Suns Throwback: Dick and Tom Van Arsdale
With the present Suns’ players enjoying their offseason, Suns.com decided the summer time is a great chance to catch up with former players for a weekly #SunsThrowback edition of Phoenix basketball history. How does it work? Basically we get their memories going just enough to do what they do best: tell us their most memorable stories from their playing days.
This week's guests are The Original Sun Dick Van Arsdale and his twin brother Tom. The former All-Stars recalled playing on dirt courts, competing with and against NBA legends and tricking people with twin powers
On their first basketball hoops as kids in Indiana...
Tom: Our grandfather built a basketball court. Back then it was out of dirt. Wooden backboard, wooden post. That’s when we started playing. We were probably five years old and we started playing against each other. Then we upgraded to a full-court dirt court in our backyard.
On their basketball ambitions as kids...
Tom: I think it was different. Our first concern was playing in the Indiana high school basketball championship. That was our dream. We got to the final game and got beat in overtime. Then our next dream was to play for Indiana University. That’s all we thought about.
On the exposure they had to the NBA growing up...
Tom: We were not all that aware of what was going on in the NBA. Our idol was Oscar Robertson. Oscar was the big name in Indiana when we grew up. He was like five years ahead of us. we used to watch him play in high school. Indiana has just got the tradition of being known for its basketball. We knew Oscar [Robertson] went on to the University of Cincinnati. From there, I remember the first year he played, he averaged a triple-double. We kind of started noticing the NBA when Oscar entered the NBA. When he played for the Cincinnati Royals, that was very close to Indiana, so we could follow as much as we could.
Back then, TV coverage was minimal. We never listened to them on the radio. It was always Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Maybe Jerry West. They got all the exposure. We did watch some of Bob Pettit with the St. Louis Hawks and some of the old Minneapolis Lakers. We remember George Mikan and Slater Martin and some of those guys who played for the Minneapolis Lakers before they moved to Los Angeles.
On how hard it was to make the NCAA Tournament back then...
Tom: The Big Ten, when we were playing, was one of the toughest eras. Michigan had Cazzie Russell, Bill Buntin. Those guys all played NBA or ABA. Illinois had a great team. Minnesota had Archie Clark and Lou Hudson. Lou Hudson and Archie Clark were tremendous players. We had four teams in the Big 10 that year who were mostly all in the Top 10 that year.
To go to the NCAA Tournament, you had to win the Big 10 Championship. Dick and I never got to play in the NCAA Tournament. Today, we all would have played for the national championship.
On Eddie Miles and the transition to the pros…
Tom: When you finally go to training camp, you wake up and you say, ‘these guys are good.’ It was an adjustment. There were only nine teams.
I remember playing in a pickup game in Detroit in the summer before training camp started. Eddie Miles, he was an NBA All-Star a couple of times, they called him the Man with the Golden Arm because he could shoot really well. When he played defense against, he’d stick his arm against you and it felt like a bar was being pushed into your side. I played against him in this pickup game and I said ‘oh my gosh. This is not going to be easy.’
I’ve always felt there is a huge difference between college and the pros. You’ve got to be aggressive to make it.
On living in New York after growing up Indiana
Dick: New York was great for me. No car, apartment right in Times Square. We’d go to the bars at night, go to bed and go to baskeball. We hardly had any money. We had so much fun in New York.
On living in Detroit after Indiana...
Tom: Detroit’s not New York, but it was a big city for me. My first year, I roomed with Ron Reed who played at the University of Notre Dame and Don Kojis who played at the University of Marquette. We rented an apartment at the Lafayette Plaisance, which was a 20-story high-rise apartment complex. We had a one-bedroom apartment. Ron Reed and I slept in the same bed and Don Kojis slept on the couch. We saved every penny we made.
This was a time in Detroit when Motown was becoming big. We went over to the Supremes’ house for dinner a couple times. We were good friends with the Four Tops. We’d go to night clubs and listen to the Motown music. I think Barry Gordy lived in our apartment complex.
On Dick's reaction to getting picked up by Phoenix in the 1968 expansion draft…
Tom: Dick wasn’t protected in the expansion draft, when Phoenix and Milwaukee got teams. Jerry Colangelo took Dick first. They called Dick in New York and said ‘Dick, you’re moving from New York. You’ll be going to Phoenix, Arizona.’ Dick and his wife were living on Long Island at that time. His wife was teaching school. They loved Long Island. They loved New York. When they got this call to tell them they were going to Phoenix, Arizona, they were upset.
Dick: I think it was in July, and the plane had come here. It was 118 degrees. We got out of the car and we said ‘Oh my God, what is that?! We’ve got this stuff here?’ I still remember that. We got a house right away. It had a little swimming pool for us. I said, ‘that’s great.’ It took us about two months to like it. We love it right here now.
On playing with/against NBA legend Oscar Robertson...
Tom:I’d been playing in Detroit for two-and-a-half years. My coach then was Donnis Butcher. It’s after a game and he called me and said ‘Tom, would you come up to my hotel room? We’ve got to talk.’ He says ‘I’ve traded you to Cincinnati.” I thought, ‘Oh my. I get to play with Oscar.’
A lot of times, if you admire someone or idolize them, and then you get to know them on a personal basis, your opinion diminishes sometimes. Mine went up.
I just think Oscar is one of the finest guys I’ve ever met. He’s shy, but he’s a quality guy. I played there with Oscar and started in the backcourt with him. The one thing with Oscar, I didn’t have to worry about bringing the ball up the floor – because he had complete control. Here's a guy…when he gave you a pass – a bounce pass or a straight pass – he always passed exactly where you were in a position to shoot the ball.
He’s the only guy I know that could go in, dribble and shoot over Bill Russell. Now how did he do that?
Dick: I always had to guard him all the time against Cincinnati with the Knicks. I always played against Oscar. He’s so strong. [He’d extend] his big arm. You can’t even touch him, he’s so strong.
On playing with/against former Suns star Connie Hawkins...
Tom: He’s got one of the prettiest swoop shots I’ve ever seen. He went in, swooped to the left and swooped the ball to the right down into the basket. You talk about Dr. J, who was fantastic, but I think Hawk had more fantastic moves than Doc.
Dick: He was so smooth. The hands were so big. When I’d go to the basket quite a bit, he would always get it to me. Like Oscar, in a good spot, not down low, but right in the middle. He was very good about that.
On the impact and talent of former Suns star Alvan Adams...
Dick: When Alvan was with Oklahoma, [Suns Head Coach John] MacLeod knew Alvan was a good player, so he was going to bring him here. When I saw Alvan come here to see him, he was ‘this’ skinny. He’s small. I thought, 'he's terrible.' Then you could see, when he played, that he could play. I’m like, ‘Boy, John, you got him pretty good, didn’t you?’
Tom: He was a player that made an impact his first year. That’s very unusual. I just remember playing against him and how his passing game was so sharp. His quickness. He had all the traits to make a great basketball player. He just didn’t look like one. He looked like was too weak. Like Dick said, he just shocked everybody.
On Alvan Adams' joke...
Tom: You know what Alvan’s favorite joke is? ‘You know we have triplets on the Suns. We have Tom Van, we have Dick Van, and we have Al-van.
On the Celtics' mind games...
Tom:When I started playing against Boston, we’d be standing at the free throw line when one of the guys was shooting a free throw. Sam Jones might have been on my left and Bill Russell might have been on my right. Sam might have said to me, ‘Tom, you’re doing really good.’ He was just playing with me. That’s what they did. They played with your mind.
Russell was a great psychologist and an intimidator. He’d look at you and say ‘Hey Tom, how’re you doing?’, get a little smile on his face, then he’d block every shot you took.
On Bill Russell…
Tom: Dick and I both agree that if we’re going to take one player of all the players that ever played throughout the years, for our team, our first player is Bill Russell.
He was intense. He never let you drive to the basket without making an attempt to stop you. [Wilt] Chamberlain would let you go. Russell thought about how he’d play defense. He’d get his body away from somebody and wait for him to go up. His timing was so good, he’d block the shot.
On Wilt Chamberlain's unusual food carrying methods...
Tom: Somebody said when he used to play in Philadelphia, he’d open up his suitcase and there’d be a steak in there.
Dick: I was at the All-Star game and Wilt had a suitcase, opened it up…it was so stinky. It was wet. I said, ‘oh my God, Wilt, what have you got in there?’
On their late-blooming passion with art...
Tom: Dick, when he was in New York years ago, was doing pencil drawings. Then he didn’t do it again. About eight years ago, when he had his stroke, he started drawing again.
Dick: I was in the hospital in Scottsdale. I still don’t write very well. I couldn’t speak anything. I had to do something. I said, ‘well, I’m going to ‘art’ a little bit.’ It got a little better. Now I do it every day.
Tom: We converted our office in Scottsdale to an art studio. Dick’s got half the room and I’ve got the other half. Dick does pencil, pen and colored pencil on one side. I do oil painting on the other side.
On tricking others with twin powers...
Tom: One of the NBA All-Star games we played in, everybody wanted us to switch. Dick played for the West, I played for the East. They said, ‘guys, you’ve got to change!’
Dick: I wanted to [swap jerseys] the last game [in Phoenix]. [laughing] He wouldn’t do it.
Tom: Our best story about changing was when we played Little League baseball. We were 11 years old and you had to register who was the pitcher on the team for the season. I was the registered pitcher. Dick wasn’t.
One night I was supposed to pitch, but I had a sore arm and I couldn’t throw. Dick wore a red hat and I wore a green hat. We didn’t have numbers. We went behind the bleachers, we switched hats, Dick pitched the game – which was illegal because he wasn’t a registered pitcher – he won the game. After the game, Mom and Dad didn’t even know we’d switched.