Some players’ moves look like poetry in motion. Alex English was one of those players and he also was a poet in motion – he has had several books of his poetry published. The soft spoken 6-7 forward was never flashy on or off the court, so his accomplishments are easy to overlook. But, as he says with quiet confidence, “the real basketball fans know.”
English averaged 22.6 ppg and 10.3 rpg while shooting .551 from the field as a senior at the University of South Carolina. The Milwaukee Bucks selected him in the second round as the 23rd overall pick in the 1976 draft. Veteran forward Bob Dandridge led the Bucks in 1976-77 with 20.8 ppg and English only scored 5.2 ppg in about 10 mpg of action. Dandridge signed with the Washington Bullets after the season and English’s minutes (18.9 mpg) and scoring (9.6 ppg) nearly doubled in 1977-78 – but rookie Marques Johnson averaged 19.5 ppg and 10.6 rpg and figured to get the lion’s share of playing time for years to come.
“Indiana offered me my first free agent contract and I got a chance to play," English recalls. "I played for Slick Leonard and we had Mickey Johnson, Mike Bantom – a lot of pretty good players on our squad. We played like I (later) played in Denver – we had a freelance offense but we were more focused on defense. It was an enjoyable time. The other thing I remember is that my second child was born (in Indiana). I got traded right before she was born, so that is something that sticks in my memory.”
English averaged 16.0 ppg and 8.1 rpg in 1978-79 but two thirds of the way through the 1979-80 season the Pacers shipped him to Denver.
“Going to Denver was probably the best thing that happened to me," English says. "Indiana wanted George McGinnis back home. He had played for Slick Leonard and Slick wanted him back. I got a chance to go to Denver to play for a coach that I had in college, Donnie Walsh,” who ironically is now the CEO/President of the Pacers.
English scored 21.3 ppg in the last 24 games of the 1979-80 season as a Nugget. He averaged 23.8 ppg and 8.0 rpg in 1980-81, but the Nuggets just missed the playoffs. In 1981-82, English began a streak of eight consecutive 2000-plus point seasons, which stood as the NBA record until Karl Malone had 11 such seasons; English’s run is still the second best in NBA history. Denver made the playoffs in 1981-82 and qualified for postseason play each of the next nine seasons that English played for the Nuggets.
The 1980’s Denver Nuggets make the current Phoenix Suns look like turtles crawling through quicksand. The 1981-82 Nuggets still hold the records for points in a season (126.5 ppg) and for most consecutive games scoring at least 100 points (136, including every game of the 1981-82 season). Denver led all teams in scoring for five straight seasons (1981-85), culminating in a 52-30 record in 1984-85 and a berth in the Western Conference Finals versus the powerful Magic Johnson/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/James Worthy Lakers. English played brilliantly in that year’s playoffs (30.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 4.5 apg, .536 shooting from the field and a .890 free throw percentage) and believes that a fast paced team is perfectly capable of winning an NBA title.
“I think that if I had not broken my thumb in the third game, we had a chance to beat the Lakers," English says. "We tied them in L.A., so we had an opportunity to go to the Finals. I don’t think that it’s the style of play, I think that it’s the players that you have. I remember that when we played against the Lakers we always had great games because they also pushed the ball up as well. They had great players. We looked forward to going to the Forum. It was one of the great arenas, along with Madison Square Garden and Chicago Stadium. We beat the Lakers during the regular season, so we weren’t afraid of them. We just had a great group of players. The camaraderie on that squad was unparalleled in professional basketball.”
That turned out to be the closest that English got to winning an NBA title but he proved to be one of the league’s most productive performers in the 1980s, becoming the decade’s leading scorer while playing in 80 or more games for 10 straight seasons. His durability is all the more remarkable considering his slender frame.
English explains how he was able to be so productive against bigger, stronger players: “What I did a lot is not let them make contact with me. I would move. A lot of players who were bigger did not like running the floor. I ran. I never stopped moving. I was a strong wiry thin, sort of like Tayshaun Prince. I did my best to stay out of their way and make them run. Eventually, they would end up being tired and I would still be at full strength. We didn’t lift a lot of weights back then. I was in great shape; I stretched a lot, so I didn’t have a lot of injuries.”
“I played for 15 years but as my years progressed I thought that I got better every year," English adds. "I was consistent. You have some guys who might score 10 points one night and the next night they have 30. I prided myself on being a consistent player with my game and, even though I was thin, being durable. Being durable and being consistent.”
English offers a very poetic description of his resilience mentally and physically: “It’s like being a willow tree that blows in the wind but it doesn’t break. It’s a strong branch, a strong tree that bends and can withstand all kinds of tornado-type winds but it doesn’t break. That is the kind of idea that I played with. If a guy was posting me up, I would hold for a second but then when he was getting ready to pass I would let go and I would get around and get the steal.”
Speaking of poetry, English enthusiastically shares his thoughts about his favorite poets: “One guy who inspired me to write because of his style was Peter McWilliams. He’s a contemporary poet. I was an English major in school and I enjoyed reading Edgar Allan Poe. I like Robert Frost, Elizabeth Barrett Browning – there are a lot of folks whose poetry I enjoy. A lot of stuff was difficult to understand but (worth reading) when you put the time and effort in. Shakespeare’s sonnets are great.”
Reading and writing provide great balance to English’s life.
“It is important because once basketball was done I was still able to enjoy my life because I enjoy doing other things," English says. "I love to read. I still enjoy writing, although I don’t write as much. I think that the love of reading that I have is a genetic thing that I got from my grandmother. My kids love to read, my sons. They read some of the same genres that I do. Maybe it’s something in the genes.”
SHIFTING GEARS FROM PLAYING TO COACHING
Before English got his current job as an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors, he served as the head coach of the North Charleston Lowgators in the NBDL, an experience that he treasures.
“What it showed me was what I needed to add to my repertoire to be a coach," English explains. "It also helped me understand where players are today. I had been out of the game for a while. It’s a generation thing and the players are different today. It gave me the opportunity to get back into what they’re looking for and what they’re going to give. It was a great experience to get back in the game and do as well as we did. We ended up losing in the championship in the D-League and that was my first experience coaching. I looked at it as a very positive, uplifting experience in my life.”
English elaborates on what he learned about coaching during his time in the NBDL: “It showed me the style that I would like to play and that would win for me. It helped me with my Xs and Os and showed me how important that is. It also showed me that as a coach you don’t need to be so stringent or so tight or so structured all the time. I think of Mike D’Antoni – when you look at his team and look at his players you see that they enjoy playing for him. That’s how Doug Moe was with us. I knew that all along but it (coaching in the NBDL) only verified that as a coach this is the way you operate. You demand and command discipline and structure. I guess that the way that I coach would also be like being a willow tree. You have to be strong but you also have to be able to bend sometimes.”
Great players from all eras share certain traits, according to English.
“Great players always had the same mentality. They were always very focused and determined and hard working. They had a vision in mind of what they wanted. They are all that way and they do whatever it takes to get better at the game. The difference that I see is that there are a lot of guys (now) who don’t put that effort in, who don’t put the time in to be a great player. Once they get that so-called big payday they stop at that and they don’t get better. Everything is relative. I got paid well back then – certainly nothing like what they get paid now, but to me back then it was great. It wasn’t about the money for me, it was more about my art, which was my game – my ability to play and how I played and what I could do on the basketball court.”
English is immersed in coaching now but it is only natural for him to think about his place in the history of the game. He played in eight All-Star games, won the 1983 scoring title (28.4 ppg) and retired after the 1990-91 season with 25,613 points, which still ranks 11th in NBA history and 14th in NBA/ABA history. Other than Dan Issel and Dominique Wilkins, everyone who is ahead of English was selected to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players List.
English is very frank when asked if he thinks that he is underrated: “I know I am. They named the Top 50 players in the league. No player (other than Karl Malone) had scored 2000 points for eight straight seasons. I look at my record when I played. Then I heard that when they (TNT) did the ‘next 10’ they didn’t vote me to that either. They said that they left me off because of the system that I played in. I want to know if they are going to do that with Steve Nash. He’s in the same type of system that I was in. Are they going to do that with him? I think that it is unfair. The biggest disappointment in my life – well, not in my life, but the biggest disappointment in my basketball career – is that I don’t get those kind of accolades, maybe because I’m quiet and I’m not boisterous. My game was not slam dunks and three-point shots. It was a very simple game but I played it with elegance and fun and I enjoyed it. If that will keep me back from being one of the ’50 Greatest,’ then I know that the real basketball fans know.”
David Friedman’s work has appeared in "Hoop," "Basketball Digest," "Sports Collectors Digest" and "Tar Heel Monthly." He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology "Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond" (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com