Original Old School: The Professor

After we read that Nate “Tiny” Archibald is still lecturing students at the age of 62, we figured we had to share this Original Old School piece from SLAM 37. As it turns out, Tiny’s been a role model for quite a while now.—Ed.

Nate Archibald, SLAM 37.

by Alan Paul

Nathaniel Archibald stands on the searing blacktop playground of Harlem’s PS 175. School kids on their lunch break fill the air with the sound of play, running all around him as he stands with his hands in the pockets of his sweats, eyes hidden behind dark shades, body trim in a dark polo shirt. At first glance, Archibald could be any gym teacher in America. That is, until he starts talking about playground moves and shifting his weight from one leg to another, rolling his shoulders and flipping his hands with a grace that’s anything but average. A grace which made Tiny Archibald one of the greatest point guards ever to play the game.

The 6-1, 160-pound Archibald is the only player to lead the league in assists and scoring the same year. He did it in ’73, his third NBA season, when he scored 34 ppg and dished out 11.4 apg. He also averaged 46 minutes that season, typical of the full-tilt effort he gave through six seasons with the Cincinnati/Omaha/Kansas City Kings [Don’t ask.–Ed.], over which he averaged 25 ppg and did it all. He missed the entire ’77-78 season with a torn Achilles tendon, then moved on to the Celtics, where his numbers went down but his efficiency went up. In ’81 he led the team to their first Bird-era title. He retired in ’84 and was a no-brainer selection to the Hall of Fame (’90) and to the 50-Greatest team selected in ’96.

But Archibald’s stellar NBA career is only the tip of his very deep iceberg. He was a New York playground legend before he entered the league, and even more of one after, returning to his hometown to play summer ball every year. Even at the height of his pro career, Tiny dazzled the fans at the Rucker tournament, often bringing with him NBA teammates like Dave Cowens. “I’ll never forget watching Tiny go off up there,” recalls Dr. J. “He was incredible to watch, scoring at will.”

Whether the venue was a slab of asphalt or the Boston Garden, Archibald’s game was marked by lightning quickness and a fearless ability to penetrate, taking it right at the heart of the opponent’s defense, where he could finish or dish with equal aplomb. His moves were legendary and he played with extreme flavor, even though he never dunked in the NBA—proving that there’s more than one way to keep it real.

Since the end of his playing days, Archibald’s star has only shone brighter, even if many fewer can see it. After serving as an assistant coach for three years, two at his alma mater, the University of Texas El Paso, where he worked with Tim Hardaway, Archibald returned home to the Bronx. He got a master’s degree from Fordham University and is currently working on his doctorate. He has continued to work with the community, running boys and girls clubs, serving as recreation director for a homeless shelter and for the past several years teaching at PS 175, which is where you must go to find him. Tiny Archibald does not seek the spotlight, so the spotlight must seek him.

“Tiny is the best,” says New York Post and NBC commentator Peter Vecsey. “He is very dedicated to the kids and the community, and he asks nothing from nobody, expects no privileges. He has never changed one iota from the moment I’ve met him. He’s just a great human being, and as straight and real as anyone you’ll ever meet.”

SLAM: You grew up in New York in the midst of many, many great players. Who did you pattern your game after?

ARCHIBALD: My idols were Lenny Wilkens and Bob Cousy, but the greatest ballhandler I ever saw did not play professional ball. His name was Ed “Czar” Simmons, and he was a guy from Brooklyn who played on the Brooklyn USA team with Connie Hawkins and Roger Brown—two ABA players—and Jackie Jackson. He was a chubby guy who always wore a hat. Back then, when you played ball, you didn’t wear jewelry or watches or anything other than a uniform. But here was this grown man with a cap on, taking command of a fabulous team—passing the ball anywhere, telling guys what to do. I loved watching him play in the Rucker, but there were so many great players. Earl Manigault, Helicopter, Pablo Robertson—a great ballhandler and assist man.

Two really great ones, who were more or less my contemporaries, were Pee Wee Kirkland and Joe Hammond. They both could have been pros, especially Pee Wee. His potential was unlimited, and he could adapt to a structured game. He wasn’t some all-flash guy. He went to Norfolk State, was the CIAA MVP and All American, [got] drafted by the Chicago Bulls, and he walked out on them. There are lots of stories about what he did—the bags full of money and the drugs. Well, I only knew Pee Wee when it came to basketball, and he could play. Joe Hammond was maybe not on the same level, but he was also a great player. He got drafted by the Lakers but never went to camp.

SLAM: What about big guys?

ARCHIBALD: No secrets there. Kareem was awesome from the first time I ever saw him play, when we were kids. I played with Wilt and I saw him play against the Brooklyn Pros, when he was in the Baker league [from Philadelphia]. Of course, Wilt was great and so were others, but Kareem was so fluid in motion and did so many things. I never saw another big guy who could move like him.

I’ll never forget watching him in Morningside Park, scrimmaging against pros when he was a high school kid. He went to Power and I went to Dewitt Clinton and we played each other, but I didn’t get to play too much. He was ahead of me, and I was a bench player until my senior year. But just sitting and watching him was a beautiful thing. He just dominated in college—they had to change the rules and outlaw the dunk when he got to college, and when he left, they put it back. It’s just amazing to me that I came through the same [Rucker] program as that guy.

SLAM: You played in the Rucker growing up and kept playing after you were an NBA star. What did you like about it so much?

ARCHIBALD: Everything—the competition, the fans, the crowd. A lot of guys don’t play at all in the offseason. After their season is over they go around and talk highlights: “I did this, I did that.” Us guys didn’t have to talk about it. We just said, “You did what? Fine. Get on the court, and show me again.” I loved that. You take the competitiveness of a professional league and bring that flavor outdoors, and suddenly you’ve got a whole new game. You’ve got the music booming, you’ve got the crazy fans screaming and betting. I think that type of atmosphere is great. I loved the Rucker, and when I wasn’t playing in it, after my playing days were over, I was coaching.

SLAM: Once you were established as an NBA star, did other guys really come after you?

ARCHIBALD: Sure. They’re not impressed. Guys that did not play in the NBA lived and died for the summer to play against established guys. You was on the most wanted list, because you made it to the NBA and they didn’t. They didn’t care if you were an all-star, an all-pro, whatever—they were out to get you.

And I knew where they were coming from; when I was coming up, I lived and died for the summer so I could come in and play against established guys like Connie Hawkins and them on Brooklyn USA. Oh, just to step on the court and say, “Yeah, I played against the Hawk!” And he was tremendous up there. Just unreal, as good as anything you’ve ever heard. He could do it all, and his whole team was phenomenal.

SLAM: Did you feel like it was important for you to just come back and be a presence in the community?

ARCHIBALD: I’ve always come back to New York, whether I was playing or coaching or running programs in the South Bronx. Probably one of my biggest downfalls is that I can’t seem to get out of here. It’s like a wall is around me. But I’ve been fortunate, and New York has been good to me in a lot of ways, in life and in basketball—I got to play with and against so many great players coming up.

SLAM: Are you still working on your Ph.D.?

ARCHIBALD: Yeah. It’s been good, but it’s not as big a deal as people make it out to be. After my basketball playing days were over, I was kind of in a gray area, and I wanted to go back to school to pursue my education. Because I really wanted to do something with my life. I coached for three years—as an assistant at Georgia, then for two years at UTEP—but I felt something was missing. I came back to New York and enrolled at Fordham and got my masters in adult education supervision and administration. Then I got my professional degree, and now I’m just trying to do another degree. That’s all a Ph.D. is—the next degree.

SLAM: Did you have any particular role models in life rather than basketball?

ARCHIBALD: Sure, I had a lot of good mentors and role models. There was Floyd Lane, Hilton White, my high school coaches Hank Jacobson and Bob Buckner, who all taught me how to behave as well as how to play ball. But if I wanted to model myself after anyone, it was probably my dad. He was quiet, tough, determined, and he got things done. No, he never played basketball, but that’s the way he was, and that’s the way I am. And I like to help pass that on. That’s one of the reasons I want to be involved in the school system; you have to give these youngsters an opportunity to learn life skills as well get an education.