For many basketball junkies, New York City is considered the Mecca of playground or “street” ball. All five boroughs preserve the sacred ground on which many great ball players have honed their skills dating back as early as the 1920s. Recognizing this, the NBA created an official map pinpointing the most legendary players, boroughs they’re from, high schools they’ve attended, as well as historical tidbits such as significant coach, team and tournament mentions.
The gesture is a tasteful salute to New York City’s blacktop beasts, done in celebration of the 2015, 64th annual, NBA All Star game that will be held at Madison Square Garden on February 15th.
Raised on Staten Island in the early ‘80s, my childhood hero was a guy named Greg Pedro who led St. Peter’s HS to the Island’s first and only CHSAA title, back in 1983. That 51-49 championship win over powerhouse Archbishop Malloy (Queens) was just a highlight of the early ‘80s climate here in the City. The game was still evolving as it continues to do today. Across the water, hoop history was being made weekly. I grew up in awe, my jaw dropping over guys like Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, Chris Mullin, John Salley, Mark Jackson, Vern Fleming, Kenny “The Jet” Smith, Ed Pinkney, Derrick “Band Aid” Chievous, Rod Strickland and Walter Berry amongst others.
My generation studied these floor magicians, and would later weave guys like Kenny Anderson, Malik Sealy, Jamal Mashburn, Anthony Mason, and Lloyd Daniels into the fabric of New York City basketball playground legends. Since then, we’ve monitored prodigies like Felipe Lopez and Lamar Odom. We’ve all enjoyed analyzing the growth of Lincoln HS greats, Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair, and Lance Stephenson. We’ve savored the flash of artful assist dodgers like Brooklyn’s own God Shamggod, and Jamaal Tinsley. We bogarted into the league with the Bronx’s own Kemba Walker, alongside kings from Queens, like Rafer “Skip To My Lou” Alston, and radar sharp shooter William Henry “Smush” Parker. In recent years, New York City products have even managed to give the NBA the fruits of good ol fashion, first team defensive laborers through the likes of such soldiers as Metta World Peace and Joakim Noah.
However, as feisty Bronx born and raised, NBA hall of famer, Nate “Tiny” Archibald will solemnly tell you, “These rookies are coming in like they own the game, there were still many players before them and myself from the 20s and 30s.” Here in New York City, Archibald was referring to players like Nat Holman, who some tag as the greatest basketball player of the 1920s, who would later go on to coach CCNY for 37 seasons and boast a record of 421-190, while winning the 1950 N.I.T. championship at Madison Square Garden, with a Cinderella, All NYC, homegrown starting five led by Archibald’s mentor Floyd Layne. It would be Layne who would convince Archibald to return to his beloved DeWitt Clinton HS squad, after being cut his sophomore year due to a poor academic performance. After leaving his mark on the playground asphalts of the City during the summers of the mid 60’s in AAU leagues, and tournaments like the famed Rucker Park, Archibald earned All City accolades by his senior year, leading his team to an undefeated season. He would then go on to spend his freshman year at Arizona West Community College, before finally transferring to UTEP, to serve as floor general to a team coached by the legendary Don Haskins.
“When my mother found out that I was being afforded the opportunity to go to college, she never asked me where I was going, she simply asked me when I was leaving.” The oldest of 7 siblings living in a 2-bedroom apartment in Patterson projects, Archibald’s mother stressed the value of Nate being the first in the family to earn a college degree. The environment uptown in the Bronx and Harlem was extremely difficult to navigate in the late 60’s. It was the Civil Rights era. Tension thickened the air. Talented athletes were being drawn more to the flash of street life, and the sometimes dangerous aspects of urban living. As I spoke with the guru, it became apparent what made the 6-foot, 160-pound, reed thin 6-time NBA All Star point guard, stand out amongst a handful of his peers. Most would never to be anointed with an NBA uniform. This was not because they lacked the talent, but because they lacked guidance, discipline. Others may have just made poor life decisions, which stunted their careers. Archibald’s fortitude and ability to maneuver through such a climate, compete, and come out a winner on every tier, is what made him not only one of New York City’s greatest street ball phenoms, but also one of the NBA’s top 50 legendary players of all time. I sat down with the former 1981, NBA All Star game MVP and championship title holder earlier this week. Here are some of his sentiments:
EBONY: After being cut from the team your sophomore year of high school, you could have very easily not have returned to organized high school basketball. What factors pushed you to come back and try again junior year?
Archibald: I wanted to display my talents on a major stage. We didn’t have that many options. See, now you got the media exposure with ESPN,123, MSG shows AAU and high school games now. Back then, there were only but so many outlets to display your talent and get recognized. High school was a major stage to display your talent, plus veteran mentorship in those days was just as strong as anything else! My mentors pushed me to go back and succeed. I’m talking about people like Floyd Layne, Hilton White, Ray Felix, and Pelham Fitch. I worked at the community center at Patterson projects, and went to summer school at Roosevelt before my junior year. Chief (Floyd Lane) was like my stepfather, he then went and spoke to coach White, and they put me on the team.
EBONY: So after earning All City honors after your senior year, you were offered a scholarship to Arizona West. Describe your freshman year experience during that late 60’s time period.
Archibald: I loved it, but I didn’t want to leave New York. I was in a comfort zone here. It wasn’t like I was a partying person or anything like that, anybody would tell you! I was introverted, real quiet. Arizona West was in a border town. When I got there I thought I was in a foreign country!. I was there for one year with a four-year scholarship. The school was smaller and educationally I needed the help. At (DeWitt) Clinton, I was lost, we had about 5 or 6,000 guys. At AW, was able to focus on being a student at A. The opportunity to play at UTEP was too intriguing, I had to give it a chance, so I left after my first year, but I really enjoyed the atmosphere.
EBONY: In March of 1966, coach Don Haskins and little Texas Western (now UTEP) defeated Adolph Rupp and traditional powerhouse Kentucky, becoming the first team to win a NCAA title with an all Black starting five. Legendary coach, Pat Riley was a team leader on that Kentucky squad. We know you knew three of the TW starters from back home: Willie Worsley, Willie Cager, and Nevil Shed. Tell us more about what it was like to play for a pioneering coach like Haskins after transferring to UTEP in your sophomore year.
Archibald: He was a great role model, and a great mentor because he didn’t take any crap from nobody. He was a disciplinarian too. He already had a program laid out for you before you got there each semester. He gave you a program card, with a set time of things to do and places to be, things like running at 6am. He broke it down so that there really wasn’t much time to be social, you always had someplace to be. Some of us didn’t even think about stuff like partying anyway, it’s called “conditioning”. He always kept us in classes immediately following our training table so there really wasn’t much downtime.
EBONY: During the summers, you’d return home and play AAU ball at Rucker Park and other city tournaments for former Laker and Knick, 1954 NBA rookie of the year, Ray Felix. You claim that your team never lost. (chuckles) Let’s talk about what it was like to go up against some of your New York City street ball peers. We name the player, you describe that particular player’s appeal in a few words. First let’s talk about Joe Hammond…
Archibald: The Destroyer. Bad dude. Joe started playing against pros when he was 16, 17 years old, from Manhattan. unstoppable. But, he wouldn’t leave the city. Matter fact, if we invited him up to the Bronx, he might get lost, though he did display his talents in Brooklyn a few times. Other than that, you couldn’t get him to leave his area. Jerry West scouted him once after seeing him play in the Eastern league, which was similar to today’s NBA D-league, and invited him to come try out for the Lakers. He never got on the plane, you’re talking about one of the best players ever, that did not play in the NBA, and his name was the Destroyer, he was about 6 foot 2 tops, and could shoot, handle, I’m talking about a basketball junkie. But see, the environment in New York, can take people away from what they love doing the most.
EBONY: Earl “the GOAT” Manigault.
Archibald: “Bad dude man, but he never went to school, same as Joe. He was enrolled at Benjamin Franklin High School, which is now Math and Science. He played like Michael, just a smaller simulation. (Earl) Could jump over guys, was more about dunking over guys, plus he was smart enough to dissect anything you threw at him. He was one of those street legend guys. You couldn’t guard him, I’m telling you, ya couldn’t guard him. His reputation preceded him. Refs wouldn’t let you touch him. Everyone recognized that he had greatness but he just wouldn’t leave Harlem.
EBONY: [Before we can get the next player’s name out, James “Fly” Williams, Archibald interrupts].
Archibald: Let me tell you about another guy from Brooklyn named Fly Williams. He was one of those guys that was unstoppable too. He could do it all. You’re talking about 6’4, 6’5 and his handle was better than most guys. Although Kobe is bigger, they remind me a lot of each other. After I get this 35-40 points on you, you better go some place else type of attitude. Unlike the previous two guys we mentioned, Fly went to school (Austin Pea State University). He had chances (a brief stint with the ABA’s Spirit Of St Louis,1974-75). Yes, he could shoot the ball, pass it, but he got labeled as a guy that couldn’t be coached. I played with Fly and also against him, and he was unstoppable.
EBONY: Hypothetically speaking, let’s say you’re an AAU coach with a team in the legendary Holcombe Rucker tournament in the summer of 1973. The same year you were crowned both the NBA’s scoring champion and assist leader. Your team needs a point guard and you have the option of taking Tiny Archibald or Richard “Pee Wee” Kirkland. Who do you take?
Archibald: I wouldn’t take either one! (laughs hysterically) I’m serious! I’ll tell you what, I can’t put myself in there because I actually played against Stick n’ them a few times, and they never beat us, never won (Ray Felix’s AAU Falcon team). People know that there are certain players that dominate, and they just never dominated us (stern visage).
EBONY: Queens, New York’s own Jackson High School graduate, and legendary Celtic, NBA hall of famer, Bob Cousy is credited for recruiting you as a rookie out of UTEP in 1970 into the old Cincinnati Royals/Kansas City Kings organization when he was coaching. That club has since retired your #1 jersey. Cousy, regarded as one of the most creative point guards in New York City and NBA history, and as an official basketball icon, recognized the potential in a future up and coming talent like Nate “Tiny” Archibald. If you had to pick an all time New York City best ever starting five, who would you pick?
Archibald: You know it’s funny, the other day, a guy asked me that same question. First at the guard spots… yes, my mentor, and former coach Bob Cousy. Next, and you might be shocked, but Lenny Wilkens, so that’s Queens and Brooklyn! (laughter) My two forwards would be Billy Cunningham (Erasmus Hall H.S., Brooklyn) and Roger Brown. He went to Wingate High School, Brooklyn. At center there’s only one guy, the obvious, Kareem Abdul Jabbar (of the now defunct Power Memorial HS, formerly in Manhattan)
EBONY: Describe how felt the first time your mother came to see you play professional basketball.
Archibald: (already laughing) My mother never saw me play a live professional game, she never wanted me to think she really cared about me playing basketball until I got my degree. That was a part of my motivation for going back and finishing up for my degree at UTEP. Since I was the oldest of seven, it was important to my mother that I set a good example for my siblings. Five of us now have degrees, three of us have a Masters, so obviously my mother’s influence was felt (he pauses, then smiles to himself as if something has suddenly dawned on him, then continues)… True story, when I came to the Nets in ‘76 it was supposed to be the “Dr. Jay and Tiny A” show. It never happened because Doc got traded and I was basically injured most of that year. So one night, as I’m injured, I see my mother getting dressed up, so I asked her where she was going. She said she was going to the Nets game at the old Nassau Coliseum. I said ‘But ma, I’m hurt, I’m not playing tonight.’ She said she was going to see Doctor Jay play, who was now with the Sixers!! (we both burst out laughing) She then said, “I don’t care about you and no basketball, go get me my degree!” And I emphasize, HER degree (laughter). But yea, she was my main inspiration for going back to school and finishing up my degree after I retired from the NBA. That ball money was nice, but that piece of paper, my degree, has proven to be priceless.
EBONY: In 1978, you were traded to the Boston Celtics, describe what those two years were like before Larry Bird arrived.
Archibald: The team was ugly, and very dismantled. Guys wanted to fire you, fire him, fire her, fire me, fire everybody! The team was ugly. Then, they got that draft pick, and sent Joe Barry Carroll to Golden State for Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale. Before all this happened, I was on my way out, looking at the exit sign. Remember now, the Celtics drafted Larry when he was a junior at Indiana State. Then the scouting reports were saying that he couldn’t jump, can’t shoot, he’s slow etcetera, but I noticed he had ‘double doubles’ in his first few exhibition games so I stopped and started thinking twice about exiting Boston. Once Larry and those guys came, we went from being an ugly team that wasn’t good anymore, to a great team. The biggest turnaround in basketball history, go check it. I played with the best front line in basketball. We wasn’t about “i”; it was about team. There are guys that played in the league a lot longer than me, but never got to experience a championship. I was always fortunate enough to play around winning teams, from high school through to the pros. People think I was the star of DeWitt Clinton my senior year, and I correct them and say no, I wasn’t the star, I was on the team. I’ll always remember and be proud of not losing a game at Clinton, at UTEP, we won the WAC conference all three years I was there. So you see, it really always comes down to winning. I never played for myself, I played to be a part of a winning team.
EBONY: As the point guard on that 1981 championship team, you had many offensive options. Were there ever any complaints about your ball distribution?
Archibald: (Laughing) You know I tell young guards all the time, you control the tempo of the game, and what goes on. I did my best to take care of everybody, but Larry was putting up numbers. (laughing) Cornbread would get upset sometime and remind me that he and I were supposed to be best friends. Sometimes Chief (Robert Parrish) would ask “did you see me?” (laughs out loud) Overall I did my best to accommodate everybody.
EBONY: Earlier that same year in ’81, you made your sixth and final NBA All Star game, and were selected as the MVP, while representing the Eastern Conference. Describe your emotions on that day.
Archibald: I tell people, I always played in those All Star games like it would be my last, and I believe that particular appearance actually was. It was great, Doc was on that team, Artis Gilmore, but most of all, I had my guys with me, Larry and Robert. We felt like that was our team (chuckles) But I don’t know how humble some other guys are, but I know it was an honor for me to play.
EBONY: Who’s your favorite player in the NBA right now?
Archibald: Chris Paul, even though he’s bad mouthing female refs right now, I like him because he can run a team. But the youngest, baddest, most improved player to me right now is Stephon Curry. He’s quicker than most, shoots better than most, and his ball handling ability is off the charts now. I can tell he’s been practicing, he’s penetrating well, and has the overall balance, consistency and enhancement it takes to run a team. Golden State (Warriors) might not win it all but I enjoy watching them play. He’s a likable guy that always responds well in interviews, and you can tell that he really enjoys playing the game. He’s always smiling.
EBONY: What’s one essential piece of advice that you’d give a rookie coming into the league right now?
Archibald: Link up with a positive veteran that’s been in the league for awhile, somebody secure. Don’t knock a 10-year veteran role player that may have played on a few teams. He can show you how to maneuver in this league. I had a veteran my rookie season named John Greene. Big John was from Long Island, I knew him prior to coming to the league. His guidance was extremely helpful to me. We all have flaws, plus young guys now have instant social media coverage when they do something wrong, so you have be careful. The parties and all that are going to be there anyway, use your first year to get grounded and solidify yourself. Some of the rookies that come in these days act like they started this game. You didn’t start this game! It’s been here since the 20s and 30s, there were players here before you, so hook up with a vet, and stay out of trouble. Think about some of the street ball legends we spoke about earlier, because if you get lost in this (league), you may just end up losing the things you love the most.
Schott “Free” Jacobs is a former HS player, street baller & veteran music producer/publisher. Follow him on a Twitter @schott_free.