Showman, playmaker, creator, those words simply don’t lend adequate weight in describing the beauty, strength, and grace you’ll see flashing across the screen over the next two minutes.
As described, Nate “Tiny” Archibald “would electrify the league with schoolyard showmanship” over a 14-year playing career, culminating in six NBA All-Star appearances, five All-NBA honors and a championship with the Boston Celtics in 1981. Not to mention, 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). Just when thinking around the league started to shift towards a preference for dominant big men, in walks the 6-foot-1 Archibald, who quickly showed everybody that elite, play-making guards would always hold major relevance.
Drafted as the second pick of the second round in a 1970 class that also featured Bob Lanier, Rudy Tomjanovich, Pete Maravich, Dave Cowens, Sam Lacey and Calvin Murphy, Archibald entered the NBA doubting himself due to his diminutive size compared to the giants running the floor next to him. Yet Archibald quickly earned a spot in the starting lineup for the Cincinnati Royals as a rookie, in part due to a holdout from veteran guard Flynn Robinson over his contract. Archibald averaged 16.0 points in his first season, as Cincinnati — coached by former Celtics legend Bob Cousy — struggled to a record of 33-49.
Just ask, and Archibald will quickly tell you the Bronx is where he’s from as the Hall of Famer views that as “a pride statement.”
The Bronx borough in New York City produced plenty of NBA players, including Jamal Mashburn, Rod Strickland, Ed Pinckney, Malik Sealy, and Kemba Walker, among others. “For me to be a part of those names is very special,” said Walker, currently a guard for the New York Knicks.
Nicknamed “Big Tiny” after his father, Archibald was born and raised in the South Bronx’s Patterson housing projects and attended DeWitt Clinton High School, where he nearly dropped out after failing to make the basketball team as a sophomore. Luckily, Archibald received a vote of confidence from Floyd Layne, then a community sports director, who just happened to know the coach at DeWitt Clinton. Layne urged the coach to take another look at Archibald, who would eventually make the team his junior year before earning All-City recognition as a senior.
From there, Archibald left New York for the first time in his life to enroll at Arizona Western Community College, where he stayed for a year before accepting a scholarship at the University of Texas at El Paso.
But it was the lessons learned at DeWitt Clinton that shaped Archibald into the player he became. The school boasts famous alumni such as Ralph Lauren, James Baldwin and Stan Lee, along with comedian Tracy Morgan, who attended the school but didn’t graduate. Another member of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team, Dolph Schayes, graduated from DeWitt Clinton in 1945.
Archibald still lives in the Bronx and remains a fervent supporter of DeWitt.
Royals coach and former Celtics legend Bob Cousy and general manager Joe Axelson spotted a wide-eyed and baby-faced Archibald at a Memphis hotel ahead of the 1970 NBA Draft, assuming he was working as a bellhop. But the only baggage Archibald carried was doubt about his diminutive size, which was quickly assuaged after a conversation with Cousy.
“He came to the hotel, and we sat down,” Archibald explained. “He was talking about just drafting me. For being 6-feet or 5-11 or whatever size I was, I grew … I was 8-feet tall when he told me that because I didn’t really think I had a chance to play in the NBA.”
Archibald earned the starting job at point guard as a rookie, struggling as a defender in addition to showing a penchant for over-dribbling, which led to turnovers. But Archibald’s early hiccups never deterred Cousy, who patiently worked with his new point guard, sitting down with him after nearly every game to talk through the intricacies of playing the position.
They didn’t discuss scoring. Instead, Cousy drilled into Archibald’s head the importance of “running the team,” Archibald said.
Cousy’s invaluable tutelage combined with Archibald’s speed and mindset to relentlessly attack opponents turned the latter into a superstar.
By the 1972-73 season, his first with the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, Archibald would earn his first All-Star nod, becoming the only player ever to lead the NBA in both scoring (34.0 ppg) and assists (11.4 apg) in a single season. Archibald would also be named All-NBA First Team.
Finally, it felt as if Archibald had arrived.
But just as quickly, problems at home with two of his brothers threw a damper on the success, along with constant losing as the Kings made the postseason only once during the point guard’s tenure.
The Kings traded Archibald to the New York Nets ahead of the 1976-77 season, and just 34 games into that campaign, he suffered a foot injury that knocked him out of commission the rest of the season. New York then traded Archibald to the Buffalo Braves, but he never played a game for them after tearing an Achilles tendon prior to the 1977-78 season.
Archibald eventually landed with the Boston Celtics before the start of the 1978-79 season.
By then, Archibald, now 30, had missed more than a season and a half. He longed for one last shot.
“It really looked like his career had come to an end,” said former Celtics coach Bill Fitch.
Despite losing a step, Archibald pushed through with smarts and determination, sacrificing his own scoring to set up teammates on the way to returning to All-Star form for the first time in four seasons. With Archibald leading the way, Boston completed the best NBA season single-season turnaround ever at the time, finishing 61-21 after a 29-53 campaign the year before thanks to the new point guard and 23-year-old rookie Larry Bird.
The next season, Archibald led the Celtics to their first championship since 1976.
“He was surrounded by talented players, and he literally played them like a conductor,” Cousy said. “He had become the complete, prototype point guard.”
Nate Archibald flashed steady improvement over his first two years in the NBA, averaging 16.0 points as a rookie, before upping his production in Year 2 to 28.2 points per game.
Archibald’s third season, however, proved historic. That’s why the Kansas City (Missouri) Public Library keeps this film stashed in its historical society holdings. It’s aptly titled: “The Year The Records Fell.”
The Cincinnati Royals became the Kansas City-Omaha Kings ahead of the 1972-73 season, and it was in this campaign that Archibald kickstarted many of the milestones that decorated a Hall of Fame career. In addition to averaging 34.0 points and 11.4 assists to become the only player ever to lead the league in both stats in a single season, Archibald made his first appearance in the NBA All-Star Game (scored game-high 17 points in 27 minutes). In fact, Archibald became the first All-Star player for the Kings during a season in which he also led the NBA in minutes (46.0).
By the start of the 1975-76 season, the franchise dropped “Omaha” from its name, becoming the Kansas City Kings. The franchise moved to Sacramento in 1985.
Now 32, in his third season with the Boston Celtics, Archibald no longer possessed his blinding speed, but he still flashed enough quickness when needed to get by opponents on the way to the rack. Most importantly, Archibald could still drop dimes with the best of them.
Archibald made the 1981 NBA All-Star Game as a reserve as Julius Irving, Eddie Johnson, Artis Gilmore, Reggie Theus and Larry Bird headlined the East team’s starters.
Playing 25 minutes in his fifth NBA All-Star Game, Archibald took just seven shots for nine points in the East’s 123-120 win. He dished nine assists on the way to winning MVP of the game.
“I felt that I could penetrate on them, but what they were trying to do was force us into turnovers,” Archibald said as he held the MVP trophy. “I tried to get the ball to the people that were open, penetrate as much as I could and then dish off.”
Archibald would go on to capture his only NBA championship that season, knocking off the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals 4-2.
Archibald averaged 15.6 points and 6.3 in the 1981 NBA Playoffs in helping Boston capture its first championship in five years. Unsurprisingly, Archibald saved his most impactful performances for when they were most needed.
Boston started off the postseason with a 4-0 sweep of the Chicago Bulls with Archibald averaging 17.8 points and 5.5 assists. The competition tightened significantly in the Eastern Conference finals, but the Celtics edged Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 to advance to the NBA Finals. Archibald averaged 19 points and a series-high 7.4 assists in that series, but he suffered a right thigh injury during that epic duel when Sixers big man Darryl Dawkins fell on him.
In the finals, Archibald and the Celtics faced Moses Malone and the Houston Rockets which played them to a 2-2 series tie after four games. Archibald would struggle in Game 5, despite the Celtics destroying the Rockets 109-80. Then, in Game 6, Archibald scored 13 points and dropped 12 dimes in 43 minutes to help Boston take home the title.
Determination and perseverance defined the scrappy Archibald’s career, and his hardscrabble upbringing in the Bronx proved valuable down the road when “Tiny” faced monstrous adversity over the years.
“You have a lot of experts that say, ‘Well, he’s through. He can’t play anymore — torn Achilles,’” Archibald said. “And that really propelled me to work a lot harder.”
When the Celtics hired coach Bill Fitch in 1979, everything changed for Archibald. He showed up to camp weighing 165 pounds – 15 lighter than the previous season – and the point guard revamped his game to become a more dynamic distributor, which helped then-rookie Larry Bird average 21.3 points in their first season together on the way to a 61-21 record. The next season, Archibald won his only title.
Again, like so many times before, Archibald had proven the doubters wrong.
“The biggest thrill I got was to prove to those people, then in the 80s, and 70s and way back in the early 60s, that given a chance, I can play this game,” he said.
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