There's an air of delicacy about the Denver Nuggets' Alex English that befits, one supposes, the only point machine-poet in the history of the game. He runs with a struggling, pigeon-toed gait, a faint look of desperation on his thin face, wrists swinging limply in front of him. A mere 190 pounds hang from a 6'7" frame on which arms and legs are reedy, hips and waist negligible.
Alexander English—how do you do the things you do?
"I guess what my game has," says English, the NBA's leading scorer, "is kind of an off-balance flow."
Everything about English, in fact, seems a little off-balance. He plays a big man's game like a small man, scoring near the basket with finesse and smarts rather than with brute power. He's extremely graceful—some of his teammates call him Baryshnikov—yet his running one-hander, sometimes taken off the wrong foot, is an awkward-looking weapon. Off the court, he's a quiet crusader and a romantic trying to change a milieu sometimes characterized by self-centeredness and coldness. Most off-balance of all is that he has the statistics and income (over $1 million this season in salary and deferred payments) of a superstar, but little of the public recognition.
December 9, 1985
After scoring 35 points in a 131-123 double-overtime loss to Seattle Saturday night in Denver, English led the NBA with an average of 31.3 points per game, one point ahead of the Utah Jazz's Adrian Dantley. He scored 54 points against Houston three weeks ago, 47 against Golden State in the season opener and has hit 30 or above 12 times in 18 games. Not coincidentally, as of Sunday the Nuggets trailed the Rockets by only a half game in the Midwest, the NBA's most competitive division. Over the last five seasons English has averaged 26.4 points, second only to Dantley's 29.8, and led the league in scoring in the '82-83 season. Though he looks far less hearty than Dantley—he looks far less hearty than almost anyone—English, at 31 the second-oldest starting forward in the NBA behind 35-year-old Julius Erving, has missed only two games in five years, one of them because his stepfather died. Dantley has missed 93. In those five seasons, English has 4.58 assists per game, well behind Larry Bird's 6.06 average but ahead of other high-scoring forwards such as Dantley (3.93), Bernard King (3.14) and Purvis Short (3.07).
Yet the mention of Alex English's name quickens no one's pulse. He is too quiet and unspectacular on the court, and off it, the charismatic things he does, he does uncharismatically. There is no rowdy rooting section in McNichols Sports Arena called The English Department. Even his lawyer admits that he doesn't sell many tickets. After the 1980-81 season, the then San Diego Clippers could have had him even-up for a first-round draft pick. The Clippers turned down the deal.
"Thank God there are people in the world dumber than me," says Nugget coach Doug Moe.
The trade was proposed by the Nuggets, who had felt they couldn't match an offer sheet that English had signed with Seattle. English and Denver worked it out, but his current contract expires at the end of this season and general manager Vince Boryla, an old-school hard-liner, has already rejected one contract proposed by English's representatives.
English's main offensive weapon is a deadly jumper that he gets off even in heavy traffic, largely because he shoots with maximum arm extension. Last week against Golden State, English came off a pick and went up to shoot over Joe Barry Carroll, the Warriors' 7-foot center. It looked like a certain rejection, but English kept going up, higher and higher, and released the ball just over Carroll's fingertips. Swish. The extension-ladder jumper is accurate from 15 feet and in, which is where English sets up. "Sure, you might be able to body him out a little," says Golden State's Larry Smith, a tough defender who usually checks English, "but it doesn't matter because he can still hit from wherever he shoots it."
Rarely does English dribble more than once or twice before taking his shot. "He's not good at putting the ball on the floor," says Moe, "so therefore he doesn't put the ball on the floor." He's not considered a gazelle, yet he is in constant motion, as one must be in Denver's passing game. "What people miss about Alex is that he's a runner," says Greg Ballard of the Warriors, "and runners are always hard to play." Once or twice a game English will beat his defender down the floor, and point guard Fat Lever will find him for an easy basket.
English has none of Erving's or Dominique Wilkins's graceful acrobatics, none of Dantley's forceful inside pumps, none of King's ferocious athleticism when going to the hoop. "Bobby Dandridge is about the only comparison I can come up with," says Nugget assistant coach Allan Bristow. "George Yardley," says Boryla, reaching back a couple of decades. "Both [Yardley and English] thin, stringy guys who run the court, both intelligent, both get their shot off in any position."
Yardley (a star during the '50s with the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons) drew a blank with English, but he agrees with the comparison to Dandridge, behind whom he played in 1976-77 at Milwaukee as a rookie after being drafted in the second round out of South Carolina. "But, basically, my game is my own," says English.
So is his style off the court. Last year English convinced his fellow NBA All-Stars to donate their pay for the game to the Ethiopian relief effort, a $48,000 windfall that was more than matched by the league. When he does such things, "nobody laughs at him," says Nugget reserve center Danny Schayes. "He's much too sincere."
English has self-published two volumes of his poetry, Sometimey Feelins Sometime and Let's Share. A sample from the latter:
If love was
A spotted disease
I'd be your
English is also a science-fiction devotee and has contemplated volunteering for the space station program. "There's something inside that makes me special. It's not basketball. It's the way I perceive things," he says.
His opponents don't have to look inside him every night—they have to guard him. Even based solely on that, they'd have to agree that, yes, there's something special about Alex English.