Original Old School: The Professor
SLAM 37: Nate “Tiny” Archibald is willing to tell today’s players what it takes to win.
SLAM: Do the kids here know who you are?
ARCHIBALD: Most of them do, but I don’t make a big thing out of it. A couple of them are always bugging me to play them one-on-one, but I’ll tell you what: watching the moves these kids have, I don’t know how I ever got by doing the things I did. I think it was largely because of determination and sheer will. And, as I was saying, I had good mentors. That continued when I got to college and learned so much from Don Haskins. He was the Bear, and he was tough and intimidating, but he was a great, great teacher. The ultimate. He didn’t care nothin’ about the scoring. All he wanted to do was win and beat you at the chess game of basketball. And I learned a lot about defense from him, playing matchup zones, although he insisted we only play man to man.
He had me playing the post at times. I said, “I’m no post-up player.” And he said, “Do this for me: Catch the ball, turn around, and if no one’s in your way, take it to the basket.” So I started working on that, and I realized it was easier to go 10 feet to the basket than 90 feet.
SLAM: Then you got to the NBA, and your first coach was Bob Cousy, one of the greatest guards of all time.
ARCHIBALD: Cooz was like an extension of my dad, and I was lucky to be on that team. He sat me down and talked to me about being the ultimate point guard. He knew I had the quickness and determination, and he gave me a chance when a lot of people didn’t think I could make it. I just tried to make the best of that chance.
He was an elite point guard, and he always had the ball in his day. That’s how it was played in the ’60s: you get the ball off the boards, you give it to the point guard. Not like today when everyone tends to be more flexible. We had Sam Lacey and Jimmy Walker on that team, bigger guys who could handle the ball, but Cooz wanted the point guard to handle the ball 80 percent of the time, because that was an extension of him. It was difficult to be thrown right into the fire as a rookie, but the game was a lot easier when you controlled the basketball and controlled the flow. So that really worked to my advantage.
Don Haskins was more or less the same way, and not only did I benefit from that, but so did Timmy Hardaway. Haskins wanted him to have the ball all the time, and his ballhandling improved dramatically as a result. His game got a lot better. He was a great penetrator and he had the crossover dribble when he got there, but he learned well and that’s why he has a complete game today. He always had a lot of heart and determination, and he got the great coaching to bring that out.
SLAM: It must have felt good when you finally got to the Celtics and were on a really good team for the first time, where you didn’t have to do all the work.
ARCHIBALD: It was great. And Cooz knew something like that would happen for me. A couple of times, he said to me, “You’re dong a lot of work, playing a lot of minutes. You’re beat up and battered. But one of these days you won’t have to do all the scoring,and you will be able to let it all come to you instead of always having to bring it.” A lot of guys are statistics crazy—they need to be scoring or rebounding or dishing a ton in order to be one of the men. I wasn’t like that, and Cooz knew it. He was saying, “One day you are going to get a chance to be a quarterback on a great team They’re going to need your experience and knowledge, and you will be the ultimate winner.” And it came.
I led the Celtics in assists, but it wasn’t a whole lot [7.7 apg], and I didn’t score all that much [13.8 ppg]. I had great players around me, and it was a lot of fun. It made the game a lot easier. It’s really a pleasure to play with guys that have the same determination that you have and will do anything to win. I was finally in a position to play a normal point guard style. Which I loved. I didn’t have to worry about just playing that penetration game, and when I did it, it was a lot easier. I just got a chance to play with the best front line in basketball history, which made my job a lot easier. And after I left, that front line was still in place, and they just had a changing of the guards. As long as you have Larry, Kevin, Chief and Maxwell in place, you just change the guards. And that’s all they did. When I left, they brought in Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge and just kept rolling. Because no one was gonna stop McHale, Bird and the Chief.
SLAM: Did you ever feel intimidated taking the ball to the hole against bigger guys?
ARCHIBALD: I did, but you just keep your head up and make things happen. I mean, Wilt was a dominating force, for instance, but if you had the angle, you could take him, or anyone. When you go to the hoop, there are only four things that can happen to you: You can get your shot blocked, you can get fouled, you can get it off, or you can pass it down for an easy shot. Three of those things are good. I knew guys who were bigger and stronger than me, but I always thought I was quicker. If I could get to that basket, get to that slot, before they committed to get there, then I could score.
SLAM: You were well known for your spectacular drives. Did you practice the actual moves, or were they all improvised?
ARCHIBALD: Of course I practiced them. You have to put in your time. People say today’s generation of players lack talent. Bullshit. They have the talent, but they put in less time than we did. First of all, we didn’t have videotapes that we watch over and over. So the videotape was in your head. You saw a move and then you had to do it over and over again until you think you got it right. That prompted us to just put in time, and practice hours are key.
SLAM: Everyone who knew you says that you played ball from sun-up to sundown. What sort of things would you practice when you were alone?
ARCHIBALD: Getting to the basket, getting around the invisible man. You do dribble drills, penetration moves, head fakes, practice going under the basket and making a right hand shot after coming in the left side. Work on perfecting your balance and body control. Basically, just doing a lot of unique stuff, so that when you get in the game you know what to do. Those moves don’t just happen.
Take Tim [Hardaway] and his crossover machine-gun dribble. I guarantee that he didn’t get that in the NBA. I saw him do that in high school and college. At UTEP, when practice was over, he was out there practicing his moves against the invisible person. Those are the things you get into. It’s a mental part of the game where you work things out so much that you condition your brain to think, “I don’t care who’s guarding me or how many people are in front of me. I’m going to score.” That’s how I learned, and that’s how we all played when I was coming up.
SLAM: Do you think that’s no longer the case?
ARCHIBALD: People gave us discipline and taught us respect. I see a lot of kids today who are great but don’t have the discipline and respect. It’s about your game fitting into the team concept. If you’re a guard, it’s not just about breaking people down, it’s about running your team. You put a guy in a park environment, and suddenly it’s about show. It’s not about winning, it’s about entertainment. And I know that people always say to me, “Yeah, B, it’s all about entertainment anyhow. It’s a game.” But no—it’s about winning, not about show.
If I do a great move, it’s to create a basket, not to look slick. It’s unfortunate that some of us were born with big ears, because we’ll do a great move and hear the cheers, and instead of continuing the move with the purpose that we had—scoring—we say, “Whoa, rewind. I wanna hear that again!” so back up and try it again, but then I never complete the move. Which means there’s no purpose to the move. All I want to hear is people saying “great move.” But the purpose is to score! The purpose is to pass. The purpose is to do something creative with the ball and be creative, not to just keep on doing the show game. If you can break someone down, go by them and score, don’t try to do it again. Don’t figure if one machine-gun crossover is good, six are better. I see that all the time. The game goes on; it doesn’t stop when you do that.
Whether or not someone can figure this all out, grasp this knowledge, is a key to whether they can make it from a playground environment to a more structured one, no matter how much talent they have. And college basketball is probably one of the biggest determining factors of whether or not a guy will make it. Guys always say, “Why I gotta go to college?” Because you’ve got a lot to learn.