Sports Glory days

Former Spurs star George "The Iceman" Gervin talks about the night the lights went out in Washington and other career highs

While scouting for the ABA one night in 1972, Johnny Kerr watched a skinny 19-year-old kid score 50 points in an otherwise ho-hum game played in the relatively obscure Eastern Basketball Association. The kid was making $500 month. After that game, Kerr signed the kid to a $40,000 contract with the ABA's Virginia Squires. The kid was George Gervin. And, no matter what league he played in, scoring was never a problem. Forever associated with the San Antonio Spurs, Gervin holds four NBA scoring titles, played in 12 straight All-Star Games (nine in the NBA) and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996. Here, "The Iceman" doesn't sweat the origins of his nickname, remembers when he played Dr. J one-on-one every day, and owes Danny Ferry some payback for when the lights went out in Washington.

Your answering-machine message tells callers they've reached the home of "George 'The Iceman' Gervin." But who was "Iceberg Slim"?

(Laughs.) Iceberg Slim was a pimp out of Detroit, Michigan.

Who turned you on to him?

Nobody turned me on to him. I'm from the Detroit where he's legendary. That ain't where I got my nickname from, though.


No. I ain't got nothing pimpish about me.

Well, then how did you come by the name "Iceman?"

Fatty Taylor is the guy that named me Iceman. And the reason why is because when I was in the ABA at age 19, I was probably 165 pounds. So I didn't sweat that much. We'd play and everybody's uniform would be soaking wet but mine was barely wet. So he saw that enough times to where he said, "Man, you just like ice."

George Gervin joined the Spurs in 1975. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996.

Only Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan have won more league scoring championships than you (four), and you were the first guard ever to win three titles in a row. You never had trouble scoring, but some NBA teams today do. What was your secret?

Well, I worked on my game all the time. And I think shot selection was the key for me. I didn't really like taking the long jump shots. I really liked taking that in-between jumper - you know, around 10-12 feet around the free throw line. Shot selection is the reason why a guy like me or other guys who shot over 50 percent in their career shot the ball well.

Today it seems like guys limit themselves primarily to two shots: the 3-pointer and the dunk.

Yeah, I know man. Really the fundamentals are fading away. More of these guys will be scoring champs if they can put the ball in the hole in the in-between area like Richard Hamilton. He's one guy who stands out in my mind who can score by shooting the in-between shot. He's a rarity.

After your fourth scoring title in 1982, Jerry West said about you, "He's the one player I would pay to see." That same year, NBA coach Dick Motta said, "You don't stop George Gervin. You just hope that his arm gets tired after 40 shots. I believe the guy can score when he wants to. I wonder if he gets bored out there."

Great compliments from two great basketball minds. Jerry West, we all know his ability to put the ball in the basket and win. And coach Motta won a championship with the Washington Bullets the year (1979) we played them in the semi-finals. He had a chance to really see what I could do in a seven-game series. The only thing he said that I didn't like is that I wasn't big on shooting 40 shots. (Laughs.) There were other guys out on the floor, too, so I don't think my guys would've liked me shooting 40 times.

What opponent did you just hate to see playing defense on you?

Dennis Johnson was a guy who played me well. Bobby Jones was another guy, plus Jamaal Wilkes and Michael Cooper. On all those guys I probably got a "hard 30." (Laughs.)

"Really the fundamentals are fading away. More of these guys will be scoring champs if they can put the ball in the hole in the in-between area."
- George Gervin

Which player did you say to yourself, "Man, this is gonna be another 40-point night"?

Wow, there's a lot of those, man. There's not just one. The four guys that I named before were the guys I knew I had to stay focused on and stay on my game. Most of the rest of 'em I felt that I could get my numbers every night relatively easily.

Your first season in the ABA (1972-73) you joined the Virginia Squires, who had a young, second-year forward named Julius Erving. In your last season in the NBA (1985-86), you joined the Chicago Bulls, who had a second-year player by the name of Michael Jordan. Like the Celestine Prophecy, I believe there are no coincidences. How much do those two players owe to you for their eventual success?

Well, I don't think any of them owe me anything. I owe the Doc quite a bit, because when I was a rookie he took me under his wing. After practice I used to be trying to go to the locker room and Julius would pull me back, say, "Hey rook, not yet, we got some one-on-one to do." So me and Doc played one-one-one after practice. That time as a rookie was the most I ever practiced. He helped me gain my confidence to be the player I would become. With Michael, I was on my way out. But I got a chance to see the potential of the greatness he showed us after my career. I remember playing with the Bulls in Dallas and I scored 35 points in a half, and he was sitting on the bench hurt. I ended up with 40-some points. He started laughing at me, saying, "Ha! You got a little tired on me." I said, "Mike, I'm old now buddy."

Those one-one-one games after practice with Julius Erving, who got the best of those?

Mmmmm. I always say Julius Erving, but when I'm around him he always says, "Awe Blade (he always called me "Blade") "you got your wins in." He won the most because I had to get over that intimidation factor - knowing who he was: the Doctor, Mr. ABA. So, he probably got the best of me.

Plus, he had that afro which gave him another 10 pounds on you.

He had a real afro! I just needed a hot comb to blow mine out (laughing).

"I owe the Doc quite a bit, because when I was a rookie he took me under his wing. After practice I used to be trying to go to the locker room and Julius would pull me back, say, 'Hey rook, not yet, we got some one-on-one to do.' So me and Doc played one-one-one after practice."
- George Gervin

In 1975 you joined the San Antonio Spurs and, despite the fact that your 6"7' height in those days was more typical of a forward, they were smart enough to make you a shooting guard with James Silas at the point. How important was that switch for your career?

I think it was everything. Bob Bass made that switch. He thought that I was a little small in weight and a lot of the forwards would try to beat me down. He felt because I could put the ball on the floor and distribute the basketball that it would probably be better for me to play the two-guard. I give Bob Bass a lot of credit for making that change. A lot of the smaller two-guards would say to me, "Why don't you go back to playing forward?" I'd say, "Why? It's easy playing against you little guys."

Because of his injuries before the ABA-NBA merger a lot of people never got to see James Silas at his best. How good was he?

James Silas is definitely one of the lost guys who doesn't get the credit he deserves, especially for playing the one spot. I would do all the damage during three quarters and in the fourth quarter we'd get him the ball because we knew he was "Captain Late." The things that he could do to those little point guards was amazing. Plus, he never really missed a free throw.

In 1977-78, only their second year in the NBA, the Spurs won the Central Division under coach Dog Moe with a 52-30 record, third best in the league.

Doug had his way of coaching, which was try to get up as many shots as we could. His philosophy was, if we shot the ball 20-25 times more than our opponents we'll win most of the game. So, we came in running and gunning. He was definitely one of my favorite coaches.

Did you have much influence on Coach Moe's wardrobe?

Definitely not. It ain't no secret about it, but he was the kind of guy that didn't care. He definitely was tacky. His whole thing was, my clothes are clean so how they look don't make a difference. (Laugh)

On the last day of the 1977-78 season, you needed to score at least 58 points in order to beat out the Denver Nuggets' David Thompson for the league scoring title. Earlier in the day, Thompson rang up an impressive 73 points to put the pressure on you. After missing six straight shots in the season finale against the Utah Jazz, you scored a record 33 points in the second quarter - re-establishing an NBA record set earlier that evening when Thompson scored 32 in the first quarter. Then, after a 63-point night, you narrowly edged by Thompson for the scoring title (27.22 ppg v. 27.15 ppg) Has Thompson ever forgiven you?

Ha! We talk about it all the time. I had the advantage because he played earlier that day. So I needed 58 points. Fortunately for me, Doug Moe asked the guys if they would help me get the scoring title back and all the guys agreed. So to score 20 points in the first quarter after missing my first six shots and then scoring 33 to break another one of David's records, it was special for me. I ended up scoring 63 points in 33 minutes. That's kind of unheard of in basketball. That's a record I'll always appreciate.

Before arriving in San Antonio, where he wore No. 44, George Gervin played for the ABA's Virginia Squires, the Eastern Basketball Association's Pontiac (Michigan) Chapparals, and in college, the Eastern Michigan Eagles.

Your San Antonio Spurs were an NBA force - 5 division titles and 3 trips to the conference finals. But in the 1979 Eastern Conference finals you let a 3-1 lead against the Washington Bullets slip away. The next generation of Spurs, with David Robinson and Tim Duncan, won two titles and are at the top of the NBA this year. Do you like what you see in the Spurs now?

Yeah, I think they got a good ball club. When you got a guy like Tim Duncan as the foundation, his personality and his respect for the game really make them a special team. When we played, we didn't stop people like the current Spurs team does. And that's the difference. That's why they got two championship rings with two great centers, David Robinson and Tim Duncan.

Your teams had Artis Gilmore and Billy Paultz at center.

Yes, and I had some great forwards with Larry Kenon and Mike Mitchell. We had some talent. Game 7 in '79, when we played in Washington, all kinds of things happened to keep us from winning that game. We were up by like 15 points in the fourth quarter when the lights went out for 12 minutes. It changed the momentum and they came back to beat us by two or three points.

The lights went out for 12 minutes?

That's right, in Washington. And the guy who is the culprit behind it is the guy who's with us right now, Danny Ferry. He was a kid at that time and he swears up and down that he turned out the lights. So every time I see him I want to hit him in the mouth.

That's right! His Dad owned the team.

You got it. It was a dirty trick but it worked for them. And for him to be proud of it - I know he's 6'10 and a pretty good size but, man, I'd like to take a few guys and rap him in the mouth a couple times. (Laugh)

Former Spurs owner Angelo Drossos, may he rest in peace, was a legendary dealmaker who, among other things, pioneered the incentive clause and the three-point shot. Had also bullied the Virginia Squires at the negotiating table and in court to acquire you in 1975. During those court battles, you were out of basketball and in a state of limbo. For a while you had to lay low. What was that like?

It was kind of different because I was a basketball player and I couldn't play. I remember going to Utah with Virginia, and Angelo sent me 10 Western Union telegrams saying you can't play for Virginia, you belong to the San Antonio Spurs and if you play for them we're gonna sue you. Angelo Drossos was a hard business man. So I flew from Utah to San Antonio where I stayed at the Hilton there for months without playing - just waiting on the judge to rule one way or another.

When you got a guy like Tim Duncan as the foundation, his personality and his respect for the game really make them a special team. When we played, we didn't stop people like the current Spurs team does. And that's the difference.
- George Gervin

Sitting around idle for a whole month, that must've been pretty weird.

Yeah, it was weird, man. I was like a fugitive from basketball. Bird Averitt, who was a teammate of mine at the time, used to come by and we'd shoot around some. But it was a dead time for me. I was glad when they finally ruled and I became a San Antonio Spur.

Angelo Drossos once said "George Gervin was to San Antonio what Babe Ruth was to New York." In 100 years, will visitors to San Antonio say "remember the Alamo" or "remember the Iceman?"

Well, I'm quite sure they'll remember the Alamo, but in that same breath they'll remember the Iceman. My impact on this community was something special. It was a small town when I first came here; maybe 500,000 people. Since my days playing basketball, look how we have grown. Now it's a basketball mecca. I'm very proud of my contribution to the San Antonio Spurs and the San Antonio community. I've been with the Spurs for 28 years. I still work in the front office. We got two world titles and they gave me two rings. They made me feel a part of it and I'll always be appreciative.

Dave Hollander's book, 52 Weeks, a collection of his interviews with famous sports figures and personal stories about his experiences in sports, comes out in fall 2005 with The Lyons Press.

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