Life in the National Basketball Assn. is tenuous. Size, age, injury, talent, a coach's caprice make a career a delicate thing. That is why the release of veteran guard Tiny Archibald by the Celtics, while major news in Boston, rates only a casual mention here in the Great Northwest where such comings and goings are only found in the small type of newspapers.
It is as if no one out here cared about Archibald, who was such an integral part of the Celtics' march to the 1980-81 NBA title. The inference from such a brief item is that the 34-year Archibald had finally succumbed to the rigors of being a 6-foot-1 underdog for 12 NBA seasons. It downgrades his contributions as a playmaker, team leader, and professional who never lost the hunger that all winners must have. It clouds the fact that off the court that Tiny Archibald is a solid and committed human being, especially to youth.
A better way to look at Archibald's exit from Boston is to picture a man who tried for perfection every night but never quite reached it. Only twice in Archibald's career did he come close. The first was for Kansas City in 1973, when he became the only man to lead
the NBA in both assists and scoring. The second was in 1981 and 1982 with the Celtics, when Archibald used a different blend of those skills, combining with Larry Bird and Robert Parish in a three-pronged attack that produced some of the most exciting basketball in Boston since the glory days of the 1960s.
It was this quest for excellence and balance that made Tiny Archibald the fierce competitor he was. It was also the same force that led him down the road of self-destruction and eventually alienated him from the very people who had been his strongest supporters. Tiny had to go - for his sake and for the sake of whatever new direction the Celtics will take under K. C. Jones, who was one of those who soured on Archibald.
Archibald never heard the critics who said he was selfish and growing old. Or that the years of pounding by players a foot taller had finally taken their toll. It never dawned on him that it was his shooting skills as well as his ability to pass that kept him as a starter for one of the NBA's five best franchises. He never heard it in 1981 and 1982, because he was getting his minutes, playing and providing the positive force that helped make the Celtics a winner.
But he should have heard what people were saying last season. And he should have listened carefully to Bill Fitch when Danny Ainge arrived two years ago. Fitch said the Celtics had won an NBA title with Tiny and Chris Ford, one of the oldest backcourts in history, and that in time one or both would be phased out.
Fitch's idea was that Ford, Archibald, Ainge, Gerald Henderson and Charles Bradley were the right combination of people, and all could remain if they accepted the fact that he would periodically change their roles. Ainge and Henderson, both reserves, loomed as the starters of the future. But as Ford found out last September, there were no guarantees in Fitch's
plan. Hence, when theCeltics acquired veteran Quinn Buckner from Milwaukee, Ford wound up on the outside looking in. That Ford returns as an assistant coach one year later only makes Fitch appear more of a prophet. But there is no halfway in the NBA: You find your piece of ground or you are out.
It was clear in 1982-83 that Archibald's days in prime time were numbered. His playing time, his shooting, his assists, were all down from 1981. Archibald started only 19 games and missed a total of 14 because of injury. Fitch and Archibald, after a couple of years of mutual trust, had a parting of the ways. Archibald's attitude as a nonstarter was nothing like it had
been as a starter. He sulked and perhaps did not realize he was affecting people around him negatively. But he was.
Fitch, to his credit, had a strong loyalty to his veterans, whom he leaned on in a way that often contradicted his public image as a dictator. He leaned on Tiny in 1981-82, and it cost him a championship when Archibald got hurt in the playoffs with Philadelphia. As Archibald changed, so did Fitch. Fitch could have recommended him as an alternate for the All-Star game last year, based on his stature and time of service. He didn't, and unless Tiny finds himself in another winning NBA situation, nobody likely will again.
Tiny Archibald remains a good person with a deep commitment to excellence. But his time in Boston is over. The sad thing is that his final memory will not be a No. 7 hanging from the rafters at Boston Garden, but two lines in the transactions section of every sports page in the country.
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