Friday was Tom Van Arsdale’s 70th birthday. Hard to tell it.
Fifty-two years after his high school exit as co-Mr. Basketball and Trester mental attitude winner alongside twin brother Dick, Van Arsdale is still trim, still humble and still quite the gentleman.
Now retired from the real estate business and living in Phoenix, Tom spoke Friday at Forest Hills Country Club to Richmond High School athletes who begin play in the New Castle Sectional boys basketball tournament next weekend. None of the other Wayne County schools attended the Noon Kiwanis Club’s annual luncheon due to the weather.
“Every time I took the floor on any level I was a nervous wreck,” Van Arsdale told the Red Devils, Kiwanians and guests. “It wasn’t until I reached the NBA that I thought I was a good player.”
Tom and Dick shared No. 1 for the Indiana All-Stars in 1961 after their Indianapolis Manual team lost to Goose Ligon-led Kokomo, top rated in the state, 68-66 in overtime of the state championship game. The Redskins lost only twice prior to the state final, one of them being the season opener.
“We were ahead by seven points with 1:07 left in the game and lost,” Van Arsdale said of the 1961 final. “But the most important game I ever played in my life at any level was the regional championship game in 1961 when we beat Crispus Attucks 55-44. We had lost to them in the city tournament earlier. When we finally beat them — and they were really good — it proved to us that we were a good team.”
Both 6-5, the Van Arsdales played collegiately at Indiana University and were All-Americans both on and off the floor. Both were second-round draft choices by the NBA in 1965, Tom taken by the Detroit Pistons and Dick by the New York Knicks. Both made the All-Rookie team in 1966 and both were three-time NBA All-Stars. Both averaged double figures for their careers.
Both played 12 years in the NBA and guarded each other many times. In their final season, 1976-77, they played together with the Phoenix Suns.
“We played a lot against each other but tried not to guard each other,” Tom said. “Bob Cousy, one of my coaches when I was with the Cincinnati Royals, thought I should guard Dick because he thought I would know all his moves. We hated guarding each other. We didn’t like that at all.”
There was no Michael Jordan or Lebron James in those days but the Van Arsdales came up against the likes of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wes Unseld, Jerry Lucas and Bill Bradley.
“Russell was the best of the two,” Tom said of the Russell-Chamberlain challenge. “Chamberlain would let you go to the basket. Russell wouldn’t.”
As kids growing up, the Van Arsdales were close. And still are.
“Dick and I used to fight like cats and dogs when we were little and played one-on-one all the time,” Tom said. “Our parents could tell us apart but even they would get confused at times. Branch (McCracken, the IU head coach) used to put different socks on us in practice so he could tell the difference. We were never jealous of each other and always cheered for each other. We never had a problem with that.”
The Van Arsdales’ father was a math teacher at Manual and also took tickets at Butler Fieldhouse games.
“That’s how we got to see the Milan-Muncie Central game in 1954 — sitting at the edge of the court where our father put us,” Tom said. “We were lined up perfectly to see Bobby Plump hit that jump shot to give Milan the win. I thought Butler Fieldhouse was the greatest arena in the world and I still do.”
The twins are retired from highly successful business careers, Van Arsdale Properties Inc. in Phoenix, which Tom’s son, Chris, now owns and operates.
Dick, a retired executive vice president of the Suns, is a graphic artist who owns his own graphic arts business. He suffered a stroke in 2005 but has recovered.
“We like to fly fish and we live close to each other in Phoenix,” Tom said. “We see each other nearly every day. We enjoy ourselves now. That’s why I came to Richmond. I have time to do it. We swim for exercise. Our kids are in Phoenix and we really stay busy.”
Tom made light of the fact he was traded four times in the NBA.
“George Allen (former Washington Redskins head coach) once told me on an airplane that there are two sides to the story of being traded. Somebody doesn’t want you but somebody else does. That made my day.”
Van Arsdale doesn’t like a change the IHSAA made in 1997.
“It’s hard to follow Indiana basketball when you live in Phoenix but I don’t like the class system,” he said. “I know there are people pro and con on the subject. If I’m playing for a championship, I want to play for the highest one. I know smaller schools want an even playing field but I’m very much in favor of a one-class system.”
How about pro ball?
“Quite honestly, I don’t like the pro game right now,” he said. “It’s too bad we have to play 82 games a year. That’s too many games. It’s for economics. It brings in more dollars. I don’t think the NBA game is exciting until it gets to the playoffs. The talent is too diluted, no parity.”
The college game?
“Players would be much better off staying in college for four years and getting an education than jumping to the NBA after a year or two,” he said. “Eighty-four percent of the NFL players who retire now are either divorced or broke after three years. And you can look at the NBA or pro sports in general. Kids need three or four years of college because they may not make it in the pros.
“They might not make money or if they do they may not know what to do with it. There’s a maturity level that comes by playing in college.”