “For a little guy, he had great determination and spunk and was fearless. Names like John Havlicek, Walt Frazier, and Jerry West didn’t scare him off.”
Archibald joined loose and easy Norm Van Lier, a guy who turned hustle into output for the Royals. They became one of the speediest combinations in the league. Van Lier called his teaming with Archibald, “Pete and Repeat.”
The boyish-looking Archibald looked more like a junior high school youngster, rather than a pro basketball player. When he would be charged with any of his 218 fouls, he flashed the guilty expression of a youngster caught raiding the cookie jar. Archibald and Van Lier each averaged 16 points a game, and Tiny also chipped in with a 5.5 assist average.
At the start of his sophomore season, the Royals set the stage for Archibald’s complete takeover of the backcourt, moving him up another notch toward stardom by trading Van Lier to the Chicago Bulls. In the future seasons, the Archibald-Van Lier matchup was to become one of the biggest backcourt rivalries in the league. “We give each other the blues when we matchup,” said Archibald.
When they met in the first game of the 1974-75 playoffs. Van Lier scored 20 points and limited Archibald to 12. “I just try to make Nate work hard,” said Van Lier, “but I didn’t shut Tiny off by myself. No one man can stop him, and it was the whole Bull defense that did it. He could score 40 points the next night out.”
Van Lier’s prediction was correct in the second playoff game. Archibald made like a tricky football quarterback in tying the series at one victory each. Tiny put on a dazzling exhibition, penetrating the Bulls’ defense, scoring 24 points and handing out 12 assists. If Chicago played Tiny to pass off, he went in for the layup. If they played him for the layup, he passed off, most often to teammate Larry McNeill, the 6-foot-9 forward who scored 28 points. McNeill commenting on Tiny’s passing, said, “You don’t have to call for the ball with him. The man sees everybody on the court. If you’re open, he’ll find you. He’s just a great passer.”
Some of the moves Archibald showed during the playoffs were perfected before his second pro season, and tested during the summer in Harlem’s pro-oriented Rucker League. Archibald squirted up the court time and again, his head erect in the manner of all good basketball ballhandlers. Pitter-pattering the ball to the floor with his left hand, he directed traffic with the other. And at every opportunity he did the very things unexpected from someone so small.
Like the time he challenged Atlanta’s Walt Bellamy, who at 6-foot-11, 250 pounds, was about a foot taller and weighed exactly 100 pounds more than Tiny. Archibald just hung himself in the air long enough to confuse Big Bell, and banked a hook shot over the center’s shoulder.
As Archibald doubled all his statistics during his second pro season, Cousy claimed he was the “most spectacular player in the league. I’ve never seen a player with his assortment of shots, and his body balance is unbelievable. Sometimes, I honestly don’t see how he keeps control of himself.”
Tiny averaged 28.2 points, second best to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 34.8. His 9.2 assist mark ranked him third in the league, and it meant that Tiny Archibald had accounted for 46.6 points a game for a team that had averaged 107.8 points.
Archibald’s spurt came in the second half of the 1971-72 season, after he had averaged 23 points for the first 41 games. The story goes, the NBA coaches got him angry when they voted Butch Beard of the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Eastern Conference All-Star team, ahead of Archibald.
The news media, which voted for the All-Star team in those days, failed to select Nate among the top eight players in the Eastern Conference. When the remainder of the squad was rounded out in a vote of coaches, Archibald wound up in a three-way tie with Elmore Smith of the Buffalo Braves and Beard. Another vote was taken to break the tie, and Beard was the winner.
Archibald made the coaches sorry after the All-Star break when he averaged 34 points a game and shot from 17th to second in scoring. Archibald admitted the All-Star snub hurt. “Yeah, I was bitter,” Tiny recalled. “I was out to make everybody pay for leaving me off the team. It didn’t matter who I was playing against, everybody was going to pay, the coaches, the guards, the forwards, and the big guys.”
Despite Archibald’s feats and his rise to superstar status, the team had to move out of Cincinnati; no one was coming to see the Royals play anymore, and they figured that if they divided the team’s home base between two Midwestern cities, Kansas City and Omaha, they might make it. They did, with the help of Nate Archibald.
No franchise could have hoped for a better start in their new twin homes than the Kansas City-Omaha Kings. Archibald played as though he was 10-feet tall in becoming the first player to win both the scoring and assist titles.
The Kansas City fans accepted the Kings, and they moved from the dreary, dimly-lit Kansas City Municipal Auditorium to the spanking-new, 16,659-seat Kemper Memorial Auditorium. For the 1975-76 season, the Kings dropped the Omaha affiliation from their name. The Kings drew more than 300,000 fans for the first time in the franchise’s 27-year history.
Archibald’s career had its first major setback during the 1973-74 season, but not before the young man from the South Bronx signed a seven-year contract that made him one of the highest-paid professional athletes in history, an estimated $450,000 a year.
For Archibald, the 1973-74 season virtually ended the night it began. October 10, seconds into the third quarter, the 7-foot, 270-pound Tom Boerwinkle of the Chicago Bulls, inadvertently stepped on Tiny’s right Achilles tendon. From that point on, it was all downhill for Tiny and the Kings.
Actually, the full impact of the injury wasn’t felt until 10 days later, when Archibald sat out a game against the Golden State Warriors. With every passing day thereafter, it became more apparent it would be a season of frustration and despair for him. As his name disappeared from the league leaders, the Kings lost untold gate receipts in their second season as the Kansas City-Omaha Kings turned into a horrible nightmare.
For Archibald, who had never known what it was like to be injured, there was now added strain. Additionally, his wife of seven years, Shirley, had filed for divorce and asked for custody of their four children. To further complicate Archibald’s life, Bob Cousy resigned as the Kings’ coach and was replaced by Phil Johnson.
“It upset me more than probably the rest of the guys,” said Archibald after Cousy had resigned in frustration over a losing effort. “He helped me in understanding the game more than any coach I’ve had. He helped me get off to a start in this league. He showed me the knowledge of the game.”
Johnson, in his early days with the Kings, fought to gain Tiny’s confidence, but he had to battle Archibald’s problems, which were taking an emotional toll. “One problem is that he’s never been hurt before,” said Johnson at the time, “and he doesn’t know how to cope with injuries. This takes away his confidence, and you have a hard time playing basketball against the best guys in the world if you don’t have your confidence.”
From time to time, Archibald return to action and flashed some of his brilliance of the 1972-73 season. Against Portland on January 22, he battered the Trail Blazers with 31 points and 10 assists. Three nights later in Buffalo, he tossed in 23 points against the Braves and handed out 13 assists. But two nights later in Boston and then against the Knicks in Omaha, he fell off form again, scoring a pro career low of two points against the Celtics and five against New York.
“People asked me,” said Archibald after that Knick game, “what’s wrong, and it’s a frustrating thing. Some people think I’m holding back without realizing it, but it’s pain, it’s like a toothache. It comes and goes, and not only when I’m playing. I can’t jump off it, I haven’t shot a jumper for so long, I have no spring. It scares me. I’ve had a lot of doctors look at it, and they don’t think I need an operation. They say it’s a 50-50 thing and that I could make one move and it could be gone.”
“It just looks like he does not want to do it,” said Jerry Lucas at the time. “Last season you could see it in his eyes, he knew he was going to do something. He just lacks confidence, last year he just went vroom.”
The injury continued to plague Tiny. By mid-February, after playing in only 35 of the Kings’ 64 games, Archibald’s leg was placed in a cast. Though there was optimism that he might play again, he didn’t. But Archibald, who had been shattered by one surpassing blow after another, spoke not of the past or present or immediate future, but of the hopes harbored within him for the next season. “When I get rid of this injury, I’m going to be my old self again. I take every game seriously, but it’s just that I can’t play like I want to. When I get back, everybody is going to say, ‘He’s for real.’ Sometimes people come off an injury and they’re not ready. I’m going to take care of this injury. I’m going to do my running and regain my Flash Gordon speed.”
Gone was the pain from the injury. Gone was the sagging weight of 35 pounds that he had gained during the previous distressing season. And gone, too, was the thought of any individual goals. “Anybody can score. The problem is scoring at critical times. We have to mold into one team. If I get 10 points and we win, I’ll be satisfied. If I get no points and I’m sitting on the bench, I’ll be satisfied as long as we win. I’m going to try for more assists and more quarterbacking the club.”
It was the old Archibald back. And, it was never more evident than on January 25, 1975 against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, where he likes to do best. The capacity crowd of 19,649 had barely settled in their seats before Tiny tossed in a 30-foot jumper, stole the ball from Walt Frazier, and drove for a layup, fed Larry McNeill with a picture pass for a short jumper and completed the 8-0 burst with a pair of free throws. When it was all over, Tiny had 40 points and the Kansas City-Omaha Kings had beaten the Knicks, 112-103.
Kansas City finished second to the Chicago Bulls in the Midwest Division with a 44-38 won-lost record. The Kings made the playoffs for the first time since the 1965-66 season when the franchise was based in Cincinnati. Archibald finished with a 26.five scoring average, fourth best in the NBA, was third in assists with a 6.8 average, it was fourth in free throw percentage. He attempted 748 free throws and made 652. But most important, Nate Archibald was in the first playoffs of his pro career.
It is human nature to compare, and after most comparisons are made one might say Jerry West shot better, Walt Frazier plays better defense, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the most dominant force in the league. But nobody has mixed everything together in as dynamic a package as Nate Archibald, the little man from the South Bronx who walks over the giants of basketball with the arrogance of the king.