Nate “Tiny” Archibald sat in the plush leather seating courtside at Rucker Park on a hot summer morning decked out in shades to spare his eyes from the sun beaming off of the decorated hardwood floor. Mired in the glare from the court’s reflection were vivid memories of watching the famed Rucker Pro-Am League as a child some 50 years ago.
“When people talk about 50 [years], I was a youngster when I was over here,” Archibald said. “[There was] Jackie Jackson and Wilt Chamberlain, [but] not on this floor. This is something that could have saved a couple of us. It was great to see an outdoor atmosphere. People were all over the trees. They didn’t have these stands either, so don’t believe this hype, or these seats that you’re sitting in.”
Part of the mystique of Rucker Park has always been the accolades of the playground legends testing their mettle against NBA superstars. While the performances of Pee Wee Kirkland and Earl “The Goat” Manigault made them larger-than-life figures, their tales of domination became increasingly incredible with each retelling of their jaw-dropping feats. Entering those sacred grounds, Archibald said you were playing for your street credibility ahead of whatever riches awaited from winning.
“It’s not about getting paid; it’s about trying to sometimes save your reputation. Going out and proving, ‘Hey that guy played in the NBA, but I busted him up today.’ It’s a competition, especially in this park, a competition that when you come in here, you better save your reputation because everybody’s trying to get a piece of that.”
As the 67-year-old DeWitt Clinton graduate and NBA Hall of Famer prepared to work with an eager group of teenagers, he was more excited about the opportunity to mentor the youngsters than running them through a series of basketball drills.
“It’s about sending a message,” he said. “The mentoring program is more important than the clinic because all of the kids right now think they should be in another league, whether it’s the NBA or WBNA. It might happen for some, but it’s not happening for all of them. The education that we’re going to be talking about is important—the development about being active in the community, knowing what’s going on in your community; this is just a small piece about how we’re going to get our message across.”
Archibald’s passion for education is not only a homage to the late Holcombe Rucker, but also Floyd Layne, the CCNY standout who took an interest in the point guard’s development while he was struggling academically in high school. Layne helped Archibald get on the right track by working with him through the community center at Archibald’s alma mater in the Bronx, PS 18.
“He was instrumental in trying to teach not just me, but everybody the fundamentals,” he said. “He was mentoring a lot of us about going to school, getting an education, but more importantly, knowing what’s going on in and around your community.
“I wasn’t really a good student because I concentrated on pros playing basketball. I took a lot of pages out of those guys’ books. He was instrumental in me going to school, because if I didn’t go to school, I couldn’t play. When I was a sophomore, I didn’t make the Clinton team. People say, ‘Well you weren’t good enough to make the Clinton team?’ No, my grades weren’t good enough to be on the team. He emphasized education early on for me. He and a lot of other people were instrumental in me developing, learning, and understanding the value of the game of basketball.”
After Archibald finished his 14-year NBA career in 1984, he was searching for a transition from the highly regimented life of a professional athlete. He turned to education, enrolling himself in graduate school to become a teacher, a far cry from the high school kid who had problems staying eligible to play.
“After my NBA career was over, I was in a gray area,” he said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I went back to school; I became a teacher in the school system. I was part of social services. It wasn’t a void I was trying to fill in my life; something was missing.”
His return to school opened up a new set of challenges for Archibald that he could no longer elude with his quickness and sleight of hand. It was the perfect recipe to keep him engaged in his studies.
“Going back to school was a blessing for me because it kept me busy,” he said. “The educational part came when I went to UTEP and I got my degree and became a student-athlete. After I finished playing in the NBA, I needed to start doing something positive. I started introductory classes at Fordham, and after that it was history; they sold me on going back to school. It kept my mind occupied; it wasn’t a physical thing anymore. It wasn’t like I had to play against you and think about what to do against you. It became a challenge with the books and that was a whole different challenge. Did I win that challenge? Let me say this, I got my degree! I don’t know if I won the challenge, but I got my undergrad degree from UTEP, my master’s at Fordham, and went back again to get my professional degree in supervision and administration from Fordham.”
As he continues to work with kids all around the city, his message is one of perseverance both on and off the court. Standing barely 6’1″, Archibald succeeded in a land full of giants to be named one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players, but he hopes his greatest inspiration to the next generation are his academic pursuits.
“I’m still trying to be a student,” he said. “I want to go back just to prove to myself that just like the game of basketball, somebody gave me a chance to do it and I tried to do the best I could. I want to be a student again to tell some of these kids, look at my size, look at my height, somebody gave me a chance to play in the NBA. If I could go back to school and get my doctorate, you can, and I wasn’t a good student.”