Under a sky white from midmorning heat, the old woman sat in a New York City park feeding the pigeons. Suddenly she noticed a lithe black running toward her. A wrinkled hand tightened around her purse, and she could feel her heart pounding. The young man ran past, indifferent to her presence, and the old woman slumped with relief. She was unaware that he was no potential mugger, but Nate (Tiny) Archibald (see cover), of the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, who earns more than $450,000 a year.
The old woman and others who saw Archibald doing roadwork this summer day had no idea who he really was; neither do many basketball fans. He is not merely the only player ever to lead the NBA in scoring and assists in a single season, a little man excelling in a big man's game. His accomplishments go beyond that, for he has endured suffering and deprivation and broken dreams.
The South Bronx is like a paper bag full of garbage held at arm's length by Whitey, a narrow river away from the borough of Manhattan, a world away from strawberry fields. It is a nightmarish place of gambling, drugs, prostitution, muggings, rape, murder, suicide. Nate Archibald was raised there, the oldest of seven children in a family whose father despaired and deserted. One of his earliest recollections is of being told not to eat the rat poison.
Archibald, who is 25, returns to the South Bronx each summer. He lives with his mother Julia and his brothers and sisters in a crowded apartment in a housing project. The Archibalds pay $109 a month rent; the neighborhood is free, and for it they are overcharged.
The smell of ammonia pervades the hallway as Archibald walks from the apartment one summer night. It is two a.m., but the South Bronx writhes and twists in the garish light of sodium vapor lamps. Incandescent graffiti glow on the skirts of the buildings, and hydrants spew water. Rock blares from open windows, the gutters are heaped with refuse.
It is warm, like most August nights in the South Bronx, and clusters of shirtless young men stand about with insolent expressions. Occasionally there is the sound of glass breaking or metal crashing to the pavement or incoherent shouting, punctuation to which they pay no mind. A few blocks away men shoot craps on the sidewalks, women loll contemptuously and winos and addicts slump against buildings. Police cars pass, their fenders smashed, their sides dented.
As he goes up the street, Archibald's eyes dart left and right. "They know that I don't carry any money so they won't try to take me off," he says. "They like to take off women. You don't know what a guy has with him. Nowadays he could have a gun or a knife, or maybe he is good at karate. So they look for women. I figured there are two things I'm good with, my hands and my feet. Of course, if the guy has a gun...well, 'Take it all, Jack. Take all of it.' "
Archibald searches the shadows of a playground littered with broken glass. "I don't see my man out there tonight," he says. "The dude's about 15, 16 years old, comes out late at night and plays by himself. He's just like I was, always hanging around listening. I'd find out there was going to be a 'run' and I'd be there waiting. If there was going to be a game, I was there, Jack. The older guys, they'd say, 'Well, we'll let him play, he's small, he'll get tired and quit." I wanted to learn, and he's that way. He don't come out when nothing's happening, just to go stand on the corner and smoke some dope and drop some wine and get into trouble. Rather than be doing that he stays in his house and comes out at night when nobody is around. He'll be out later and he'll be wanting me, wanting to go one-on-one. You'll see."
While he walks, Archibald speaks of his reasons for leaving his wife Shirley, their four young children and their Kansas City apartment to return for the summer to his old neighborhood. He does it because of his love of basketball. This year Archibald played several times a week in the Harlem Professional Basketball League, formerly the Rucker League. Austin Carr of the Cleveland Cavaliers was on his team, and Julius Erving, Billy Paultz, Brian Taylor, Charlie Scott and Dave Stallworth were regular opponents.
There was also high-class competition at P.S. 18, where Archibald learned and polished his game; he recalls the first time he saw Wilt Chamberlain there and how he was awed by his size. Archibald also worked out regularly with a group of pro and college players and ran six miles every other day.