Has Success Spoiled Tiny Archibald, 1975

[Last month, From Way Downtown ran a long post on the great Tiny Archibald. Here’s another excellent story on Archibald from the November 1975 edition of SPORT Magazine. John Devaney, then a New York-based freelancer, wanted to know, as rumored widely, whether the combination of rapid stardom and serious injuries had spoiled Archibald in mid-career. Here’s his answer.]

****

“Hey, let me in!” Tiny shouted. He kicked at the locker room door. “Hey—”

The door opened a crack. An eye on the other side of the crack recognized Nate “Tiny” Archibald, and the door swung open. One of the highest-paid men in a profession of highly-paid people, Tiny now earns close to $400,000 a year playing for the Kansas City Kings of the National Basketball Association. But on this very warm July afternoon, he was at City College of New York to play for nothing in a Harlem summer league. 

Tiny limped through the locker room. 

“Hurt your leg?”

“Naw. Always walk slow. Run fast. Walk slow.” A little laugh. 

He sat down on a bench, straddling it. Officially, Archibald stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 160 pounds, which is little enough, but he looked even slighter, mostly because of his close-cropped hair and the wide eyes dominating his thin-boned face. Sitting on the bench, in fact, he looked like a city teenager waiting for a bus to take him to a country summer camp.

He is, of course, a 27-year-old veteran of five seasons in the NBA. And two of those seasons were perhaps the most fascinating—in their potential effect on a man and his career—as any two years ever experienced by a player in the NBA. Those two years could have destroyed Tiny Archibald, or could have turned him into a monster, or could have matured him fast. 

Most of what I knew about the inner workings of Tiny’s career, I’d learned from his former coach, Bob Cousy. I had collaborated with Cousy on a book about his coaching career, The Killer Instinct, and he told me that he first heard of Tiny in 1969. Cousy was coaching the Cincinnati Royals that year and needed a playmaking guard to replace Oscar Robertson, who was about to be traded. Cousy’s assistant, Draff Young, recommended Nate Archibald, a kid from the slums of the South Bronx, who was quarterbacking a ball-control team at Texas-El Paso. Cousy drafted Archibald as a second-round choice without ever seeing him play. They met for the first time in a hotel room in Memphis, where Tiny—as he prefers to be called—had come to play in a postseason all-star game.

“He was the shyest kid I think I’ve ever met,” Cousy recalled. “He looked petrified. He sat in a corner and mumbled yes sirs and no sirs.”

That night, Tiny scored almost 40 points, and he went on to average almost 50 in three all-star games. Cousy and general manager Joe Axelson had thought they could sign this second-round draft choice for a little more than $25,000 a year. But after three all-star games, Tiny walked into the Royals’ offices with two agents and came out with a three-year contract worth about $465,000. “He had only 16 cents in his pocket while we negotiated,” one of his agents, Lewis Schaffel, has recalled, “but he fell asleep while we talked. And at the end, all he asked was, ‘Did I get more than Jimmy Collins (a player from New Mexico State)? I know I’m better than Jimmy Collins!”

He was right. Jimmy Collins didn’t make it in the NBA, but Archibald, as a Cincinnati rookie, averaged 16 points a game. The next season, 1971-72, he grew angry when he wasn’t selected to play in the All-Star game. Determined to be noticed, Tiny shot prolifically the second half of the season and finished with an average of 28 points a game, second in the NBA to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

After that season, the Cincinnati franchise was sold to a group in Kansas City and Omaha. To attract fans new to the NBA to watch a losing team, Cousy and Axelson figured, they needed a superstar. They decided to feed the ball to Tiny and, as Cousy phrased it, “let nature take its course.” With Tiny dominating the offense, Cousy reasoned, his young team would make fewer mistakes. It would have a year to mature, and it would win more games than if he spread out the offense. And the fans would have a high-scoring superstar to talk about on their way home from a loss. 

But Cousy also knew the dangers in manufacturing a superstar. “He’s a nice kid,” Cousy told Axelson. “I hope we’re not creating a monster.”

Operation Superstar worked out—at first, anyway. Tiny became the first player ever to lead the NBA in both scoring and assists the same season. Measured against the previous year in Cincinnati, the team’s attendance made one of the sharpest leaps upward in league history. And the team record improved, too—from 30-52 in 1971-72 to 36-46 in 1972-73. 

All during the season, however, Cousy kept reminding Tiny that the following year he would have to give up the ball more to center Sam Lacey and the other Kings. “To be a playoff team,” he told Tiny, ”we’ve got to spread out the offense.” The plan never materialized. In the first game of the 1973-74 season, Tiny injured an Achilles tendon. He spent most of the next two months in a cast, the team slumped, and Cousy quit. 

Last season, Tiny came back to score 26.5 points a game while quarterbacking a balanced offense for the new coach, Phil Johnson. Lacey emerged as an outstanding center, Jimmy Walker gave the Kings a second high scorer at guard, and the team finished second in the Midwest Division with a 44-38 record. This was the team that Cousy and Axelson had dreamed the Kings might become: Strong, balanced, and young, with the potential to continue making the playoffs for many more seasons. 

But what about shy Tiny Archibald? By being thrust into instant celebrity, had Tiny become the egomaniacal monster that Cousy, in his fears, had envisioned?

****

I had come to the CCNY locker room, thinking that the answer might be yes. From people in Kansas City and elsewhere, I had heard of changes in Tiny’s lifestyle. During the second season as a manufactured superstar, he had come back from his injury bloated, fat, and slow at 180 pounds. His scoring average plunged from 34 to 17 points a game. Publicly, he had bad-mouthed teammates for being incompetent, or for not caring—or for both. 

By last season, he had shed the 20 pounds, but he also had shed the two agent-advisors who had negotiated his first half-million. The Kings’ front-office people had trouble finding him for an appearance at a luncheon; he had adopted the star’s prerogative of leaving phones off hooks and not returning calls. He had separated from his wife, who was living in Kansas City with their four children, while Tiny lived in a split-level home on Long Island during the offseason with his mother and several younger brothers and sisters. 

To arrange my meeting with Tiny, I had phoned one of his current advisors, Floyd Layne. Now the CCNY basketball coach, Layne had known Tiny since Archibald was a boy. I asked him, off-handedly, if Tiny had changed lately. 

“Cousy told me he was extremely shy,” I said. 

Layne laughed. “He has moved right along. He isn’t near as shy anymore.”

Layne thought a moment. “He’s changed in another way in that he cares more about his body. The injury taught him that if he didn’t take care of his body, he’d get fat, slow, and out of shape very easily. Now he plays basketball year-round partly to keep in shape, and he runs six, seven miles every day.”

Layne said he would be coaching Tiny’s a team in a Harlem summer-league game, and we agreed to meet then. Now, I was sitting with Tiny in the locker room before that game. And the young man who once had been so shy, was speaking barely without pause, Offering up facts and opinions in torrents. 

“When I was with Floyd at P.S. 18 community center in the Bronx,” Tiny was saying, “I couldn’t make my high school team. But all I was interested in was basketball. I thought: ‘Why go to school if I can’t play basketball? Floyd told me to stick in school. And he built up my confidence. I made the team in my senior year, we won the city championship, and now I’m in the big ranks. 

“And now I’d like to do for kids what Floyd did for me. That’s why I play in this league. That’s why I coach two teams with kids during the summers. Kids, any kid, can approach me and ask questions because they know I’m a pro. I told them that not everybody is going to be a pro. I told them: Get in education, go to college, and, if you have to work from 9 to 5, you can still have basketball. I remind them that the odds are against you playing in the pros, man. 

“Look at me. I was only a second-round draft choice because I wasn’t a big-name All-American. I wasn’t even on the All-Rookie team. Most of the voting is for the All-Americans. It doesn’t work that way all the time, but you don’t have to be a scholar to see that it works that way most of the time.”

Not being an All-American, not being on the NBA All-Rookie team—those slights still bothered Tiny. Inside the shy kid in that Memphis hotel room, there obviously had been a bolder one shrieking for fame. 

I asked Tiny how he had reacted to having to carry the scoring load in the first year of the franchise shift. 

“Well, I could understand why they did it,” he said. “We didn’t have the personnel at that time for a spread-out offense. Me and Lacey, we were the most-experienced starters on the team for a while, and we were only in the league two years. I would have done the same if I was the coach. 

“Like suppose, man, you had a team with an eight-foot center, and the rest of the team was midgets. I’d say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get the ball into the big man.’ It didn’t bother me. Anyway, up to then, most of the pressure had been on me to score. So it wasn’t that big a change.”

“I understand that Lacy grumbled,” I said. 

“Oh, yeah. Sam was hurt. A lot of guys were hurt. One guy gets all the publicity, everyone else has to feel slighted. On the surface, there was a lot of kidding about it among the guys. But I could see there was a lot of hidden feelings underneath. I could understand that. You work hard on defense, say, and then after the game all you hear about is how someone else scored a lot of points. 

“The coach told me to try to distribute the offense when I could. Being the quarterback, there were times when I could do that. Like when I was leading the fastbreak, and we’d have a three-on-two. One of the guys might have been the one who stole the ball to start the break. Cousy told me to look for the guy who stole the ball. He told me to feed him the ball, even if another guy might have a little better shot. ‘You feed him the sugar,’ the coach told me, ‘and the guys keep on working for you.’” 

He paused, as if deciding whether to say something. “You know, a lot of people forget that the year I led in scoring, I also led in assists.” 

I didn’t think many people had forgotten; it was well publicized. But Tiny, I guessed, wanted to go on reminding people of those assists—statistical proof to the world, and maybe himself, that he had not grown selfish. 

“I wanted to play as a team,” he continued. “I didn’t like any one-man show. I always figured I was going to score my points anyway. With Cousy, we were more of a one-guard offense. Now Johnson has everyone handling the ball. I like that. When we got Jimmy Walker to work with me in the backcourt, people said he and I shoot so much that we’d need more than one ball to play together. But he gets his points, and I get mine. It fooled a lot of people. Just like they said Earl Monroe was a big scorer and he could never play with Clyde (Frazier) because they both had to have the ball. A couple of years later, they were saying that Clyde and Earl were the two best guards in the league.”

Two tall youths had come down the aisle of the locker room. One stood behind Tiny, listening. His name, I later learned, was Anthony McNair, and he went to DeWitt Clinton High School, Tiny’s old school. 

Tiny turned to stare at McNair. “I sent you sneakers,” he said in an accusing way. He turned back toward me. “I try to send things back when we use them up on the Kings. And this meatball”—he was grinning at me, but McNair couldn’t see the grin—”doesn’t even send me a card saying thanks and telling me how he’s doing.”

“I was going to, Tiny,” McNair said, hands outstretched, “but—”

Tiny spun to face him. “Look, meatball, this year you write to me, here? You tell me how you’re doing. Even just a card. I want to hear from you.”

“Okay, Tiny, I’ll write. I promise.”

While they talked, I recalled what I’d read about Tiny’s almost obsessive need to return to New York every year to work with ghetto youngsters. When Tiny himself was 14, his father walked away from the family and never came back. When Tony was playing basketball at college in Texas, two of his brothers were ravaged by drugs in the Bronx and, Tiny has said, “if I had been home, I might have helped.” 

However else celebrity may have changed Tiny, he still feels obligated to help others the way Floyd Layne helped him. And that need, I was told, may have broken the back of his marriage, his Bronx-born wife staying in Kansas City each spring while Tiny rushed eastward, alone.

****

 “You know,” I said, “from what everyone has told me, I had expected you to be hard to talk to. Do you think you’ve become more outgoing after being put in the spotlight?”

“Oh yeah,” Tiny said. “My first couple of years, I wasn’t known to be a talker. But if you don’t rap with the other players, they think you feel you are over everyone else. With me getting all that publicity in Kansas City, I didn’t want anyone thinking I was superior, so now I try to rap more.”

He had pulled on his uniform and as we walked toward the court, McNair and the other youth came with us. “A lot of rookies are quiet for the first one or two years in the league,” Tiny was saying. “Then you can’t shut them up, always running off at the mouth when they don’t know what they’re talking about.” He glanced at McNair. 

About 1,000 people were seated in bleachers along one side of the court. They seemed accustomed to seeing NBA players in these summer games. When Tiny was introduced, he received no more applause than the other players. Neither did the New York Knicks’ Harthorne Wingo, who was on the opposing team.

I sat back to watch Tiny. Cousy had told me that the only NBA player fast enough to stay with Tiny was Calvin Murphy. Against these summer players, most of them with current or faded college skills, Tiny flowed free with merely a feint and a step. I tried to fix my eyes on him. But often, when my eyes wandered to another player and I looked back to where Tiny had been, he had vanished—usually to a spot under the basket where the six-footer stood alone, waiting for a pass that often did not come. He played with a grin. 

He was in or near midseason shape, lithe and quick. Later, I talked to someone who had seen him, fat and out of shape, during the last months of the 1973-74 season.

“Twice the leg had to be put in casts, the Achilles tendon inflamed, and I think Tiny began to despair of it ever healing,” I was told. “That depressed him and he let himself eat, sit around and get heavy. He’d never been heavy before, it surprised him. When he could play, he was dejected by the way he performed and dejected about a whole season wasted. And he was unhappy that the team hadn’t improved more; he had expected it would. He was openly critical of Sam—and Sam is one of the most sensitive, easily hurt people in the world. But Phil Johnson talked to Tiny, convinced him the team would turn around and got him on a weight-loss program with running and weights.”

In the game here in Harlem, Tiny saw a pick and yelled, “Go back door,” but no one went through for the pass. He frowned, then laughed when a player on the bench yelled something at him. 

Layne took him out for the second period. Tiny sat on the floor at the coach’s feet. He said little, but nodded whenever Layne pointed to something on the court. It could have been a scene, I thought, plucked from a game at the P.S. 18 community center in the Bronx, where Layne had coached him a dozen years ago. 

Wingo scored almost 60 points and kept his team close. But in the fourth quarter, Tiny broke open the game. 

Later, Tiny and his teammates sat in the locker room, nibbling on chicken. Layne came in and talked excitedly about everyone going up to his office in a little while to watch NBA highlight films. “I see a lot of those films all season,” Tiny said, disinterestedly. Abruptly, he stopped himself. He said he would come up to look at the movies. 

When Layne left, Tiny turned to McNair and the other DeWitt Clinton student. “The coach is the chief; the players are the Indians. When a player isn’t coachable in the pros, the word goes out and the next thing you know you are working from 9 to 5. No matter how good you think you are, guys come along that are just as good as you are. You have to be willing to sacrifice some things you may want to do if the coach tells you that you should be doing something else.”

****

I went away impressed. Success, I felt, had not spoiled Tiny Archibald. But later I wondered if Tiny hadn’t been showing off with his advice to the kids—the famous pro being Mr. Nice Guy and doing all the right things in front of the writer and the crowd. 

I thought of double-checking my impressions with Cousy, but I knew he hadn’t seen Tiny in two years. So, I found Joe Axelson in Kansas City. “Oh,” he said readily, “we were very much concerned that we might be creating a temperamental monster who would give us problems. But Tiny remained a very introverted person.”

“Hey, he talked my head off.”

“Yeah. About basketball, I bet. He is very articulate in some areas, very bright. And he can talk basketball with media people. But he hates to make a speech in public. I have to drag him to affairs. But if I keep it to three or four a season—and no more—he goes. 

“A monster, though, he never became. He’s never missed a plane or a practice, as far as I know. Once, when he criticized his teammates, I fined him, and we never had any more trouble. When we got Jimmy Walker, we worried how Tiny would react to playing with another scoring guard. But Jimmy handled the situation well, knew when to step aside. And so did Tiny, who really does enjoy a fancy pass as much as he enjoys his points. That concern we had—fortunately, it just never managed to materialize.”

Actually, there was always a lot of pride or ego, take your pick, inside that shy, withdrawn kid, and now it shows. But he has not forgotten who he was, where he came from, and how he got to where he is. And he is almost evangelistic now in his determination to help others climb out of the ghetto. To make a product a success, Cousy and Axelson took the chance of hurting a young man. But, on balance, I think Axelson is right: The temperamental monster never did materialize.   

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