Dick Van Arsdale walked up to Cincinnati Royal Guard Matt Guokas in the lobby of Phoenix's Townehouse hotel last Friday afternoon, shook his hand and said, "What room is Tom in?" Guokas, who has played against the Van Arsdales for six NBA seasons and has been a teammate of Dick's identical twin brother Tom for the last four months, stared at Dick and then sheepishly admitted, "I thought you were Tom."
That is the mildest form of confusion the Van Arsdales regularly create. They cause greater consternation on the court, where they are easier to tell apart—Dick wears a Phoenix Sun uniform and Tom that of the Royals—but harder to figure out. Experts consider the rugged 6'5" twins a bit too slow to play guard and a smidgen too small to play forward. Yet, fired with a determination as identical as their features, each captains his team, each has appeared in three NBA All-Star Games and each is averaging right around his usual 20 points a game.
Each also hates to play against the other, which is what they did last weekend in Phoenix. For only the second time in their 19 seasons of organized basketball, the Van Arsdales were matched up, at least at one end of the court, at the start of the game. Tom guarded Dick, and Dick would have played Tom had not Nate Archibald, the Royals' peerless little guard, been ill with the flu. With Archibald sidelined, Dick took the bigger and slower Guokas, as Sun Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons was sympathetic to Dick's reluctance to play head-to-head on his brother.
In a league dominated by players who run from swarthy to ebony, one Van Arsdale would be an anomaly. Fair-skinned, finely proportioned and well-chiseled, with blue eyes and bleached blond hair, they could make Fred Nietzsche's starting lineup. When they were juniors at Indiana, Warner Brothers saw their pictures in LIFE and offered them seven-year contracts, even though their only acting experience had been when they tried to draw offensive fouls.
The Van Arsdales have pulled off all the usual twin tricks. They fooled teachers, changed positions on their coaches and switched on their dates. But they are more similar than most twins. During high school in Indianapolis, Dick's grades averaged 7.909 out of a possible 8.0, and he graduated first in his class. Tom averaged 7.848 and finished third. Tom was president of the honor society and Dick vice-president. Through high school and college Dick averaged 16.9 points a game, Tom 16.7. In the NBA, Dick has outscored Tom by slightly more than one point per game, but this may be attributable to the fact that they play different positions for different teams.
From the time of their premature births on Feb. 22, 1943 (Tom is the older by 15 minutes) until they graduated from Indiana, they spent only two nights apart. Their toys were identical, and only after they left high school did they wear unlike clothes. "If we had orange juice for breakfast, Mom would measure the glasses precisely to make sure they contained the same amount," says Tom. "That way neither one of us would get mad at her."
The Van Arsdales' closeness almost knocked Tom out of the pros before he stepped on a court. Drafted in succession in 1965 at the beginning of the second round by New York and Detroit, the twins were separated for the first time when they left for their rookie camps. Tom quit the Pistons soon after and returned home with the excuse that he wanted to go to law school. He bought his law books but never went to class. "The sole reason for leaving Detroit was because Dick wasn't around," he recalled last week. "It was a case of acute loneliness. It was like when you have a girl friend in high school and for some reason you can't be with her. All you want is to be with her, and nothing else and no one else can make you happy. I called Dick in New York and he convinced me that things weren't going to be any better if I didn't play, so I went back to the Pistons."
The pervasive similarities of the Van Arsdales so intrigued one of their high school student teachers that she made a special study of them, part of it consisting of a questionnaire to be filled out independently. Their answers, except to the question, "What books have you read recently?" were the same, and many were worded almost identically. In response to "How do you feel about girls?" Tom wrote, "I like them, but I am not crazy about them," while Dick replied, "I like girls but don't go wild over them." Their feelings intensified shortly thereafter.
Milwaukee Buck Guard Jon McGlocklin, who roomed with the Van Arsdales throughout college, says, "It was phenomenal. It was psychic. They'd sometimes miss the same exam questions with the same wrong answers. And I know they weren't cheating."
Their relationship also gave rise to a sibling rivalry which might have been destructive had the boys not been a near perfect match in all they did. "We competed constantly in school and at all sorts of games, from kneeling Ping-Pong to basketball, and neither of us ever got the upper hand," says Dick. "All it did was cause a lot of fights."