Van Arsdales mirrored each other's success all along the way

Well before their NBA days, twins Tom and Dick Van Arsdale were on same page

Old Town Scottsdale is like any “Old Town [Insert Name Here]” tourists might frequent. Old-school feel, modern-day prices. This one carries a southwest flavor, complete with silver-and-turquoise jewelry, horned animal skulls and plenty of well-oiled leather.

Every now and then, however, a pair of visitors will take a certain turn into one of the mercifully shaded corridors. Amid a tiled hall that is home to local artists, something authentic can be found. Not by art-purveyors or tourists, but by those familiar with pre-glory days NBA basketball.

Those without such knowledge will see only an elderly pair of all-but-indistinguishable twins. Both sport the same strong jawlines, parted white hair, and brown loafers.

One of them (usually Tom) will look up and issue as friendly a greeting as you can imagine.

“Come on in!”

It is only when Tom or his brother, Dick, stand up, that the visitor(s) might begin to wonder if there is something more than the penciled and painted art that surrounds the pair of 6-foot-5 brothers.

* * *

A shared competitive drive

Decades before the Gasol brothers arrived from Spain, before Rick Barry’s sons blossomed in California, before Horace and Harvey Grant became Georgia’s NBA pride, Dick and Tom Van Arsdale were doing what many school-age Indiana boys did: playing on a homemade hoop nailed to a tree in the backyard. It was best out of three … unless Dick won two. Then Tom would demand they play one more.

Their “court” only added to the competition. Instead of hardwood, they dribbled on a cleared circle of dirt. The backboard was a pair of two-by-eights nailed together. The base of the tree was unyielding. Ball and body control were absolute musts in what became the young Van Arsdales’ personal proving grounds.

“We’d play one-on-one against each other,” Tom recalled.

“Every day,” Dick added seamlessly.

“We’d get into a fight every day,” Tom confesses. “We’d slug each other, but we’d never hit each other in the face.”

Beating each other gave way to teaming up and beating their cousins, then their friends.

“Dick and I never lost,” Tom proudly laughed. “We had so much fun.”

Hoops and pride went hand in hand for the Indiana brothers, who devoured every televised second of Hoosier basketball and were only 10 years old when Branch McCracken coached Indiana to the 1953 NCAA title. They daydreamed of donning white and red in Bloomington, Ind. Even a recruiting letter from legendary UCLA coach John Wooden didn’t sway them. Well before their senior year, two-point overtime loss in the state championship game, the Van Arsdales were committed Hoosiers.

“We didn’t have to be recruited,” Tom said. “We knew we were going to Indiana.”

As they discuss their pre-Indiana days, an elderly couple enters the Van Arsdale art studio. Not until Tom greets them does the woman realize the identical twins are real people.

“Oh my goodness, I thought you were works of art or something!”

Hoosier fans likely thought something similar as they watched Dick and Tom put up nearly identical stats over the next three seasons.

Coming off a 19-5 junior season at Indiana (1964-65), the Van Arsdales weren’t just Indiana poster boys. Their hard-nosed yet productive style had made them intriguing talents for an NBA gearing up for its first round of expansion.

Harry Gallatin may have been a Knicks legend (and then-current coach), but the former seven-time NBA All-Star was a Midwesterner at heart. That may have played a role in his liking of Dick Van Arsdale, whom he and assistant coach Red Holzman treated to dinner before the 1965 NBA Draft. The meal must have confirmed New York’s opinion. They called Dick after the Draft to let him know they had taken him 10th overall. Naturally, Detroit took Tom 11th.

Just like that, the Van Arsdales were NBA-bound — but they would do so without each other until the very end of their NBA journey.

Legendary memories formed in NBA

The NBA consisted of just 10 teams when Dick and Tom debuted. That meant every team had multiple All-Star talents and, in most cases, a future Hall of Famer. No game felt like a gimme, which was just as well since neither Van Arsdale ever played like one.

In Detroit, Tom had immediate respect for future Hall of Famer Dave DeBusschere, who was both his teammate and his coach.

“I think he was one of the toughest players I ever played with or against,” Tom said. “He was good.

When Detroit traded him to the Cincinnati Royals (now the Sacramento Kings franchise) two and a half seasons later, Tom Van Arsdale found himself starting alongside Oscar Robertson being coached by Bob Cousy.

Dick Van Arsdale, meanwhile, enjoyed beginning his career with Walt Bellamy, Willis Reed and Walt Frazier in New York.

“These guys just meant so much to us. They still do. I get goosebumps thinking about who we played with and against.”

Yet the guy that stands out most to them — and still does if you include modern-day legends — wore No. 6 in Boston.

“Dick and I say that if we pick a team right now, we’re both taking Bill Russell,” Tom Van Arsdale said. “When you played Boston, if you drove to the basket, Russell never let you go. He never let you go.”

“I don’t really have any place to hang my hat with a team,” Tom explained. “I played longer with the Cincinnati Royals than anybody, but they’re in Sacramento now. I benefit from everybody knowing Dick, here. I don’t have that same home feeling about my team. My number’s not hanging from anybody’s rafters.”

Maybe it’s not, but zoom out, and Dick and Tom are as even a match as you’ll find in NBA history.

Can you imagine playing against [Bill] Russell 11 times as a rookie? Holy [expletive].”

Tom Van Arsdale

As rookies, both of the Van Arsdales faced Russell’s Celtics 11 times each in 1965-66.

“Can you imagine playing against Russell 11 times as a rookie?” Tom Van Arsadale said, still aghast at the experience. “Holy [expletive].”

Dick Van Arsdale’s memory of Russell is much more specific and involved a sequence that sounds familiar to modern-day victims of LeBron James.

“I rebound the ball and I was going all the way. Russell was noplace near where I was. I went to the basket, boom. He was all over it. He took me out of the play like that.”

As jaw-dropping as their co-workers could be, the Van Arsdales began to carve out their own NBA reputations — and accolades. In Cincinnati, Tom Van Arsdale was on the receiving end of passes from Robertson and Tiny Archibald. He averaged more than 19 points per game from 1968-72, earning three All-Star nods in the process.

After three seasons with the Knicks, Dick Van Arsdale went to the newly formed Phoenix Suns and was an All-Star from 1968-71 — two of which (1970, ’71) overlapped with his brother. He did it while becoming just the fifth non-center to average more than 20 ppg and shoot better than 50% in a single season, joining Robertson, Terry Dischinger, Bailey Howell and Jerry West.

“I was the better shooter,” Dick laughed.

While that was true in their NBA careers, what Tom Van Arsdale really envied of his brother was his postseason experience. His various NBA stops — Detroit, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Atlanta — never enjoyed playoff berths. Dick Van Arsdale, however, enjoyed two short trips to the playoffs with the Knicks before landing in the one place he wanted no part of.

Reunited out West

“I didn’t want to go to Phoenix,” Dick Van Arsdale openly admits.

In 1968, the doors opened for expansion teams in Milwaukee and Phoenix. Dick Van Arsdale, who was on the verge of a Knicks revival with Reed and Frazier, was left unprotected in the expansion draft. The Suns leaped at the chance to secure the 25-year-old Van Arsdale. After a 16-66 inaugural season, Phoenix struck gold by winning the rights to the formerly blackballed Connie Hawkins.

Hawkins teamed up with Dick Van Arsdale and Gail Goodrich to lead Phoenix to its first playoff berth — and a clash with West, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor’s Los Angeles Lakers.

The fledgling Suns took a 3-1 series lead, thanks in no small part to Van Arsdale’s 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting in Game 4. But then the Lakers flexed their star power and stormed back to win the series in Game 7.

Dick Van Arsdale waited six seasons before returning to the playoffs, this time as the veteran sixth man for a younger Suns team led by Rookie of the Year Alvan Adams and future Hall of Famer Paul Westphal. It seemed like every time Van Arsdale had a good game, Phoenix scored a crucial playoff win. That included his 20-point game off the bench against the defending-champion Golden State Warriors in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals.

On June 4, 1976, the 33-year-old Dick Van Arsdale played 35 minutes in the famous triple-overtime Finals Game 5 against the Celtics. It was the closest either brother would come to an NBA title.

The Van Arsdales are classic Midwesterners. They work hard, leave no stone unturned, have no regrets. That’s why Tom Van Arsdale, who thought of retiring in 1976, answered the Suns’ call to play for them immediately following their Finals appearance. Being reunited with his brother was all well and good, but what mattered to him was a chance at playoff success.

It didn’t happen. Injuries to key starters and an overall lack of scoring saw Phoenix miss the postseason in 1977. For Dick and Tom Van Arsdale, however, their NBA journeys had merely ended where they began: together.

‘It was a great ride’

Another elderly couple enters the Van Arsdale’s art studio and this time, the husband is the one who speaks up.

“You’re the ex-NBA players?”

“Yeah!” Tom cheerfully replies.

“Did both of you play for Phoenix or just one of you?”

Though the answer is both, the question is understandable. Dick’s nickname among locals is “The Original Sun.” Much as he and his brother were as college kids in Indiana, Dick is a local source of pride in Phoenix. Their first player. Scored their first basket (a hard-driving righty layup). First All-Star. Member of their first playoff and Finals teams.

The community nearly lost its living legend to a stroke in 2005. Doctors scanned his brain and declared half of it dead. For the next few years, he deferred speaking to his brother. In formal interview settings he still does, though he’s quick to break his word if topics he loves — Russell, Hawkins, the 1976 Finals, etc. — come up in the conversation. His recovery is beyond what was expected. Still, it was a jarring setback for a man who spoke so candidly as a teammate, a coach, and a radio commentator. Art was his early escape on the road to recovery, and he hasn’t let go since.

Tom joined Dick in their late-blooming art creation, and is there for him as they ever have been for each other. When a word escapes Dick’s muscle memory, his older-by-a-minute brother fills in the gaps. He doesn’t need to nearly as often as he did just a few years ago, and even when he does, it’s with the casual ease of a twin who has been on the same page with his brother for a lifetime.

Yet now, with a local Phoenician expressing his pleasure at meeting “The Original Sun,” Tom freely admits a gentle jealousy of his “little brother.”

All told, the Van Arsdale twins were probably the most individually and evenly accomplished brothers the league saw until the Marc and Pau Gasol. Tom and Dick, however, remember it much more simply than that.

They remember, when double-headers in New York were the norm, they would grab a much-needed bite to eat whenever both their teams were in the Big Apple. They remember being shocked at discovering that Chamberlain would occasionally carry a raw steak in his suitcase, that Robertson and Hawkins were even better people than they were players. They remember when, in their final season in Phoenix, Adams would refer to them as triplets: Dick Van, Tom Van and Al-van.

And on the occasions they’re not actively remembering those moments, odds are someone will enter their studio and ask a question that spurs them back to recall.

“It was a great ride,” Tom said gratefully.