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 5'5½" 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.
Even before the Hawks came into the picture, Criss had made up his mind not to return to the Eastern League this season. He began angling, instead, for a berth with the Harlem Globetrotters and got a foot in the door as a member of their stooge team, the New Jersey Reds, on a two-month Trotter tour of Europe last summer. He was in Madrid, nearing the end of the tour, when Hubie Brown got in touch with him. The Atlanta coach had seen Criss play in a black charities All-Star Game in Madison Square Garden and figured that the lead-footed Hawks could use some of his quickness. He promised Criss a fair shot at making the team, and the little man reported to training camp.
Atlanta at the time was suffering from the loss of free-agent Forward Truck Robinson, who had taken his considerable talents to New Orleans, and from a savage front-office intrigue that resulted, ultimately, in the sacking of Brown's avowed enemy, General Manager Mike Storen. Brown found room for five rookies on the Hawks' roster and Charlie Criss learned he was one of them after the final exhibition game in Louisville. "Hubie and I were riding in an airport limousine and he asked me if I'd found a place to live yet in Atlanta," Criss recalls. "It was unreal, absolutely unreal."
It no doubt helped Criss' cause that he was available at close to the league's minimum salary of $30,000. It also seems likely that Brown identified with him. The coach had logged four years in the Eastern League in the '50s and, as the Storen episode suggests, is something of a survivor himself. But Brown insists that Criss made the Hawks primarily because he can play basketball.
"Charlie showed the quickness we wanted and also that he can shoot and pass," he says. "Other guys 5'8" can do these things, but Charlie is also very strong, which is true of Calvin Murphy, too. In fact, I honestly feel Charlie is holding back a bit, trying to submerge his freelancing instincts to play into our system. When he starts seeing the options possible within that system, he could be awesome."
Criss scored eight points in his first NBA game, a 107-101 win over Cleveland at The Omni, and then poured in 21 in 27 minutes in a 110-103 loss at Hartford to the Boston Celtics, Atlanta's only defeat. Next came a 113-110 overtime victory over the Nets in Piscataway, N.J. A group of Criss' former coworkers at Tuck Tape came to the game by chartered bus, and Charlie entertained them by amassing 17 points, six rebounds and five assists. "I was proud to be wearing an NBA uniform in front of my friends," says Criss. "I was also proud that I played well."
Notwithstanding Brown's assessment of his strength, it remains to be seen whether Criss can withstand the rigors of the seven-month, 82-game NBA schedule. He has already had a busted lip, and last week a jammed right thumb was affecting his shooting. "In the Eastern League I took quite a pounding, but we played only weekends and I had a few days to recover," says Criss. "Here you have to play hurt."
Having taken so long to make the NBA, though, Criss plainly means to stick around, and Brown had said he would keep him even if the squad limit dropped to 11, as was determined last week. "I'm not bitter about having to wait seven years, but I do feel I've got something to prove," Criss says. He is ecstatic about flying first class and staying in hotels with elevators ("It's all a little different from the Eastern League," he says) and he further betrays his eagerness on the sidelines during time-outs. While Brown diagrams plays by moving around little magnetic pieces on a board, Criss actually pays attention, something other Hawks don't always do.
Playing with a taped thumb Friday night in Kansas City, Criss scored 11 points (Drew had 27) as Atlanta nudged the hometown Kings 111-110. At The Omni the next night he had 12 in a 100-94 win over Golden State, the Hawks' sixth straight victory. There was every reason to expect the inexperienced team to self-destruct eventually, but the Hawks were enjoying themselves for the moment, and nobody more than Charlie Criss. In Kansas City the NBA's smallest player had scored a basket by arching a bank shot neatly over the NBA's tallest player, 7'3" Tom Burleson, and he also renewed acquaintances with Sam Lacey. The two former New Mexico State teammates, one a seven-year NBA veteran and the other a rookie, chatted before the game in Kemper Arena.
"Knowing Charlie, I'm not surprised he made the NBA," Lacey said afterward. "He played hard in college and never gave up. He's always had a lot of heart."
Criss was moved, too. "Sam Lacey," he murmured. "It was sure nice to see him after all these years."