Legends profile: Nate Archibald
On his way to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Nathaniel “Tiny” Archibald learned all about rising from desperate surroundings to extraordinary heights. It was an education that started early in life and served him well through a 14-year playing career that led him from the lowly Cincinnati Royals to an NBA championship with the Boston Celtics.
Before retiring at the end of the 1983-84 season, Archibald became the only player ever to lead the league in both scoring and assists in a season (34.0 ppg, 11.4 apg in 1972-73). At the time of his retirement, he also had 6,476 regular-season assists, which ranked ninth among the career leaders. He played in six All-Star Games. And in an era when the game threatened to become the exclusive domain of gargantuan players, the 6-foot-1 Archibald proved that there would always be room for a speedy, smart and creative small man.
Born and raised in the South Bronx’s Patterson housing projects, one of America’s most ravaged neighborhoods, Archibald used his deftness with a basketball to steer clear of the drugs and violence that claimed many of his peers. Fate, fortitude and inspiration from unlikely places helped him persevere to become the pride of Patterson.
Not a man to forget his roots, Archibald continued to be a presence in the troubled neighborhoods of New York, helping to run community programs and homeless shelters and counseling kids on the street.
Archibald — nicknamed after his father, “Big Tiny” — grew up in a two-bedroom apartment, the oldest of seven children. At age 14 Archibald effectively became head of the household when Big Tiny left his family. Living in an environment that destroyed many close to him, Archibald easily could have succumbed to the temptations of the street.
“It’s interesting,” Archibald told Sport magazine in 1980, “how guys who are into drugs are always looking to get other guys involved, as if they want company when they go under. Me? I was always into basketball.”
But basketball hardly seemed the natural course for the young Archibald. True, he had decent skills. But he was a small, painfully shy kid who lacked confidence on the court. He failed to make the basketball team his sophomore year at DeWitt Clinton High School and nearly dropped out of school.
Fortunately for Archibald — and for all those who enjoyed his splendid NBA career — a man named Floyd Layne, then a community sports director and later head coach for City College in Manhattan, entered the scene. Layne knew the DeWitt Clinton coach, who agreed to take another look at Archibald. The youngster made the team his junior year and by his senior season had made the All-City Team.
Although Layne and other supporters convinced Archibald to stay in school, his grades were not good. Consequently a major college scholarship was out of the question. Instead, he left New York for the first time in his life to attend Arizona Western Community College. After one year at Arizona Western he accepted a scholarship to the University of Texas at El Paso, where he averaged 20.0 points over three seasons.
Archibald starred during postseason collegiate All-Star Games. He scored 51 points in the 1970 Aloha Classic and averaged nearly 40 points in five postseason exhibitions.
The Cincinnati Royals, coached by former Celtics great Bob Cousy and run by general manager Joe Axelson, made Archibald the second pick of the second round in a strong 1970 NBA Draft that also included Bob Lanier, Rudy Tomjanovich, Pete Maravich, Dave Cowens, Sam Lacey and Calvin Murphy.
So boyish-looking was the young Archibald that the first time Cousy and Axelson laid eyes on him in a Memphis hotel they mistook him for a bellhop. But in the coming seasons Archibald proved that he could deliver far more than any bellboy, even at a wispy 6-1 and 160 pounds.
He earned a spot in Cincinnati’s starting lineup as a rookie when veteran guard Flynn Robinson held out in a contract dispute. Archibald responded by averaging a respectable 16.0 points on a marginal team that ended the season with a 33-49 record. His defense was spotty, however, and he tended to overhandle the ball, thereby creating turnovers.
The following season, with Archibald continuing to turn the ball over with alarming frequency, Cousy and Axelson reportedly considered trading him for the big man the team badly needed. The Royals instead traded Norm Van Lier to the Chicago Bulls for 6-foot-10 Jim Fox. When Royals captain and scoring leader Tom Van Arsdale went down with an injury a short time later, the making of a Hall of Famer was underway.
Archibald, now in the role of floor leader, played a solid first half in 1971-72. The decision to leave him off the Eastern Conference All-Star team so upset Archibald that he cranked up his production to 34.0 points per game for the rest of the year, finishing his second season with a 28.2 scoring average. He finally received recognition at the end of the year when he earned a berth on the All-NBA Second Team. Still, the Royals finished with a disappointing 30-52 record.
Before the 1972-73 season, the Royals packed up and moved to Kansas City-Omaha, where they became the Kings. It was as a King that Archibald assumed his place among NBA royalty, becoming an All-Star for the first time.
That season established Archibald as one of the best second-round draft picks ever. In 80 games, he averaged 34.0 points and 11.4 assists, becoming the only player ever to lead the league in both categories in a single year. He also was named to the All-NBA First Team at season’s end.
The year was not all roses, however. The franchise foundered on its way to a 36-46 record. But more significantly, the harsh reality of Archibald’s family roots came back to haunt him in the midst of his success. One younger brother was arrested for robbery, another on drug charges. Archibald flew home on one trip and found one of his brothers incoherent and hallucinating because of a drug overdose. Two of his brothers eventually came to live at Archibald’s Kansas City home, where they righted their lives, and another brother underwent drug rehabilitation with Archibald’s help.
An injured Achilles tendon cut Archibald’s 1973-74 season short at 35 games, and he averaged only 17.6 points. Tiny recovered in 1974-75, playing all 82 games and leading the team to its first winning record (44-38) since 1966. He averaged 26.5 points and 6.8 assists to reclaim a spot on the All-NBA First Team. More importantly, the Kings made the playoffs for the first time in Archibald’s career. They lost in the Western Conference semifinals to the Chicago Bulls in six games.
The following season Archibald posted similarly impressive statistics (24.8 ppg, 7.9 apg in 78 games) and again was named to the All-NBA First Team. Unfortunately, his performance was wasted on a 31-51 team that had no one to complement Archibald’s talent.
Archibald was traded to the New York Nets prior to the 1976-77 season, a campaign that marked the beginning of the three most difficult years of his career. Just 34 games into the Nets’ schedule, Archibald sustained a severe foot injury and missed the remainder of the season. At year’s end he was shipped to the Buffalo Braves. He tore an Achilles tendon before the 1977-78 season and never played a game in a Braves uniform. Again he was traded, this time to the Boston Celtics before the 1978-79 campaign.
The transition to Celtics Green was anything but smooth. Archibald was 20 pounds overweight after the layoff, his play was slow and clumsy and his role was ill-defined. He had difficulty playing alongside Jo Jo White, and he carried on a running public feud with player-coach Dave Cowens over playing time. The once glorious Celtics struggled to a 29-53 record.
After the 1978-79 season rumors of Archibald’s exit abounded. “The sad part,” one NBA general manager told Sport magazine in 1980, “is that I’m not sure anyone would have taken Tiny. Heck, he was 30 years old, had a bad reputation and a huge contract. He seemed to have lost his game.” Archibald, it appeared, was finished.
As the press prepared Archibald’s basketball obituary, the Celtics were busy assembling the ingredients for a return to greatness. Under new owner Harry Mangurian and new coach Bill Fitch, the team boasted rookie Larry Bird, fiery sixth man M.L. Carr and a rejuvenated Cowens at center. All the Celts lacked was someone to run the team on the floor.
Meanwhile, back in the South Bronx, where Archibald returned each summer to help and counsel troubled youngsters, Tiny was drawing on an unlikely source of inspiration on the Patterson playgrounds.
“Here I was,” Archibald recalled, “coming off the most frustrating year of my career, and it was the kids who were counseling me. They kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, Tiny. Don’t get down. You can do it. The Celtics need you.’ I’ll never forget them for that.”
Archibald returned to Boston for the 1979-80 season in a far different role. The Celtics didn’t need him to score as he had on the Cincinnati and Kansas City-Omaha teams of the early 1970s — they had Bird, Cowens and Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell for that. So Archibald emerged not as the flashy scorer of old but as a controlled, efficient playmaker, running the offense like a general.
His scoring average (14.1 ppg) was the second lowest of his career, but his 671 assists were his highest since his league-leading 910 in 1972-73. Archibald was again named an All-Star. The result for the Celtics was one of the most dramatic one-year revivals in league history: they posted a 61-21 regular-season record before losing to Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference finals.
The 1980-81 season marked the height of Tiny’s resurgence. He averaged more than 35 minutes while directing a disciplined Boston offense to a 62-20 record. Along the way he picked up the All-Star Game MVP award and finished fifth in the league in assists with 7.7 per game. He was also named to the All-NBA Second Team at season’s end.
Most importantly, after 11 up-and-down seasons in the NBA, Tiny Archibald finally claimed an NBA championship. After the Celtics won a seven-game showdown against the 76ers in the Eastern Conference finals, they went on to defeat the Houston Rockets in six games in the NBA Finals.
Archibald had a productive 1981-82 season as the Larry Bird era entered its third year. The Celtics went 63-19 but lost to Philadelphia and Julius Erving in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals. Archibald’s 8.0 assists per game were fourth best in the league.
The following year, the 34-year-old Archibald’s numbers began to drop. In 66 games, he averaged only 27.4 minutes and 6.2 assists. The Celtics were swept from the playoffs by the Milwaukee Bucks in the conference semifinals.
Archibald signed with the Bucks as a free agent for the 1983-84 season. He retired that year after playing in only 46 games.
Archibald’s contributions over his 14 years in the NBA were huge: 16,481 points, 6,476 assists and six NBA All-Star Games. He was rewarded with election to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1991.
Although Archibald stopped contributing on the basketball court, he certainly did not stop contributing elsewhere. After his brief stint with the Bucks, he returned to New York City to run basketball schools for underprivileged kids and to work as athletic director at the huge Harlem Armory homeless shelter until it closed in 1991. He was honored for his work with the city’s youth by then New York City Mayor David Dinkins in 1993.