George Gervin: Icing Down the NBA, 1978

[My blog partner Ray Lebov just sent me a really nice article about the Iceman, George Gervin. It’s from the December 1978 issue of Basketball Digest. At the typewriter is Randy Harvey, then with the Chicago Sun-Times. Harvey, who grew up in sleepy Mineola, Texas, went on to share his considerable wit and wisdom at the bustling New York Daily News, Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times, and Houston Chronicle. All told, this kid from Mineola pounded out a 50-year career in the newspaper business as a writer and editor. That included this memorable assignment about 44 years ago in San Antonio, where he got to sample some of the best guacamole around and shoot the breeze with one of basketball’s all-time greats.]


At 9 o’clock in the Texas morning, a 91-in-the-shade morning one day last spring, hundreds of persons were waiting in line outside the HemisFair Arena to buy 500 standing-room-only tickets that soon would go on sale. The occasion: A National Basketball Association playoff game between the San Antonio Spurs and the Washington Bullets. George Gervin can remember standing in lines longer than that when he was a child on Detroit’s East Side, waiting with his mother and five brothers and sisters for free food so they could eat. Now, these people were waiting to pay so they could see him play basketball. 

Somehow this irony, the statement on the American condition, had eluded Gervin, the Iceman, as he participated in the Spurs’ “shoot-around” inside a high school gymnasium on the fringes of the city a couple of hours later. “Shoot-arounds” are intended less to give professional basketball players shooting practice than to roust them from bed at a reasonable hour on game days. Most NBA teams do not take them seriously. The Spurs take them less seriously than most NBA teams. 

Coach Doug Moe had a golf day and left after only half an hour. Guard Mike Gale and forward Larry Kenon sat on the floor at the side of the court with her legs crossed and watched. Center Billy Paultz told jokes. Reserve center Mike Green stood behind the baseline at one end of the court and tried to shoot the ball over the backboard and into the basket. Reserve guard Moe Layton stood at midcourt and tried to drop kick the ball into the basket at the other end. He tried three times. Miss. Miss. Miss. 

Gervin approached him from behind, stole the ball, and dropkicked it toward the basket. Miss. He tried again. Swish.

Fifty percent is all-pro in any man’s league. Gervin shot 53.6 percent during the regular season last year, often in attempting and making shots that had less business wishing than dropkicks, and averaged a league-leading 27.2 points per game. 

Ever since Naismith, youths of the nation’s schoolyards, YMCAs, and back-alleys have been taught one way—and one way only—to shoot a basketball when facing the basket. Balance the ball at eye level in the left hand; guide the ball with the right hand; flick the wrist and follow through at a 45-degree angle over the head. It’s that simple. Jump shot or set shot, Jerry West did it that way. Although the Big O used only one hand, the principle was the same. 

Then came Gervin. He shoots with his left hand, his right hand, or sometimes both hands at the same time; overhanded, underhanded, or side-armed; driving to his left, his right, or straight down the lane; from two feet or 35 feet away. He occasionally even shoots traditionally, but he rarely ever shoots the same way twice in the same game. 

Washington assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff saw Gervin played 10 times last season and concludes, “His shot looks like it’s coming out of his lunch bag.”

Lunch is a subject Gervin knows considerably less about than shooting a basketball. The difference is repetition. Shooting a basketball was the game for all seasons in East Detroit. Lunch was only occasionally. The effects of childhood malnutrition still are apparent upon the 27-year-old Gervin as he carries only 185 pounds on his 6-foot-7 frame. 

“My father left us when I was one or two,” he said. “My mother raised six of us children by herself. She had to struggle. I remember a lot of times I stood in line with her to get free food. It’d be winter, and I’d have my hood up. The guy at the front of the line would say, ‘You’re a nice little girl.’ I’d pull my hood down and say, ‘No, man, I’m a guy.’”

Guys on the East Side played basketball all day and most of the night; inside school gymnasiums, in alleys, on a gravel court at the Field Street Playground. 

“Everybody thinks I shoot the jumper funny,” Gervin said. “But I’ll tell you what, I think they shoot it funny. It’s the only way I know how to shoot. I haven’t changed a thing in my game since I was coming up. I experimented with a lot of different shots when I was developing my technique. I’d shoot from behind the backboard or anywhere else. 

“The first time I played with Ralph Simpson (now of the Philadelphia 76ers) was in an alley behind my cousin’s house. We had a hoop up on a telephone pole. It was a poverty area. There was trash and rats. There was nowhere else to go. 

“I didn’t know anything else, so it didn’t bother me. I just wanted to play. I was playing all the time. Nothing excited me more than playing basketball. Sometimes, I’d play until midnight at the school, and the janitor would give me a ride home when he locked up.

“I spent a lot of time at Field on the gravel court. Luckily, it gave a little. The basket was stuck on the top of a pole. Normally, that’s out of bounds. But the way we played, you could use it as a pick and drive around it. So, it helped me to know how to shoot from under there.”

Late in the fourth quarter that night at the HemisFair Arena, Gervin dribbled parallel to the baseline until he emerged on the other side of the basket and then banked a shot off the backboard while standing almost directly underneath it. It is virtually impossible to bank a shot off the backboard with that small and angle, but he did it. 

Washington’s All-Pro forward Elvin Hayes still was overwhelmed a half hour after the game by Gervin’s bank shot. “I had to give him five on that one,” Hayes said. “You just don’t make those kind of shots.”

But Gervin makes those so regularly that Moe insists every shot is high percentage for the Iceman. “I keep hearing that Ice is getting better,” Moe said during the playoffs last spring, where San Antonio lost to eventual NBA champion Washington Bullets 4-2 in the Eastern Conference semifinals. “People want to say that because we’re a better team this year. Brent Musberger said on TV that Gervin’s shot selection is better this year. You know what he shot last year? It was 54.8, better than this year. His shot selection was great last year. When you reach the level that he’s at, it’s hard to get much better.”

Gervin scored 17 of his 46 points in the series’ second game during the fourth quarter, as the Spurs cut Washington’s 21-point lead to four before time ran out. “What can you say about George Gervin?” Hayes said. “He’s one of the great players in basketball. If there is one man in the NBA who can beat you, it’s George Gervin.” 

When Denver’s David Thompson scored 73 points on the final afternoon of the regular season last year, Gervin had to score 59 that night to win the NBA scoring championship. He had 53 points at halftime and 63 when he left the game after only 33 minutes. Thompson signed a $4 million contract nine days later. Gervin was working on the fifth year of an eight-year, $200,000-a-year pact he renegotiated to start this season. 

It is difficult to determine whether San Antonio’s basketball fans appreciate what a bargain they have in Gervin. Professional basketball still is relatively new to them because the franchise arrived only five seasons ago after floundering in Dallas. 

After the Spurs came from behind to beat Washington in a first-round game of the Eastern Conference playoffs, one local writer analyzed that Kenon and the posse had the Bullets holed up inside the canyon until the sheriff, Gervin, arrived with his guns blazing to corral them. 

But what San Antonio fans lack in knowledge, they make up for in enthusiasm. A brass band plays Bob Wills songs (“Cotton-Eyed Joe” and “San Antonio Rose”) and other favorites such as “The Yellow Rose of Texas” during one timeout; the public address system blares disco music during the next; the crowd, bolstered by Lone Star beer, roars all the time. 

Ernie Munoz, a.k.a., Dancing Harry Munoz. “That dancing stuff wasn’t planned,” he admitted. “I just had a few beers one night and, when the music came on, I got up and danced. At the next game, (P.A. announcer) Pat Tallman told me to stand up and dance, and that got everything started.”

This is especially true of the NBA’s most-exclusive fan club, the Baseline Bums, who sit in a section above the visiting team’s locker room and wave a gigantic Texas flag, chant obscenities at the officials, and occasionally spill beer on the opponents when they leave the court. To become one of the 120 members, a person must first submit to exhaustive interviews and then pay $15-a-season dues. The roll is called up yonder before every game. Those who are absent too often are fired. The best-known Baseline Bum was Dancing Harry Munoz, who was married during halftime of a Spurs’ game two years ago. When the marriage disintegrated a year later, his bride refused to resign from the club. The other Baseline Bums wouldn’t fire her. So, he quit. 

But the most-often repeated incident concerning Spurs fans doesn’t involve the Baseline Bums, but a group with disorganized bums who were taunting the Boston Celtics from behind their bench two seasons ago. When one called Dave Cowens “a redheaded sissy,” Cowens and two teammates charged into the stands and started a free-for-all. 

The bad news for visiting teams is the HemisFair Arena is being expanded from 10,000 to 16,000 seats this season. Denver coach Larry Brown already has said, “The only thing good about San Antonio is the guacamole.”

The feeling for Brown among San Antonio fans is mutual. Moe was guilty by association when he became the Spurs head coach at the beginning of the 1976-77 season after serving as a Denver assistant for four years. But he has charmed the fans with his unpretentious manner, his sense of humor, and, most significantly, his team’s success. The Spurs had the NBA’s third-best record last season, winning the Central Division by eight games.

Moe may be the only coach in professional sports history who tried to convince the public how dumb he is. He has succeeded because of his thick Brooklyn accent, which causes the drawlers here to miss half his words. He uses a euphemism for lovemaking at least every other sentence. 

“I made four Fs and a D my first semester in college at North Carolina,” he said. “It was a hell of a comeback to graduate after that. I went to Carolina for four years and both semesters of three summer schools. I transferred and went two more years and two more summer sessions. That’s six years and five summers. That’s perseverance. I graduated Lawdy How Come.”

Not surprisingly, he has a unique coaching philosophy. 

On the secret to winning: “Play good.”

On watching films of opponents: “I don’t watch—films. Bob Bass (the assistant coach) watches films. I watch TV.”

On player injuries: “Who knows? I don’t ever ask.”

On the playbook: “We only have three plays, and they are designed for Gervin.”

Doug Moe

That makes Moe smart, revolving the offense around Gervin. His 1-4 play, which resembles football’s shotgun offense, is a stroke of genius. While Gervin handles the ball in the backcourt, the other four players set up near the baseline. If another defender tries to double-team Gervin, he passes to an open man under the basket. When the other defenders stay with their men, the 6-foot-7 Gervin is left to go one-on-one against a guard who usually is two or three inches shorter. 

“I keep reading this—that Ice is not a true guard,” Moe said. “What is a true guard? Do you have to be a certain height? He’s as true a guard as there is.”

Gervin says the only thing that is not true is his program height of 6-foot-7. He insists he is 6-foot-8. “Why shouldn’t I be a guard?” he asked. “Because I’m 6-foot-8? I feel comfortable at guard. I love this situation. If you put another 6-foot-8 guy on me, I’m going to beat him to the hoop. If you put a smaller guy on me, I’m going to shoot over him.”

He said he became a guard, instead of a forward because of fear. “Hidin’ from the big man,” he said. “I was always skinny. I had to find a way to get around all that contact. So, I developed finesse. 

“When I first entered high school, I was 5-foot-8. I came back to school after the next summer and was 6-foot-4. When I finished high school, I was 6-foot-6. My ballhandling just followed me on up there.”

Opposed to his scrambling, often-violent background, Gervin is relaxed and unassuming, almost nonchalant. Seagram’s representatives scheduled a meeting with him for 11:30 one morning to present him a $10,000 check for winning the NBA scoring title. He didn’t arrive until 12:15 p.m. He always is the last person on the court for practice and the last went off. 

“The most-amazing thing about George is that he’s one of the slowest men in the NBA,” Moe said. “I think Billy Paultz (6-foot-11, 240-pound center) can beat him down the court. The only time George is fast is when he can see two points.”

It is that pace that makes him feel at home in San Antonio, where 52 percent of the 1 million population is Spanish-speaking and an estimated 20 percent of that is in the United States illegally. The answer to most problems here is manana. Tomorrow. 

San Antonio remains Texas’ prettiest and most-romantic city. Once the Queen of the Southwest, Will Rogers called it one of America’s four unique cities. The San Antonio River winds through the center of downtown, where the Riverwalk is lined with cafes, restaurants, and hotels. But San Antonio also is a city where 19 percent of the population lives below the poverty level, where 82 miles of streets are unpaved, where heroin addiction is the highest in the state, where 25 percent of the housing is substandard.

Gervin has seen both sides now. When he came to San Antonio in 1973, he visited a local bank to ask for a house loan. “You want a lien?” the banker asked. “No,” Gervin said. “I want the house to stand straight.”

He has learned much since then and doesn’t plan to quit now. “I’m going to learn Spanish, so I can speak the language,” he said. “Street Spanish. They call it Kitchen Spanish around here. A friend and I are starting Concerned Athletes in Action, and we’re going to work with underprivileged kids who can’t afford to go to camp. I want to get next to the people. 

“I’ll never leave San Antonio. I’m going to build me a big ranch and raise me some cattle. I’m a real Texan. The city’s done gone out of me.” 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: