SLAM: Let’s talk about some of the great players of your era. I’ll mention a name, and you give me your thoughts. First, Adrian Dantley.
ENGLISH: He was very tough inside, one of the best for his size. They say that the prototype small forward is 6-8, 215, but he defied that. At 6-5, he was one of the toughest, and he played a power forward’s game, similar to Barkley. He was very, very tough to defend, because he scored most of his many points inside, but he could also go outside; he was one of the best ever at drawing fouls, and he was a great free-throw shooter.
SLAM: David Thompson.
ENGLISH: He was a pleasure to play with and to watch, night in and night out. I can remember him being guarded by Michael Cooper, supposedly one of the best defensive players of our era, and just taking him to the hoop over and over and slamming right through him. His leaping ability was unreal, as good as – but different then – Jordan’s. Jordan is quicker, but David had more power. He power-jumped, and that, combined with his having very, very long arms, made him almost unstoppable. He was also a very good shooter, and he blocked a lot of shots.
I think his is one of the saddest stories in the NBA, because he could have been as magnificent as Michael Jordan, but his life off the court put a black mark on him and cut short his career. Drugs were a real hazard during our time. That’s the era when the NBA and Players’ Association instituted the drug program, and that was out of a need to help the players. A lot of guys had problems, but David’s [story] is just so sad.
SLAM: George Gervin.
ENGLISH: One of the all-time great scorers. When I was at Indiana, we had the first-round pick and took Dudley Bradley, out of North Carolina, who was supposed to be one of the toughest defensive players ever. Our first game was against San Antonio and people were calling Dudley “The Sherriff,” saying that he was going to put the handcuffs on Gervin. Well, George came in and scored 60 and just threw Dudley’s mental state into disarray. It was just so easy for him; he could throw in that finger roll from anywhere. I loved playing against him. He was so smooth and easy, you could almost enjoy watching him play – even when he was burning you [laughs]. I’d just think, “Boy that was tough.”
SLAM: Julius Erving.
ENGLISH: Just total class, one and off the court. Great player, great scorer, great jumping ability. The only way I could play him effectively was to make him shoot jump shots – to keep him from driving – and hope he wasn’t hitting.
SLAM: Dan Issel.
ENGLISH: For the size he was, he was probably one of the best centers. He was only about 6-8, and I saw him make many big centers look like fools. He’d take them outside, give them a head fake and blow by them. If they didn’t come out, he’d shoot the jumper all day long. He always had his best games against Kareem, because his game was both inside and outside, and Kareem just couldn’t come out. Defensively, he held his own, by pushing and pounding – because we gave him a lot of help, so he didn’t have to go one-on-one with the really big guys.
SLAM: Larry Bird.
ENGLISH: A lot of people used to say that Bird was overrated and overhyped because he’s white. Well, that’s a lie. He could flat-out play. He could just do everything: one of the best passers, a great shooter; he knew the floor, and he was consistent, which is the mark of a real superstar. Lots of guys can go in one night and play great; let’s see what you do tomorrow night. I watch some of the guys today, and they’re all over the place. Like I used to see Sprewell have 40 points one night and six the next. Bird was there every night. If his points went from 30 to 18, his rebounds and assists would be up.
SLAM: Jamaal Wilkes.
ENGLISH: Smooth. He was very underrated. He really made the difference for the Lakers in the playoffs before they had Worthy. He could hit the jumper and much more, and he was only 6-6. He was one of my main heroes coming up. I patented my game after him and John Havlicek. Havlicek was very consistent, and he was always moving, always running. Jamaal was the same way, but he played so smooth and effortlessly.
SLAM: Bernard King.
ENGLISH: Tough. He was so damned tough on that wing. Anyone who played against him will tell you that Bernard King on the wing of a fast break was like a thundering horse coming down the court. You did not want to get in front of him. And he could score inside and out. He’s another guy who wasn’t that big, but could get it done down low. We had great games against one another; I really enjoyed playing against him. A great, great player.
SLAM: Marques Johnson.
ENGLISH: He was probably the prototype small forward: he could shoot, jump, play defense, run the floor. He had a great career. The only thing that held him back was an injury that brought him down when he was just starting to mature. He hadn’t reached the maturity level which would allow him to really take off. I played behind him in Milwaukee my first year as a sixth man, and I learned a lot from watching him.
SLAM: Your former teammate Calvin Natt once said that you were so smooth, you should be playing in a tuxedo; he described your game as “poetry in motion.” What do you think of that?
ENGLISH: [Laughs] I think his game was the exact opposite of mine. With him at power forward on the other side of me, I didn’t worry about anyone, because I knew he had my back. He was tough and rough and came to play every night. I saw him play with broken fingers and everything else. He was relatively small – only about 6-6 – but he was strong as a rock.
SLAM: Is it important for a player like you, a high-scoring small forward or shooting guard, to have a tough guy out there watching you back?
ENGLISH: Oh yeah, it important for me. Early in my career, I had Kiki Vandeweghe, who was so nice and easy going. He was a great guy and a great scorer, but he wasn’t really a power forward. Once we got Calvin, not only did my game take off, but so did the team’s because he could not only score but also rebound and bang. Every good team needs a player like that.
SLAM: You only missed seven games during your 10 years in Denver…
ENGLISH: Endurance and consistency were very important to me. It was a point of pride to me to be ready every night and to always contribute. Throughout my entire career, I really enjoyed playing every game. I viewed the game as an art, and I played it that way, so every night was special to me. I felt like I was a dancer. Some of the commercials now, where they have someone in slow motion with music playing, highlighting that aspect of the game? Well, that’s how I always felt when I was playing. I just loved it so much, and I felt like it was a thing of beauty.
I remember one time, we were playing Utah and someone passed the ball to me, and I grabbed it with one hand and shot in the same motion and made it. That type of thing is the ultimate. It involves getting into the game until you just become invisible and flow right into it, and it is a rare feeling. When you retire, you miss that, and there’s no way to recreate it. You can experience that sort of zone in other professions to a certain extent, but it’s not the same, because in sports it is simultaneously mental and physical.
SLAM: You are currently the basketball consultant for Basketball City in Manhattan. Can you tell me a little about that?
ENGLISH: Basketball City is a unique concept that my partners have out together to bring basketball into cities and in the forefront. Like here in New York, you can’t find a good indoor game. Well, Basketball City has got a full gym and workout facilities, but it is for people who love basketball and want to play a lot. We’ve got six air-conditioned full courts with games going all the time. You come in and get matched up with other players of your skill level, so you can always find a good game. And we’re going to bring in a lot of former players to hold seminars. I might bring in George Gervin to talk about scoring, Artis Gilmore to talk about rebounding or Nate Archibald to talk about dribbling. It’s a great idea, and I see it spreading it across the country. I’m just happy to be involved with it.
SLAM: For all those points you scored, you never showboated.
ENGLISH: My game wasn’t loud and boisterous. I never felt the need to yell at the world, “I just slammed,” or “I just hit a jumper over you.” I let me game speak for me, and I always believed that if you’re bad, you don’t have to tell the world – you have to show them. They’re gonna see it and know it, so let your game speak.
SLAM: Is that why one of your teammates nicknamed you “The Quiet Assassin”?
ENGLISH: [Laughs] Maybe. It wasn’t necessary for me to speak. I got satisfaction out of knowing I played a good game and knowing that I contributed greatly to my team’s effort. And if I didn’t contribute, I’d have to do something about it next game. That’s the kind of leadership I exhibited to my teammates: get it done every night. Never take a game off.
SLAM: One mark of a great player is someone who of they had a bad night…
ENGLISH: …the next night, watch out. That’s exactly right. It’s the competitiveness inside of you. That’s what makes a superstar a superstar. It’s what makes Jordan Jordan, what made Jerry West Jerry West, what made Oscar Robertson Oscar Robertson and what made Larry Bird Larry Bird. It’s that competitive nature and drive to be the best and not settle for just a so-so game. You always want to have one of the best games. You want to win ever night.
I constantly see players who have great skills but lack that fire, and there’s nothing you can tell them. They have to have that will to push themselves to be the best, and it has to come from within. You can have all the skill in the world, but if you don’t have that inner being driving you, you’re not going to be any good. You’re not going to leave a mark.