George Gervin: A Superstar Before the Other Stars

During the early 1970’s the National Basketball Association was suffering in attendance because after the years of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West the excitement had left the game. Also, because the American Basketball Association had stolen all the exciting ball payers.  In an incredibly wise decision, the owners of the NBA teams voted to expand the number of teams in the league by inviting the four teams with some of the most exciting ballplayers to abandon the ABA and join the NBA.

One of those teams was the San Antonio Spurs and their superstar at the time who helped them get into the league George Iceman Gervin. He had been traded to the Spurs in 1974 from the Virginia Squires a team he joined in 1971. He played alongside Julius Erving at the Squires for one year and then Erving was traded to the New York Nets. When Gervin arrived at the Squires he and Erving would stay after practice and do one on one drills against each other. However, in their first one on one match after Erving was traded to the Nets, Gervin managed to outscore his respected opponent 43 to 38 points on the latter player’s home court in New Jersey.

Gervin’s first performance against his former teammate is how he got the nickname “Iceman” or “Ice.” After that incredible performance while sitting in the dressing room, his teammate Fatty Taylor commented on the fact that Gervin was not sweating at all. He said to George, “You played 38 minutes and scored 43 points against one of the best players in the league and you didn’t even break out in a sweat. You must have ice running through your veins. Yeah, that’s it, you’re like an iceman out there on the floor.” Fatty turned to the other teammates and announced, “From now on we’re going to refer to Gervin as the Iceman.”

What has happened to Gervin happens to several great players and that is time moves on and new players shine at their time of performing on the court. So, as we grow closer to the NBA playoffs, allow me to take you back in history to one of the most exciting endings to a season in league history. It was the last game of the 1977-78 season and Gervin was leading the superstar David Thompson of the Denver Nuggets for the scoring championship. All season long, Gervin maintained a slight lead over Thompson for the scoring title. That stretched right to the last game with Thompson and Denver scheduled to play an afternoon game against the Pistons at Cobo Hall in Detroit. The Spurs last game was in New Orleans that night. The schedule favored Gervin because he would know just how many points Thompson scored that afternoon and how many he would need that night to keep his lead and win the title.

That afternoon, Thompson went on a scoring rampage and lit up Cobo Hall. After the game was over, a reporter from the San Antonio Light, called Gervin in his room in New Orleans and told him that Thompson had scored 73 points and taken the lead. Thompson also dropped in 32 in one quarter setting a new record for points in a quarter. Ice had to score at least 56 to win the title. Fans back home in San Antonio also knew the situation and that evening every radio was tuned into the game. Even though New Orleans’ defense double teamed Gervin, he not only scored the necessary 56, but added seven more for a total of 63, and broke Thompson’s short-lived record of 32 points in one quarter when he scored 33 in the second quarter of his game. He went on to win the scoring championship and should have won the Most Valuable Player for the year but lost out to Portland Trail Blazers’ Bill Walton.

Gervin and Thompson 2003

The city proudly proclaimed that the holder of one of the most prestigious titles in professional sports lived right in San Antonio, Texas and that created an atmosphere of unity among all races, religious groups, and political groups never experienced in the past. Gervin acknowledged, in his humble manner, that his scoring title was not just for him, but also for his teammates and thousands of fans cheering for their hero.

The cheering continued for the next nine years as Ice dominated the basketball court in the NBA. He won three more scoring titles after the one in 1978 and scored in double figures in 407 consecutive games. He also played in twelve straight all-star games, winning MVP in one. He placed second in the voting for the regular season MVP in consecutive years and should have won it in 1978. As the Spurs’ main scoring threat, the team’s high-powered offense brought home five division titles, and in 1979 was one game short from playing in the finals for the national championship.

George Gervin was one of the most admired basketball professionals to ever play the game. The great Jerry West told reporters that, “He’s (George) the one player I would pay to see play.” His former coach, Dick Motta while coaching the Denver Nuggets proclaimed, “You don’t stop George Gervin. You just hope that his arm gets tired after 40 shots.”   In the year 1996 Gervin was admitted to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and designated as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. He was, undoubtedly the first of three franchise players helping the Spurs to rise to the status as one of the best teams in the NBA. He set the pace for David Robinson and Tim Duncan to follow that ultimately lead to the five NBA Championships the franchise now can claim.

1990

Once he retired from the game of basketball, Gervin concentrated his talents to giving back to his community. Through the George Gervin Foundation, he has implemented successful programs in 1) education; 2) training and mentoring; 3) substance abuse prevention; 4) single family housing projects; 5) shelter for young people aging into foster care; 6) juvenile justice programs; 7) capacity building programs; 8) leadership development; 9) construction of elderly apartment complexes.

1995

Gervin considers the work he has done building a pathway to success for the young men and women who have been discarded by society just as important as what he has achieved on the basketball court. In the Fall of 2011, the university where he played basketball, Eastern Michigan, also recognized his good works in the field of education when they awarded him with an Honorary Doctorate Degree in Education. George Gervin’s career has been an amazing study in success but he claims he has just begun. Giving back to the community, something he has come to believe in and admire, will continue and there will never be a period at the end of his involvement.

2011