He is called Tiny, or sometimes Little Tiny, a double diminutive that aptly describes him. For not only is Tiny far smaller than his peers, at 24 he looks far younger—say about 12. In moments of dismay he squinches his wide, fawnlike eyes in exorbitant displays of determination, as if the psyche behind them is constantly reminding: you're too old to cry. Ribs, not muscles, ripple his skimpy chest, and his hips are as narrow—and as powerful—as a greyhound's. Tiny's tininess should have led him into sedate pursuits. As it turned out, he plays a little basketball.
To his bank, the IRS and most basketball fans he is known as Nate Archibald, to his teammates on the Kansas City-Omaha Kings as Tiny and to his family back in the Bronx as Little Tiny (the nickname is a hand-me-down from his father, Big Tiny). During the first two months of the current season, Archibald has also become recognized by some other folks in the NBA, most notably opponents and statisticians, as perhaps the most productive offensive player of any size of any time.
The senior Archibald stands 6'3" and came by the name Tiny the way fat guys often end up being called Slim. Under normal circumstances the younger Archibald could claim the name for the same reason, since he maintains he is 6'1". Some of the people who guard him insist he is 5'10". (With his high-top, blue-suede Pro Keds off, he is, in fact, 6' and very small change.) Similarly, estimates of Archibald's weight run as low as 15 pounds under his listed 160. Even at his program height and weight, Tiny is the lightest and fourth-shortest player in the NBA. All of which would not mean much if Archibald did his best work around the perimeter where he would encounter other guards of similar size. Instead, he usually dribbles past opposing backcourt men with surprising ease and heads directly for the area under the basket where men a hundredweight heavier and a foot taller wait to hack him, stuff him, crack him and otherwise make his wife and four children wonder how far their standard of living will drop when they start making do on workmen's compensation.
Archibald is indeed smacked to the floor so often that he has developed a special, relaxed landing technique that allows him to fall with about the same impact as a sackful of creamed spinach. The rest of the time he leaves the big men waving wildly at the spot, usually in midair, that he has just vacated.
Two seasons ago, when he was a rookie with the Cincinnati Royals, Tiny's drives yielded him a modest 16-point scoring average. In the first half of last season he improved that to 23 points. Then the NBA coaches got him mad. At midseason they voted Butch Beard to the Eastern Conference All-Star team ahead of Archibald and ever since they have been trying to get a recount. From the All-Star break on, Archibald averaged 34 points and shot from 17th to second in scoring. When his team moved to Missouri and Nebraska this season, thereby acquiring the name Kansas City Hyphens, he continued scoring at the same rate and has opened a four-point lead over defending champion Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's tallest player.
Archibald's offense is simple. One of the league's fastest runners and the fastest dribbler, he readily outsprints opponents for breakaway baskets. In pattern situations he uses his outside shot, which has vastly improved since he came to the pros as a little-known second-round draft choice from the University of Texas at El Paso, to pull defenses out. Then he begins driving, completing his forays to the basket with one of his jackknife layups, often putting English on the ball to make it carom off the backboard and into the goal at an odd angle. Opponents have been most obliging about fouling him while he shoots. Last year Tiny made 148 more free throws than any other NBA player. This season he already leads by 72 in foul shots made, and free throws have accounted for more than a quarter of his total points. If he keeps it up, Archibald could become only the third guard—along with Jerry West and Dave Bing—to lead the NBA in points per game.
"I think the only way to play Tiny is to drop off two or three steps and let him have the outside shot," says Philadelphia's Kevin Loughery. "You can't give it to him uncontested, but it's better to lay off than to let him penetrate by playing, him close. He's become a very, very adequate outside shooter, but I'd rather have him make 12, 13 field goals with three or four free throws and get his points that way than with 14 or 15 foul shots. When he's driving and getting free throws, that's also when he's breaking down defenses, getting your big men into foul trouble, passing for his assists and bringing the other guys on his team into the game."
Despite the fact that most opponents are following that formula and backing it up with traps and double-teams, breaking down defenses and bringing his teammates into the action is exactly what Tiny is doing. And it may allow him to score a unique double since he also tops the NBA in assists by a large margin with an average of 11.9 per game. No player has ever led a pro league in both scoring and assists for the same season. In fact, only West and Wilt Chamberlain have won titles in those categories in different years.
"There's a big difference between scoring and generating offense," says Archibald. "Cooz [ Coach Bob Cousy] has told me he wants me to be responsible for running our offense and to me that means I've got to create scoring opportunities, either for myself by beating the defense or for other guys by attracting the defense to me and then throwing the ball to someone they've left alone. Teams are all ganging up on me now. They're double-teaming me and playing zones and semi-zones against me. I feel the pressure, but I also know that when the pressure's on me it's off somebody else. Then it's my job to get him the ball. I like the responsibility, but it embarrasses me when we don't win because it's my fault. I can't win games all by myself, but I can lose them on my own because I have the ball so much."
In the opinion of many pros, no players other than Oscar Robertson and Cousy in their primes ever had the ball as much as Archibald has this year. In games against New York and Philadelphia last week the Kings controlled the ball for 42:56 and Tiny had it in his hands 19:04 of that time. Archibald did not match his averages for points and assists in those contests and the Hyphens lost them both. But over a 14-game span in November he set an NBA record by dealing out 10 or more assists in every game. During the same period Tiny scored an average of 35 points and his team went over .500 for the first time in three seasons.