In an era dominated by big men such as Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a 6’1” point guard from New York, proved there would always be room in the National Basketball Association for creative, intelligent and quick small men.
Born and raised in the South Bronx’s Patterson housing projects, one of America’s most ravaged neighborhoods, Nathaniel Archibald became a playground legend, while resisting the temptations of the street that destroyed the aspirations, dreams and lives of many of his peers.
Instead, Archibald, nicknamed "Big Tiny" after his father, turned to basketball when his father left the family’s two-bedroom apartment, leaving “Tiny,” the oldest of seven children, as the head of the household at the age of 14.
As a sophomore at Dewitt Clinton High School, Archibald was cut from the varsity squad and briefly entertained thoughts of dropping out of school altogether.
But Floyd Lane, a community sports director and mentor to Archibald, convinced the Dewitt Clinton head coach to take another look at the small, painfully shy teenager who lacked confidence on the court.
After his reinstatement, Archibald blossomed into a star, becoming team captain and earning an All-City selection in 1966.
Will another point guard ever lead the NBA in scoring and assists in a season?
However, a major college scholarship would not be in the offing due to his poor grades. So, for the first time in his life, Archibald left New York to attend Arizona Western Community College, in the hopes of improving his chances of playing major college basketball.
Only one year later, Archibald accepted a scholarship to the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), where he averaged 20.0 points per game over three seasons.
Archibald was selected in the second round of the 1970 Draft by the Cincinnati Royals and, after taking a couple of seasons to establish himself as a competent floor leader, “Tiny” proved himself to be one of the best second-round picks in NBA history.
Although Archibald earned All-NBA Second Team honors in his second season, which saw him average 28.2 points per game, a snub for the Eastern Conference All-Star Team fueled Archibald’s fire leading into the 1972-73 season.
During that year, Archibald led the league in scoring and assists, becoming the only player in NBA history to accomplish the feat. His scoring average of 34.0 points per game broke the NBA record for a guard, and his 910 assist total (11.4 assists per game), also a record at the time, broke a mark held by Guy Rodgers since 1967.
Not surprisingly, Archibald was named to his first of six Eastern Conference All-Star Teams, his first of three All-NBA First Teams and won the Sporting News Most Valuable Player Award.
Following brilliant campaigns in two out of his next three seasons, averaging 26.5 ppg and 6.8 apg in 1974-75 and 24.8 ppg and 7.9 apg in 1975-76 (an Achilles' tendon injury cut short his season in 1973-74), Archibald was traded to the New York Nets, which marked the beginning of three of the most tumultuous years of his career.
A severe foot injury would limit “Tiny” to only 34 games in the 1976-77 season, and a ruptured Achilles' tendon would completely wipe out Archibald’s 1977-78 season after he was traded from the Nets to the Buffalo Braves.
Prior to the 1978-79 campaign, Archibald was traded to the Boston Celtics, where showed up 20 pounds overweight, his play left much to be desired and he became a locker room malcontent.
Yet, while rumors of his demise continued to be greatly exaggerated, Archibald remained committed to returning to the South Bronx each summer to help and counsel troubled youngsters, which also became an unlikely source of inspiration toward resurrecting his career.
"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."
With the arrival of Larry Bird for the 1979-80 season, Archibald made the seamless transition from a scoring point guard into a playmaking floor general.
From 1980-1982, Archibald ranked among the league leaders in assists and helped guide the Celtics to the NBA’s best record for three consecutive years.
Along the way, Archibald garnered three additional All-Star selections, captured the All-Star Game MVP Award in 1981 and won the first and only NBA Championship of his career to culminate the 1980-81 season.
Archibald’s numbers declined in the 1982-83 season, averaging only 27.4 minutes and 6.2 assists per game. Subsequently, Archibald signed with the Milwaukee Bucks as a free agent and retired the next year after playing only 46 games for the team.
“Tiny” left the game as a giant, finishing with career averages of 18.8 ppg, 7.4 apg and 2.3 rpg.
On February 7, 1991, Archibald’s contributions were rewarded when he was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
And although his NBA assist totals became frozen in time, Archibald would continue dishing out assists off the court upon his retirement.
After his brief stint with the Bucks, Archibald returned to New York City to run basketball schools for underprivileged kids and to work as athletic director at the Harlem Armory homeless shelter until it closed in 1991.
Archibald was honored for his work with the city's youth by former New York City Mayor David Dinkins in 1993.