Mack Calvin: ‘The Knife’ Cuts Deep, 1972

[In the fall of 1970, Mack Calvin was a surprise second-year star with the ABA’s Miami Floridians. While on the ABA circuit, Calvin was known to hunker down between games in the nearest drug store luncheonette for a cheap meal and to curl up with a newspaper. Calvin pulled out the sports section, his eyes darting straight to the NBA San Diego Rockets’ box score. He wanted to check out how the 5-foot-9 rookie Calvin Murphy had fared the night before against the seven-foot giants. Then, his curiosity took him to the Cincinnati Royals’ box score to do the same for the 6-foot-1 rookie Nate Archibald, rumored to be a few inches shorter. 

“I root for them because they’re guys like me,” said Calvin, a pretend six-footer, closer to 5-foot-10 “I want to see what the small man is doing in the other league.“

Though Archibald and Murphy would quickly shine in the NBA, Calvin already excelled on behalf of “the small man” in the ABA. He started the season as the league’s leading scorer and ranked second in assists. Combining the two stats, Calvin alone accounted for 45 of the Floridians’ points per game. What’s more, he gave his opponents a nightly Excedrin headache on the Fastbreak and squirting to the hoop. “He runs so damn much,” said the Nets’ Bill Melchionni, “and he’s such an opportunist. He makes the most of what he has.”

In this article, from Action Sports’ 1971-72 Pro Basketball Yearbook, writer Ray Hill goes into greater detail on the man they called “Mack The Knife” making the most of himself in the ABA.]

They call him “Mack the Knife” because he has a knack for slashing defenses apart with his astounding moves. You watch him, and the nickname holds true. Bringing the ball upcourt, he halts for a split second to survey the scene. His small size doesn’t hit you then, but it does when, in a flash, he’s slithering and weaving his way through the other players like a punctured balloon. 

He’s so tiny and his opponents are so big, you expect the worst when an enemy center lumbers over to stop him. You expect the worst—and get the best. All 170 pounds of “Mack The Knife” leaps into the air and his hand arcs a perfect shot over the opponent’s outstretched arms. A split-second later, the red, white, and blue ABA ball smoothly ripples the netting for two points. 

Mack Calvin, little giant in a big giant’s game, has struck again.

The record books list Mack Calvin as six-feet tall. His teammates will, perhaps out of respect, tell you Calvin is 6 feet tall. Even Calvin himself will tell you he’s a six-footer—though he’ll do it with a wide grin on his boyish face. But hardly anyone believes Mack Calvin is six-feet tall (“Kids come up to me before a game,” says The Knife, “and I can see them measuring themselves against me as they talk.”) It is a particular embarrassment to his tall ABA rivals to admit a man under six feet can do the things to them that Calvin does . . . and does . . . and does again. 

What Calvin does is score. And make plays. And bug opponents with dazzling contact defense. And hit foul shots. What he does, in essence, is make the Floridians go—and that is easier said than done. The Floridians, thanks to the hot shooting of Calvin and his backcourt mate, All-ABA performer Larry Jones, enjoyed a late-season surge last year that saw them finish in fourth place in the East (with a 37-47 record). The team was knocked out of the playoffs in six games by Kentucky. 

As an individual, Calvin fared much better. He averaged 27.1 points per game in the regular season, fourth best in the ABA. He was also fourth in free throws, hitting 86 percent of his shots. Calvin ranked No. 2 in league assists, with over seven per game. In last season’s playoffs, he was topped in scoring only by Rick Barry and Dan Issel. In six contests, Calvin bucketed 27.3 ppg. And Mack is entering only his third year in the pros. 

Calvin was born in Fort Worth, Texas, but his family moved to Southern California when he was still a toddler. He learned basketball on the cement courts of Long Beach and took his talents to a high school team (Long Beach Poly) that lost just four games in three years. Being the backcourt ace of the state champions, he attracted plenty of college offers. He also attracted the LA Dodgers, who had seen him play brilliant shortstop for his high school. The Dodgers drafted him, and confusion set in: baseball or basketball? Mack couldn’t decide, so he enrolled at Long Beach Junior College to think it out. 

Baseball came in second. From junior college, Calvin accepted a scholarship to USC and his future was decided. He guided Southern Cal to two winning seasons and gained the reputation of a fearless ballhandler (one of his most-prized possessions is a photograph of him driving on Lew Alcindor).

“There is no limit to what Calvin can do,” says his coach at USC, Bob Boyd. Boyd was—and is—one of Mack’s biggest fans, and it’s easy to see why. Three years ago, Calvin took a psychological test at San Jose State. “The test tells you about a player’s talent for winning,” explains Boyd, “about how he will react under adverse circumstances. It tells you about how much of a player’s physical ability he can give you when the situation is the toughest.” Ten thousand athletes had taken that test in the past, and Mack scored higher than any of them. 

“The men who administered the tests,” continues Boyd, “had no idea if Calvin was two feet tall or eight feet tall. They just said that the tougher the situation gets, the better this guy likes it.”

There were, however, some situations over which Calvin had little control. Perhaps it was his small stature, but pro scouts didn’t seem particularly impressed by Mini Mack. Oh, there was little doubt he would be drafted by the pros, but the question was how high? As a low draft pick, he would get little more than a glance in rookie camp and then a one-way bus ticket home. And even if he did stick, what kind of contract would he get?

Boyd took it upon himself to contact the ABA’s Los Angeles franchise, the Stars. The result was that the Stars drafted Calvin on the seventh round—not extra high, but better than the NBA’s Lakers, who picked him on the 14th round. Mack, figuring he would get a longer look and more money with the Stars, chose ABA team. 

The Stars were a very young team, and the only familiar face on the squad belonged to Bill Sharman, and he was the coach. Sharman moved his charges in and out of the lineup like a master chess player. Calvin started often, saw action in every game, and wound up with a 16.8-ppg scoring average, putting a total of 1,414 points in the hoop. The club managed to seal a playoff berth, and that’s when Calvin really turned it on. In 17 playoff games, he attacked the basket for a team-high 23.1 ppg, and became the undisputed backcourt leader of the team as it made a surprising bid for the ABA championship before falling to Indiana. 

Several ABA clubs, not the least of which was Miami, expressed an interest in The Knife. The LA management decided to part with him—for the right price. In June 1970, Calvin was traded to the Floridians along with forward Tom Washington for veteran guard Don Freeman. The Floridians clearly got the better part of the deal. Soon after Freeman joined the Stars (who had moved to Salt Lake City), he plunged into a contract dispute that ended with being traded to Texas. 

Calvin, in the meantime, couldn’t have been happier. While the Floridians (who became a gypsy team under new management) were far from the league’s biggest draw wherever they played, they were a definite improvement over LA, where, Calvin says, “We had too many crowds of 900.”

“I don’t consider myself a great shooter,” Mack says modestly. “But I’m more relaxed and more confident than ever before. It’s the added experience.”

At better than 27 points a game, it must have been a mystical experience. 

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