Skip to main content
Original Issue

A slight case of unmistakable identity

The Van Arsdale twins look alike, think alike and play alike—Dick for Phoenix and Tom for Cincinnati—but they don't like to go one-on-one on one another. So last weekend brotherly love slowed the fast break

Dick Van Arsdale walked up to Cincinnati Royal Guard Matt Guokas in the lobby of Phoenix's Townehouse hotel last Friday afternoon, shook his hand and said, "What room is Tom in?" Guokas, who has played against the Van Arsdales for six NBA seasons and has been a teammate of Dick's identical twin brother Tom for the last four months, stared at Dick and then sheepishly admitted, "I thought you were Tom."

That is the mildest form of confusion the Van Arsdales regularly create. They cause greater consternation on the court, where they are easier to tell apart—Dick wears a Phoenix Sun uniform and Tom that of the Royals—but harder to figure out. Experts consider the rugged 6'5" twins a bit too slow to play guard and a smidgen too small to play forward. Yet, fired with a determination as identical as their features, each captains his team, each has appeared in three NBA All-Star Games and each is averaging right around his usual 20 points a game.

Each also hates to play against the other, which is what they did last weekend in Phoenix. For only the second time in their 19 seasons of organized basketball, the Van Arsdales were matched up, at least at one end of the court, at the start of the game. Tom guarded Dick, and Dick would have played Tom had not Nate Archibald, the Royals' peerless little guard, been ill with the flu. With Archibald sidelined, Dick took the bigger and slower Guokas, as Sun Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons was sympathetic to Dick's reluctance to play head-to-head on his brother.

In a league dominated by players who run from swarthy to ebony, one Van Arsdale would be an anomaly. Fair-skinned, finely proportioned and well-chiseled, with blue eyes and bleached blond hair, they could make Fred Nietzsche's starting lineup. When they were juniors at Indiana, Warner Brothers saw their pictures in LIFE and offered them seven-year contracts, even though their only acting experience had been when they tried to draw offensive fouls.

The Van Arsdales have pulled off all the usual twin tricks. They fooled teachers, changed positions on their coaches and switched on their dates. But they are more similar than most twins. During high school in Indianapolis, Dick's grades averaged 7.909 out of a possible 8.0, and he graduated first in his class. Tom averaged 7.848 and finished third. Tom was president of the honor society and Dick vice-president. Through high school and college Dick averaged 16.9 points a game, Tom 16.7. In the NBA, Dick has outscored Tom by slightly more than one point per game, but this may be attributable to the fact that they play different positions for different teams.

From the time of their premature births on Feb. 22, 1943 (Tom is the older by 15 minutes) until they graduated from Indiana, they spent only two nights apart. Their toys were identical, and only after they left high school did they wear unlike clothes. "If we had orange juice for breakfast, Mom would measure the glasses precisely to make sure they contained the same amount," says Tom. "That way neither one of us would get mad at her."

The Van Arsdales' closeness almost knocked Tom out of the pros before he stepped on a court. Drafted in succession in 1965 at the beginning of the second round by New York and Detroit, the twins were separated for the first time when they left for their rookie camps. Tom quit the Pistons soon after and returned home with the excuse that he wanted to go to law school. He bought his law books but never went to class. "The sole reason for leaving Detroit was because Dick wasn't around," he recalled last week. "It was a case of acute loneliness. It was like when you have a girl friend in high school and for some reason you can't be with her. All you want is to be with her, and nothing else and no one else can make you happy. I called Dick in New York and he convinced me that things weren't going to be any better if I didn't play, so I went back to the Pistons."

The pervasive similarities of the Van Arsdales so intrigued one of their high school student teachers that she made a special study of them, part of it consisting of a questionnaire to be filled out independently. Their answers, except to the question, "What books have you read recently?" were the same, and many were worded almost identically. In response to "How do you feel about girls?" Tom wrote, "I like them, but I am not crazy about them," while Dick replied, "I like girls but don't go wild over them." Their feelings intensified shortly thereafter.

Milwaukee Buck Guard Jon McGlocklin, who roomed with the Van Arsdales throughout college, says, "It was phenomenal. It was psychic. They'd sometimes miss the same exam questions with the same wrong answers. And I know they weren't cheating."

Their relationship also gave rise to a sibling rivalry which might have been destructive had the boys not been a near perfect match in all they did. "We competed constantly in school and at all sorts of games, from kneeling Ping-Pong to basketball, and neither of us ever got the upper hand," says Dick. "All it did was cause a lot of fights."

"They'd start arguing about who was going to close the window in our room or something trivial like that," says McGlocklin. "It would immediately turn into a fight, and they'd pound each other on the chest and arms and maybe throw a few books around. Then one day when we were seniors, Tom, who had a much longer fuse than Dick, got really mad over something stupid. He said to me, 'Moose, will you please leave.' I got out of there, but as I turned, Dick came running right behind me and slammed the door. 'I'm not going back in,' he said. 'He's really mad.' "

Fraternal fisticuffs ended there, but years of furious competition had shaped their style on the basketball court. Unlike many other accomplished players who spent lonely hours practicing by themselves, Dick and Tom never had time for shooting in the backyard. There was always a one-on-one game to be played, and, since losing demanded a face-saving win in the post-game brawl, their games were based on getting percentage shots, barging in close for layups. As a result, they came to the NBA as fanatical drivers with poor outside shots. They have since become excellent outside shooters, but neither, particularly Dick, has shed his aggressiveness. Tom, who has been more frequently injured, is now less careless about his well-being, however. He has become more of a perimeter shooter than his brother, but by NBA standards he is still reckless.

"Determination is the biggest thing they have going for them," says Tom's coach, Bob Cousy. "They're fairly strong, but they're not particularly fast. It's the same old thing about attitude. There are plenty of guys in the league with more talent, but a lot of them just float on their ability, playing great one night and bad the next. But when you have an 82-game schedule, consistency is the key. Tom and Dick are always at a competitive peak, and I think in the long run you're probably better off with guys like them."

Age and circumstance have relegated the old sibling rivalry to occasional games of golf and tennis. According to Dick's wife Barbara, an accomplished amateur artist, the Van Arsdales have grown easier to tell apart now that they have let their hair grow and Dick has a little scar under his right eye from a cut he sustained earlier this season. But their ties remain unchanged. "We're very close," says Tom. "If anything happened to one of us, I don't know what the other would do. Every once in a while I think about those twins who played football, the McKeevers, and how one of them died. If that happened to Dick, I think my life would be ruined."

Last week's reunion began on Wednesday when Dick called Tom at his hotel room in Seattle and plans were made. Later that day, Tom convinced Cousy to change the team's travel plans so that the Royals would arrive in Phoenix four hours earlier than scheduled. Once Tom got to town, it was a quiet, comfortable time. Dick persuaded his brother to join him in his latest real-estate deal. There were errands to be run and old stories, most of them ribald, to be retold. And there was a lot of talk about the color of Tom's hair, which has not been trimmed since he and Dick were discharged from the National Guard in October. Said Dick, "In the summer, once in a while, I use this stuff called Sun In that turns your hair lighter in the sun while you play tennis or golf. But Tom takes the bottle and empties it all over his head. I think he's going a little wild."

Saturday's game lingered in the background. Until last November, the Van Arsdales had never started a game in which one of them was guarding the other. Early in their pro careers, Tom was a guard for the Pistons and Dick a forward for the Knicks. They both moved to their present teams four years ago and changed positions, but this year trades and injuries have often forced Tom to play in the Royals' backcourt. On Nov. 6 he guarded Dick for the first time and held him to 17 points. "Cousy asked me if it would bother me to guard Dick, and at first I told him, 'No,' " Tom said. "Then I changed my mind, but Cousy insisted. I really hate guarding Dick now. It's a touchy situation. I force myself to do it, but I don't really have any desire to stop him. I want to beat Phoenix, but I'd like to see Dick score 50 points."

The Royals were in disarray with Saturday's game only a few minutes old, and the Suns won going away, 117-95. Tom, it turned out, only guarded his brother for nine minutes before switching to forward. During that time, Dick scored seven points but twice was less than aggressive on fast breaks when he had the ball in position to drive. Both times he moved up on his brother, pulled to a halt and passed to another Sun cutting to the basket. Once free of each other, the Van Arsdales played their separate games well, Dick leading his team with 31 points and Tom his with 27.

In a joint interview afterward, Tom was facetiously asked who is the better-looking of the two. "We usually say if we're asked who's the better player or who's smarter or something like that, that the other one is. But to answer that question that way would obviously be ridiculous." This may be true if it were possible to tell which one is Tom.