The Nate Archibald Interview
Michael D. McClellan
Friday, November 26th, 2004
The story starts here, in the drug-infested, gang-ravaged projects of New York’s South Bronx, a place where bullets fly and dreams evaporate in near synchronous rhythm, a concert of violence that engulfs even the heartiest of souls and swallows them whole. It begins with a boy, painfully shy and wispy small, playing on the mean streets of the Patterson housing projects, gleefully dribbling a basketball, impervious to the dangers lurking on every corner. He is unable to explain his connection to that rubber orb, and only years later, after his hall-of-fame legacy has been cemented, can he give pause and appreciate it for its true value – a life raft in a sea of temptation, a vehicle that delivers him from the clutches of abject poverty. He shoots at the basket in the driving rain, too small to reach the rusting rim, too young to comprehend the vile graffiti sprayed onto the wall just beyond. He sprints under the noonday sun, dribbling hard and fast, his shoes barely touching the pavement, sweat racing down a face so boyish it takes decades for time to catch up. How many children, just like him, hear the drumbeat of the drug-pushers and succumb? How many of them grow old trying to escape? How many more sit in prison, a murder rap on their résumés, contemplating what might have been?
He grows from child to teenager, the basketball jammed under his arm as he makes his way home from the PSAT community center, the smile on his face in stark contrast to the rundown apartment complex towering over him. It is as if that dirty ball, worn smooth from hours of poundings on the South Bronx asphalt, has mystical powers that protect him from the dangers that threaten his place in the universe. It is a shield, a force field, impermeable to Patterson’s undercurrent of torment and despair. Latin jazz rolls down from the open windows above, the timeless rhythms of Eddie Palmarie, the lone remaining companion in a day that started with thirty boys playing pickup in PSAT’s dimly lit gym. His smile widens. Nathaniel “Tiny” Archibald is decades away from enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and being recognized as on the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players, but on this humid summer evening he is doing something far more impressive: He is staying alive.
His father leaves not long after, walking out on a wife and seven children. Archibald is fourteen, the oldest of the seven, and if ever there is a time when things could turn sour, this is it. But a funny thing happens to Archibald on his way to becoming a statistic; he steps up and fills the void left by “Big Tiny”, playing the dual roles of father and brother as effortlessly as he negotiates a basketball court at full sprint. The men who work at the community center, those who give so freely of their time and energy, provide Archibald with an outlet for coping with the pressures of such responsibility. They become a surrogate parent by lending an ear, offering advice and, perhaps most importantly, making sure that the promising teenager stays in school. The impact is profound and is still felt now, as Archibald chooses to help New York’s disadvantaged youth rather than cash in on his hall-of-fame career.
But that is down the road. High school beckons, and Archibald envisions himself the catalyst for DeWitt Clinton’s basketball powerhouse. Clinton is Willie Worsley’s team. He is two years older, the best player to ever put on a Clinton uniform, and the pride of the South Bronx. A playground legend, Worsley is also Archibald’s idol. Archibald often thinks of what it would be like to team up with the talented, high-flying senior, but those dreams are dashed when he is cut from the final roster. Suddenly, this future basketball phenom – the same player who will later lead the NBA in scoring and assists in the same season – finds himself at a crossroad; with his grades rapidly deteriorating and his heart telling him to drop out of school, Archibald turns to community sports director Floyd Lane, who convinces Archibald to give school another chance. There are basketball benefits as well; Tiny makes the team as junior, and is All-City by the end of his senior season.