The Harlem armory shelter stands like a tombstone amid some of the saddest slums in New York City. Inside, street people lounge, lost and passive. They are the homeless poor, the crippled, the sick and the mad—600 on a bitterly cold night. Nate (Tiny) Archibald strides among them, tall and strong and full of the same blazing self-confidence he displayed 18 years ago when he became the only player ever to lead the NBA in both scoring and assists in the same season. He is warm to the homeless, congenial to the hapless, comforting to the hopeless.
Archibald, 42, has been the shelter's recreation director for about a year. "A lot of the guys here don't have short-or long-term goals," says Archibald. "In fact, they don't have any goals at all." He says the homeless embody in a very real way a failure of American society. We find them embarrassing, demanding, threatening, dangerous. We think they're lazy, drunk or drug-addicted. "These guys need as many positive influences as they can get," says Archibald. "I don't want to add to the rejection they already feel. It can keep them from trying because they don't want to fail again."
Archibald isn't some born-again Good Samaritan. He has been holding summer basketball camps and clinics in Harlem for more than 20 years. "Yet people see Tiny here and think he must be doing as bad as us," says Bimbo Pitts, who has been on the streets for almost two years. "Well, it just ain't so. Tiny don't have to do this—it's in his nature."
Archibald came up off some hard streets himself. One of his first memories of growing up in the South Bronx was being told not to eat rat poison. One of his last was watching a high school teammate collapse and die on a playground from a heroin overdose. "I could have been caught up like that," he says.
When he retired as a player in 1984 after 13 NBA seasons, Archibald felt somewhat lost himself. "I'd been playing and practicing so long that I didn't know anything else," he says. "I almost never came out of that twilight." After several years of drifting from one summer-league coaching job to another, he went back to school. He got his master's in adult education and human resource development from Fordham last May, and he is now going for his Ph.D. in the same field. "I decided to save people from the streets that I was saved from by basketball," he says. During the day he's a drug counselor at Harlem public schools. Most nights he's at the shelter.
"I exploit my resources and my celebrity," says Archibald, adding that he is as relentless on the phone as he was on the court. He has muscled organizations into donating board games and weightlifting and basketball equipment. He took a half-dozen homeless men to see the New Jersey Nets last season after cajoling the team into giving him tickets. The men were so excited that they insisted on wearing jackets and ties to the arena.
After the game, Archibald brought them into the locker room to meet the team. One of the Nets pulled him aside. "Who are they?" he asked. "Lawyers?"
Archibald believes in explanation and persuasion. "You can preach forever and get no results," says Pitts. "You teach and sometimes get some positive results. Tiny's a teacher." Archibald started a basketball team, the Harlem Hawks, at the shelter last winter. He helped form an area league for shelters and coached the Hawks to the playoffs. The Fort Washington squad the Hawks played in the title game was so confident of victory that the FW players brought their own trophy.
Archibald gathered his players for a pregame talk. "You don't need me anymore," he said.
"Come on," the Hawks chorused. "You're coaching us tonight, right?"
"No, man. The time's come to coach yourselves."
They did, shutting down Fort Washington's top scorer and winning by 11 points.
"It was great," says Pitts, who played small forward. "For the first time in years I felt some self-esteem."
Archibald concedes he can't reach everyone at the shelter through sports. "But I'm not trying to," he says. "Just reaching a couple would be an accomplishment."
Archibald and his newest team take a break at the shelter gym.