Even before the Hawks came into the picture, Criss had made up his mind not to return to the Eastern League this season. He began angling, instead, for a berth with the Harlem Globetrotters and got a foot in the door as a member of their stooge team, the New Jersey Reds, on a two-month Trotter tour of Europe last summer. He was in Madrid, nearing the end of the tour, when Hubie Brown got in touch with him. The Atlanta coach had seen Criss play in a black charities All-Star Game in Madison Square Garden and figured that the lead-footed Hawks could use some of his quickness. He promised Criss a fair shot at making the team, and the little man reported to training camp.
Atlanta at the time was suffering from the loss of free-agent Forward Truck Robinson, who had taken his considerable talents to New Orleans, and from a savage front-office intrigue that resulted, ultimately, in the sacking of Brown's avowed enemy, General Manager Mike Storen. Brown found room for five rookies on the Hawks' roster and Charlie Criss learned he was one of them after the final exhibition game in Louisville. "Hubie and I were riding in an airport limousine and he asked me if I'd found a place to live yet in Atlanta," Criss recalls. "It was unreal, absolutely unreal."
It no doubt helped Criss' cause that he was available at close to the league's minimum salary of $30,000. It also seems likely that Brown identified with him. The coach had logged four years in the Eastern League in the '50s and, as the Storen episode suggests, is something of a survivor himself. But Brown insists that Criss made the Hawks primarily because he can play basketball.
"Charlie showed the quickness we wanted and also that he can shoot and pass," he says. "Other guys 5'8" can do these things, but Charlie is also very strong, which is true of Calvin Murphy, too. In fact, I honestly feel Charlie is holding back a bit, trying to submerge his freelancing instincts to play into our system. When he starts seeing the options possible within that system, he could be awesome."
Criss scored eight points in his first NBA game, a 107-101 win over Cleveland at The Omni, and then poured in 21 in 27 minutes in a 110-103 loss at Hartford to the Boston Celtics, Atlanta's only defeat. Next came a 113-110 overtime victory over the Nets in Piscataway, N.J. A group of Criss' former coworkers at Tuck Tape came to the game by chartered bus, and Charlie entertained them by amassing 17 points, six rebounds and five assists. "I was proud to be wearing an NBA uniform in front of my friends," says Criss. "I was also proud that I played well."
Notwithstanding Brown's assessment of his strength, it remains to be seen whether Criss can withstand the rigors of the seven-month, 82-game NBA schedule. He has already had a busted lip, and last week a jammed right thumb was affecting his shooting. "In the Eastern League I took quite a pounding, but we played only weekends and I had a few days to recover," says Criss. "Here you have to play hurt."
Having taken so long to make the NBA, though, Criss plainly means to stick around, and Brown had said he would keep him even if the squad limit dropped to 11, as was determined last week. "I'm not bitter about having to wait seven years, but I do feel I've got something to prove," Criss says. He is ecstatic about flying first class and staying in hotels with elevators ("It's all a little different from the Eastern League," he says) and he further betrays his eagerness on the sidelines during time-outs. While Brown diagrams plays by moving around little magnetic pieces on a board, Criss actually pays attention, something other Hawks don't always do.
Playing with a taped thumb Friday night in Kansas City, Criss scored 11 points ( Drew had 27) as Atlanta nudged the hometown Kings 111-110. At The Omni the next night he had 12 in a 100-94 win over Golden State, the Hawks' sixth straight victory. There was every reason to expect the inexperienced team to self-destruct eventually, but the Hawks were enjoying themselves for the moment, and nobody more than Charlie Criss. In Kansas City the NBA's smallest player had scored a basket by arching a bank shot neatly over the NBA's tallest player, 7'3" Tom Burleson, and he also renewed acquaintances with Sam Lacey. The two former New Mexico State teammates, one a seven-year NBA veteran and the other a rookie, chatted before the game in Kemper Arena.
"Knowing Charlie, I'm not surprised he made the NBA," Lacey said afterward. "He played hard in college and never gave up. He's always had a lot of heart."
Criss was moved, too. " Sam Lacey," he murmured. "It was sure nice to see him after all these years."