George Gervin: Chillin’ with The Iceman, 1988

[No intro needed for George Gervin. His many career achievements and chill image precede him. In this article, which ran in the April 1988 issue of Basketball Digest, Glenn Rogers of the San Antonio Express newspaper checks in with the 35-year-old Iceman to mark an upcoming city-wide ceremony to fete their retired pro basketball hero and give him his nostalgic due. Later that year, the Spurs pulled all the right strings downtown to rename a street near its team offices. The street was re-christened: George Gervin Court. 

Rogers does a real nice job of laying out the full arc of Gervin’s long-and-distinguished hoop career and also in capturing the chill character that lived on to the charm of many. So, here you go, George Gervin, San Antonio Spurs, From Way Downtown.]

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Days before the ceremony began, George Gervin admitted he was already nervous. He faced the weekend of tribute last December, and city-wide attention was to be focused directly on him.

First, a banquet at 7 p.m. Friday at the Hyatt Regency Ballroom. Then his jersey No. 44 was to be hoisted to the arena ceiling at 7:30 p.m. Saturday before a game against Chicago. Gervin would stand in front of some 14,000 screaming fans.

“I know I’m Ice, but I hope I don’t melt,” he said. Told that if he looks like he’ll break, the fans will intensify the cheers. He nodded warily, saying, “Really hammer me, huh.”

Gervin is only 35 years old, but he’s already wearing the trappings of an elder statesman. And he wears them well. HIs easy manner and slightly inquisitive stare during conversations lend him quiet strength, hint at a secret knowledge. The look says he’s been there, accepted his life, and is willing to lend a helping hand.

He sits in his elegant, but lived-in, home on the far northeast side of San Antonio. The downstairs is rife with huge potted plants, and two full-grown, sapling-size trees. A ceiling fan swirls fresh, cool air, enhancing the quiet atmosphere. 

“You know, you’d be surprised how many young players come to me for advice,” he says with a little grin. “I counsel them a little. I tell them, ‘You know that jumper you’re shooting in the arena today, you could be shooting in Madison Square Garden tomorrow—or not shooting it anywhere.’ Basketball comes and goes, and you have to grow. 

“I can give guys their self-esteem back, help motivate them a little. As far as getting traded is concerned, I knew that when they traded Dr. J, they could trade anybody.”

Growing is a big part of Gervin’s concern. He mentions it often and goes back to it when talk drifts in other directions. “Too many players are too used to being handed things, they don’t even know why they’re getting them,” he says. “Most players don’t learn from experience. 

“I like to think that I do. Once I understood myself, my game, I could handle my life. Once you know what you don’t want to be, you can go in the right direction.”

The Iceman made his game look effortless. But it was a manufactured product. He honed it from the beginning, spending hours in his Detroit high school gym developing his jump shot. 

Gervin said he played on a good high school team, but that he was no standout; he had no visions. “I’m glad I didn’t have them. If I had, I don’t think I would have worked so hard,” he says. “I worked through the years, getting down the fundamentals of my moves, and everything else just developed naturally out of them. If you get the basics down, then it’s very hard to lose your game. Actually, you don’t lose it, the legs just go on you.”

Gervin went to Long Beach State, dropped out, and returned home to Eastern Michigan College, where he stayed for a year and a half. Gervin left Eastern Michigan and joined the Pontiac Chaparrals of the Continental Basketball Association. 

“I didn’t stay there long, but I wasn’t thinking about the NBA then,” he recalls. “Heck, I was making $500 a month, and I had my own car—what more did I need. I was playing ball and enjoying it. No, I had no visions of playing in the NBA, and I’m glad I didn’t. I think that would’ve put too much pressure on me. Plus, I wasn’t putting myself in position to be disappointed. You know, I was letting life go along.”

Life took him to the ABA, to the Virginia Squires, where fame for the first time crooked its finger in his direction. He played for Virginia for a year and a half, making the ABA All-Star team in his second year.

The San Antonio Spurs, an ABA franchise that had just moved down the road from Dallas, purchased Gervin, and the two became synonymous for the next 11 years. “I guess you could say that we put each other on the map,” Gervin says, laughing again. “It wasn’t until I got to the ABA that I realized that I could play in the NBA.”

Gervin and the Spurs joined the NBA in 1976, but the ABA and its colorful ball remain vivid in his mind. “We were all young guys,” Gervin recalls, “all with our own games. We only had seven teams, so we played each other about 50 times. Good friends came from there—George McGinnis, Larry Kenon, Roger Brown, and, of course, Dr. J.”

Gervin can’t say enough about the legendary Erving, who led the ABA in scoring three times, and he emphasizes that it was Erving’s off-court conduct that influenced him most. “We both had our games, so we could talk comfortably,” Gervin says. “He was the cool one, and it was from him I got my cool demeanor from. I valued my talks with him, and I also valued my one-on-ones against him.”

Gervin’s game flourished in San Antonio. He was an all-star the two years the team remained in the ABA and nine straight years after the Spurs joined the NBA.

Ice was a cool customer, but he burned up the court, dazzling foes and fans with his deadly jumpers and his astonishing driving flights to the basket. His grasshopper leaps through barriers of defenders, capped by the scoop shot that looped around the last waving arm, brought thousands out of their seats in a loud and collective roar.

His artistry brought him four scoring titles, a mark matched only by Wilt Chamberlain, who won seven titles. “If you can hit a jumper, you can play in the NBA,” Gervin says. “If you also can put it on the floor, then you can really do something.”

Gervin was a scorer when he came to the Spurs, but he exploded after a light bulb flashed over then coach Bob Bass’ head. Bass’ inspiration: He moved the skinny player from forward to guard.

Gervin had a hard time battling the bulkier defenders, and Bass figured Gervin could use the extra room and take advantage of his height advantage (Gervin is 6-foot-8). The idea didn’t please Gervin at first, maybe hurting his pride.

“Yeah, I told BB, ‘I don’t know about this, I’m a forward,’” Gervin says. “But then when I found out I could shoot over those little guys guarding me, I said, ‘BB, you’re something else.’ He’s always up to something. I became the first big scoring guard, and then Magic [Johnson] became the first big assists guard.”

Gervin rampaged across the country’s courts and, in 1978, won his first scoring title when he scored 63 points against New Orleans on April 9. His 33 in the first quarter remains an NBA record. 

“That’s the highlight of my career,” Gervin says. “That was the moment I can look back on and say, ‘Well, I did it all, there’s no reason for me to stay in basketball. I can get out feeling fine.

“Back then, of course, I wanted more. And after I won that scoring title, I knew I could do it again—and I went after it.”

The scoring titles came, as did the yearly appearances at the All-Star games. Division titles and 50-plus win seasons came, as did the annual playoff battles. But the big one, the title ring, remained elusive.

“I never got the ring, but we had a ball trying to get there,” Gervin says. “I cherish those memories, and I just have to settle with almost being there. We had the opportunities, but we blew them.

“But we had some great teams down here, exciting teams,” he adds. “We won a lot of games, and we woke up the giants of the NBA.”

Then it came to a crashing halt.

The Spurs hired Cotton Fitzsimmons in 1984, and the raspy veteran coach immediately began trying to downplay Gervin’s role on the team. Fitzsimmons was bent on getting [the young] Alvin Robertson into the lineup and, the following year, told Gervin he would have to come off the bench behind the budding star from Arkansas. Gervin balked and was traded to Chicago before the 1985-86 season got underway.

Gervin possibly had never met a man he truly didn’t like until Cotton came around. “I never had to deal with a coach like that,” Gervin recounts. “Cotton just wanted what he thought was best for him, and he wanted me to think just his way. I don’t like talking about that period, because I get too emotional.

“I told Cotton that I thought Alvin and I would have made a good combination, my scoring and his defense. I could have helped bring Alvin along, and he could have helped me stay longer. Yes, I could have come off the bench, but I didn’t want to, not for Cotton.”

Gervin played a year in Chicago, but ”that part of my career is just a joke to me,” he says. “It means nothing. I have strong feelings, and l was caught up in San Antonio.”

He spent the 1986-87 season playing in Italy. But the NBA wasn’t quite through with Gervin. The Houston Rockets wanted Gervin to join them for the 1987 playoffs. Gervin said sure, but he wanted a contract that would keep him on the team for the following season.

“I told them, ‘You can’t use me for seven games, the playoffs, and then tell me I have to make the team the next year. If you want me, then you’re going to have to take me and be stuck with me, go all the way,’” Gervin says. 

The Rockets declined. 

“It was for the best,” Gervin says. “There’s no doubt in my mind I could have played a lot longer. Hey, I know that I could make that Spurs team right now. But I don’t want to be changing teams at age 35. I felt good when I retired, because the Rockets asked for me, and I turned them down. I was able to get out while I was still wanted.

“You might say that God really intervened in my career, telling me it was time to go. God in the form of Cotton Fitzsimmons,” Gervin says with another huge laugh.

“I had a wonderful life, and I wound up in a wonderful town. I’ll live here forever. Now I’m through with basketball. It was a job, a kid’s game, really.”

Gervin can be content in knowing that he was one of the best of the kids.

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