Charlie Criss was on the road again last week, but the itinerary was a new one for him. Something of a legend in Eastern League cities like Scranton, Allentown and Asbury Park—and on New York City playgrounds—the 5'8" Criss, who is at once the NBA's smallest player and oldest rookie, was journeying to Detroit and Kansas City as a member of the Atlanta Hawks. At the age of 28, Criss has finally made the NBA, seven years after finishing his college career. That is almost as astonishing as the fact that at week's end the faceless, low-budget Hawks were soaring along in first place in the NBA's Central Division at 7-1, best in the entire NBA.
It was hard to decide which was more uplifting, Atlanta's scintillating play or Criss' long-delayed NBA debut. The Hawks, everybody's choice to repeat their last-place divisional finish of last season, were getting their usual 20-points-plus output from Forward John Drew, their only bona fide offensive threat, and they were also enjoying some unexpected blessings, notably a pesky defense and the steady quarterbacking of second-year Guard Armond Hill. The year's surprisingly swift getaway perked things up at home in The Omni where the Hawks were staging rousing promotions, including a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar lookalike contest—a 5'2" white guy won second prize—and indoor fireworks. While the whole operation did not quite amount to Hawkamania, average attendance was 9,277, well ahead of last year's 5,238, worst in the NBA.
Little Charlie Criss was very much part of these giddy goings-on. Playing third guard behind Hill and Ken Charles, he was averaging 10 points and four assists a game and was also chomping on record quantities of gum, causing his wispy goatee to go up and down as he scooted to and fro. An instant favorite of Hawk fans, Charlie apparently also beguiled The Omni organist, who took to playing the theme from Rocky whenever he stole the ball or pumped in another 30-foot jumper. "Charlie is dynamite," rhapsodized his coach and benefactor, Hubie Brown. "When he gets on the court, things happen."
Criss, who calls his arrival in the NBA a "dream come true," was also fast becoming recognized as a symbol of gritty perseverance. In Detroit's Cobo Arena the other night, after the Hawks had stunned the Pistons 102-89, a radio man in a loud sport coat stooped to thrust a microphone in front of him. "A lot of kids see you as a little guy who finally made it," the interviewer said. "What advice would you give them?"
Criss is a man who tends to take things seriously. "I'd tell them to hang in there," he replied. "I'd say that if they want something bad enough, they can get it."
Which is pretty much the story of Charlie Criss' life. He grew up in Yonkers, N.Y., the eldest of 11 children, and he became playmaker for the New Mexico State team that lost to UCLA in the 1970 NCAA semifinals. But he was overshadowed by teammates Sam Lacey and Jimmy Collins, both first-round NBA draft choices. Criss was not among the year's 239 selections. At the time nobody in the NBA was under six feet, and the emphasis on big guards was so strong that it was considered a brave gamble when the San Diego (now Houston) Rockets selected Calvin Murphy, Niagara's 5'9" All-America, in the second round.
Murphy quickly showed he belonged in pro ball, and before long room was found for all sorts of Foots Walkers and Kevin Porters, not to forget 5'5�" Monty Towe, who kept college pal David Thompson company on the Denver Nuggets until he was cut in September. Charlie Criss, meanwhile, was graduating from college playmaker to one-man-gang in the basketball underground, though the transformation was by no means immediate. In 1972 he joined the Hartford Capitols of the Eastern League, the run-and-gun league that has been a haven over the years for NBA rejects and might-have-beens. Relegated to the taxi squad, he practiced with the team all season but got into only four of 28 games.
What made this particularly hard for Criss to take was that even then he felt he belonged in the NBA. "Sure I improved, but I would have improved even more in the NBA," he says. "My problem all along, even in the Eastern League, was getting a break. But it's always made me try that much harder."
Criss was sixth man for Hartford the next season, coming off the bench to average 20 points a game. Then, suddenly, he blossomed into the star of the league. Playing regularly the following year for the Cherry Hill ( N.J.) Rookies and the last two seasons for the Scranton (Pa.) Apollos, he led the Eastern League in scoring with 30, 39 and 34 points a game and was twice voted MVP. He further burnished his reputation in New York's Rucker League, in which, as the Mosquito, he took his place alongside such storied playground performers as the Helicopter and the Destroyer. Stories circulated about how Charlie Criss was regularly burning NBA performers such as Tiny Archibald, Henry Bibby arid Lloyd Free on the playgrounds.
In the Eastern League, Criss earned $60 a game, the going rate for stars, and he paid his own expenses, splitting gas money with three other players on the long car rides to and from the games. To make ends meet (he is divorced and has two daughters), he worked at a succession of jobs, most recently in the data processing department of Tuck Tape Industries in New Rochelle, N.Y. Last season he was invited to the New York Knicks' training camp but was cut before the first exhibition game. "I think he was invited mainly as a courtesy to me," says his agent, Steven Kauffman, a Philadelphia attorney who also serves as the Eastern League commissioner.