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ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT CHARLIE CRISS

On March 23, 1970, the day of NBA Draft, New Mexico State guard Charlie Criss wanted fiercely to hear his name called. Four days after losing in the Final Four, Criss expected that his college career, one that would eventually earn him a spot on the school's All-Century Team, would merit a chance in the NBA.

Criss waited. Waited through 19 rounds. Waited through 239 picks. No one picked him.

Seven and a half years later, as a member of the Atlanta Hawks, Criss made his NBA debut.

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Developing into an undersized scoring machine

Back in 1970, Criss had been playing basketball for just over eight years. He originally tried out for his high school team as an eighth grader because his friends did.

"I was terrible," Criss said. Mistimed passes and shots over the backboard sealed his fate as a tryout cut.

But Criss pressed on. The following summer, Criss went to the park near his Yonkers, NY home and played all day, every day. He fell in love with the game, and he had the good fortune of stumbling across an old pro named Ed Foley, who taught him the basics of shooting and passing.

"When I went back in the ninth grade, not only did I start," Criss said, "but I was the best player on the team from one summer."

"My mother and father laughed at me when I told them I was going to play basketball," he added. "I went home and they just laughed. And it all turned for me."

Three years later, Criss, a 5-foot-8 senior guard, led Gorton High School to the New York Class A Championship.

A New Mexico State assistant coach named Ed Murphy recruited Criss. The coach was visiting his sister, an employee at Gorton.

"Do you have any basketball players that you know of?” Murphy asked his sister.

"We've got one here," she said. "If you look at his size, you won't take him. But if you look at the way he plays, you'll take him in a heartbeat."

Murphy didn't have any scholarships left, so he holed Criss up at New Mexico Junior College.

"They were trying to hide me, but what they didn't plan on was me being the fifth-leading scorer in the country in junior college," Criss recalled with a laugh.

Criss averaged 29.6 points per game while shooting an incredible 61 percent from the field. He earned a spot on the Junior College All-Americans, and his 47 points in a single game is still a school record.

His successful season was enough to merit a scholarship and a spot on Lou Henson's New Mexico State team. There he partnered with Sam Lacey and Jimmy Collins. In their final season together, the trio led the team to a 27-3 record and a spot in the Final Four.

UCLA entered the national semifinal against New Mexico State as the three-time defending national champions, while amassing a 126-4 record over the same span. Unfortunately for New Mexico State, Lacey turned his ankle in the first half, and the injury smashed the Aggies' chances of upsetting UCLA.

So on March 23, the day of the draft, Criss waited. Lacey, one of the finest big-man passers in NBA history, was chosen by the Cincinnati Royals with the fifth overall pick. Collins went to the Chicago Bulls with the 11th overall pick.

What the NBA teams were saying, without actually saying it, was that they didn't believe in a 5-foot-8 guard.

The long and winding journey through semipro basketball

Criss stayed in New Mexico for two more years, working as a bank teller and playing AAU basketball. Then he got a tryout with the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association (ABA).

"I outplayed (their guards) in camp," Criss said, "but I just didn't make the team."

At that point, Criss decided to head back home to the East.

"I said, 'The only chance I have to make it back to The League is to go back to New York and play in the leagues up there so I can be seen.’ And that's exactly what I did. I went back to New York and got hooked up in the Eastern League."

The Eastern League was the predecessor of the Continental Basketball Association (CBA). Founded in 1946 in Pennsylvania, the Eastern League/CBA was the top minor basketball league in the United States for a number of decades.

After a year on the fringe as a member of the taxi squad of the Hartford Capitols, Criss earned the endorsement of the team's star player, Ed Johnson, when the two played in the same summer league.

"Johnson went back to the Hartford coach, Pete Monska, and said, 'Hey, you're missing out on a guy.' So that next year they really gave me an opportunity to show what I could do," Criss said.

Criss was commuting from New York to Hartford, but the early 1970s were a poor time to be making that long of a journey. The United States was going through its first oil crisis, an event that caused gas rationing.

"In Hartford, I only got paid $50 a game, and $25 was pay and $25 was for gas money," Criss said. "I had to drive two hours to get to Hartford and two hours back. At that time they also had a gas crisis, so sometimes my teammates had to siphon gas from someone who lived in Hartford so I could get back home."

In his second season in Hartford, Criss became a 20-point-per-game sixth man and the Capitols made a deep run into the Eastern League playoffs when a 34-year-old referee made a key call in overtime of the fifth and deciding game of the championship series.

"Dick Bavetta made the call that put me at the free throw line with two seconds left and we were down by one point," Criss said. "There was a guy named Greg Jackson who was on the free throw line and he said to me, 'Charlie, it's a lot of pressure.'"

Criss promptly dismissed him and made both shots to clinch the title.

The 72-point game

Despite the championship, the Capitols disbanded and Criss joined the Cherry Hill (N.J.) Rookies, where he started and scored a league-leading 30 points per game. The next year, as a member of the Scranton Apollos, he led the league in scoring again, this time scoring 39 points per game.

In his second season with the Apollos, Scranton would again win the championship. But one cold night in January 1976, Criss left an indelible mark on the league.

"Stan Novack was our coach at Scranton," Criss said, "and he said, 'I want you to score tonight.'"

"And I said, 'What more do you want me to do? I'm already averaging 30 a game?'"

Playing against a rival CBA coach who had once dismissed him as being too small, Criss made 27 of 58 the field goals he attempted in a double-overtime win, as well as 18 of his 20 free throw attempts. His 72 points still stands as an Eastern League/CBA record.

(Criss did it without a three-point line, too. Some Eastern League courts featured a three-point line, but the Catholic Youth Center in Scranton did not.)

In winning the title, Criss also won a second consecutive MVP award.

Years later, in 1996, Criss was named to the All-Time Eastern League Team on its 50th anniversary, but right then, the 28-year-old journeyman was ready to move on in basketball, either up or out.

Getting closer to bright lights while summering in New York: The Knicks, The Rucker and The Globetrotters

Criss almost made it to the NBA in 1976, in the summer between his two seasons in Scranton.

Steve Kauffman, a Philadelphia attorney who was also the Commissioner of the Eastern League and Criss' agent, managed to get Criss a tryout with the New York Knicks.

"I made it through rookie camp and I made it through vet camp," Criss said. "At that time, they had Earl Monroe, Dick Barnett, Walt Frazier, all those guys."

"The day before the exhibition season started," Criss added, "they handed out uniforms to take pictures. They gave me a jersey, but the number on the jersey was number 55. I knew right then that was it. Red Holzman came down to the locker room and said, 'Hey, you can definitely play, but for our purposes, we can't use you.'"

In the mid-70s, Criss also made a name for himself while playing in New York's famed Rucker Tournament as a member of the Courtsmen. The stars of the stylish Rucker all had colorful nicknames; Criss earned the moniker 'The Mosquito' for his attacking play and skillful jumpers.

"Even though I played in the Eastern League," Criss said, "people really got to see me at the Rucker Tournament when I played against some of the big name guys: Tiny Archibald, Henry Bibby, World B. Free. I played against all those guys and I scored no less than 30 points when I played against them. They said, 'You should be in the League. I know people say you're small, but you can play in that league.'"

In the summer of 1977, on the brink of giving up his basketball dreams entirely, Criss went to Europe as a member of the New Jersey Reds. (The Reds were a temporary re-branding of the team better known as the Washington Generals.)

"Are you sure you want to do this?" head coach Red Klotz asked at the time.

"Yeah, I'll go to Europe and play ball," Criss said.

"It's not just about that, though," Klotz replied. "You're playing against the Globetrotters and I know what kind of player you are. But if you're want to go, I'll take you."

Even though the Reds didn't get any wins against the Globetrotters, Criss' ability to score frustrated some of the members of the world's most famous barnstormers, who asked that he not shoot when they were guarding him.

"We went to a bunch of places in Europe in two and a half months," Criss said. "It was good. I really enjoyed doing it."

Hubie offers a genuine audition to launch an NBA career

In need of outside shooting, Hawks assistant coach Hal Wissel was eager to tell head coach Hubie Brown about a player who could fill their roster hole.

"I have a player for you," Wissel said.

"Don't say 'Charlie Criss'," Brown replied.

Despite the initial skepticism, an earnest Brown gave the 28-year-old Criss a real opportunity to make the team.

'I'm going to give you a legitimate chance," Brown said. "You're going to play through the exhibition season and we're going to give you a real shot to make the team."

"And that's exactly what Hubie did," Criss recalled.

Criss made the team. At 5-foot-8, he was the shortest player in the NBA. At 28 years, 10 months old, he was the oldest rookie guard in league history to that point.

His rookie season was perhaps his finest. A spark plug guard off the bench, Criss averaged over 11 points per game and stole 108 passes. More importantly, his presence helped the Hawks win 10 more games than they had the prior season.

Criss' father got to hear a game early in the season on the radio when the Hawks played the New Jersey Nets, and he made plans to attend a Knicks/Hawks game later that season. Three weeks before that game, though, his father passed away. Charlie returned home to Yonkers for the funeral, developed colitis, and had to be hospitalized.

In his first game back after the absence, Criss scored 30 points, one of three times in his career that he would get to the 30-point mark.

A season later, a mid-air collision caused Criss to land on his shoulder and he separated it. The injury required surgery and a rehab that required that he carry a weight around in his hands. Tree Rollins dubbed him “Bamm Bamm,” after the Flintstones character, because he "looked like the strongest kid in the league."

In January 1982, the Hawks traded him to the San Diego Clippers where he tallied a 34-point game in his short time there.

Criss signed with the Milwaukee Bucks the next offseason. There, playing for head coach Don Nelson, he was part of the only team to sweep the Larry Bird-era Boston Celtics from the playoffs.

After one more season with the Bucks, Criss retired from the NBA. He did, however, leave the NBA as a Hawk.

"I started having problems with my hip," Criss said. "My speed wasn't what it should be. Then when I went to Atlanta, I did some broadcasting. Mike Fratello brought me out of the broadcast booth when some of the guys got hurt."

On a 10-day contract, Criss played four games, starting two of them. In a win over the Bucks, he notched seven assists and five rebounds while playing an incredible 45 minutes.

The next season, 5-foot-7 Spud Webb made his NBA debut with the Hawks.

Life after the NBA

After he retired, Criss went on to complete a number of endeavors.

As noted earlier, he worked for a number of years as a broadcaster for the Hawks. In addition, he served as the director of youth golf for the City of Atlanta, worked for the Hawks as a community liaison, and he continues to train both basketball players and golfers.

"I like teaching kids how to be fundamentally better players," Criss said. "I do group training, I teach kids how to handle the ball and how to shoot."

Criss is currently an assistant coach for the boys’ team at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic High School, and he helps golfers work on their swings at Canongate 1.

Criss was happy to make Atlanta his permanent home.

"Atlanta is where I played professional basketball," Criss said, "and there were opportunities here as opposed to going back to New York."

"I liked the weather and the people that were here. I had kids here that went to high school here, so it was a nice place to settle down. And it has been. It has been the perfect place."

Story by KL Chouinard
Twitter: @KLChouinard

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