As a young child in the early 70s, basketball was one of my early loves along with baseball, baseball cards, Gail Goodrich, Saturn V model rockets, Star Trek and Hogan’s Heroes. But one of my favorite things was my red, white, and blue basketball from the American Basketball Association (ABA). Any kid who was anybody had an ABA ball. When shot correctly, the spin of the three colors was a thing of beauty.
I was pretty impressionable in those days. I was an avid Lakers fan because I loved Gail Goodrich. He was my first basketball hero. Then I discovered the ABA. It was all about the ball. I loved the way Dr. J could make it do what he wanted. In 1972, a player arrived who would change all my perceptions about what one could do with a basketball. That year, the Virginia Squires of the ABA, based in Richmond, acquired a skinny kid formerly of Long Beach State and Eastern Michigan. At 6’7″ and 170 pounds, he could disappear if he turned sideways. George Gervin was all arms and legs. His first year, he did not get a lot attention playing alongside Julius Erving (Dr. J). George averaged 14 points a game in Dr. J’s shadow.
In order to find out information about the ABA, a young kid could not watch them on TV or read about them in the local paper, you had to hunt for information. Usually, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated had the best pictures and information about the ABA at the time. Occasionally, on Saturdays, one could find a highlight reel, but rarely. Words were the key to learning about his game.
Squires Fan Rick Bell said this of George:
“I saw George Gervin in his rookie year with the Squires. The Dallas Chaps hosted Virginia on March 20, 1973. I went to the game to see Julius Erving. But Erving was hurt and didn’t play. There were less than a thousand people at the game. The Chaps had a huge lead going into the fourth quarter, and then this skinny kid comes in for Virginia. He scored 20 points in the quarter and almost led the Squires to a victory (the Chaps won, 122-120). From that night on, I was an “Iceman” fan.”
For the next year, after Erving was sold to the Nets, a young George would help lead the Squires at 25.4 points per game. The Squires, however, were destined to get rid of Gervin just like they had their previous stars, Julius Erving, Sen Nater, Rick Barry, Dave Bing,and Bob McAdoo. Owner Earl Foreman had assumed a $500,00 debt when he had bought the club in 1970. Over the next four years, he tried to get rid of the debt. When it came George’s time, George did not want to go. At 21, he was the face of the franchise. The fans liked him as such, and so did the ABA. In 1974, Foreman sold George to the San Antonio Spurs for $225,000. ABA Commissioner Mike Storen (ESPN’s Hannah Storm’s father) did not approve. Spurs owner Angelo Drossos had a deal and when Foreman began to have second thoughts, Drossos sued to get George. After a short court battle in 1974, George became a Spur. The Squires never recovered. Two years later, the Squires folded shortly before the merger with the NBA. Gervin, who initially resisted, said of San Antonio,
Once I got here and saw how the fans were, the love they had for their basketball team, I knew I had found a home
George’s road to stardom was a road filled with potholes. Born in Detroit, Gervin only knew poverty but basketball was his salvation. Gervin later said,
“I was just running the streets like any other kid, but the difference was that I was in love with basketball. You live in a city like that and you’re living in a state of war. You don’t realize it then. You just take it day by day.”
At King High School, George was initially short. As a sophomore, he was only 5’8″. His junior year saw him grow to 6’4″ but he struggled to stay eligible and missed half the games. His senior year saw George blossom. He averaged 31 points and 20 rebounds and his team made it all the way to the state quarterfinals. George would make it to college.
At Long Beach State, George played one year for Jerry Tarkanian before heading back to be closer to home. At Eastern Michigan, he thrived for one year averaging 29.5. After he slugged a player in a tournament, Coach Jim Dutcher was removed and George was suspended for a year. He could not sit for a whole season. He had to play. George played for $500 a month for the Pontiac Chaparrals in the Eastern Basketball Association. At 40 points a game, George caught the attention of scout and former Bulls coach Johnny “Red” Kerr who signed George to the Squires for $40,000 a year after seeing him throw down 50 points in one night.
When Gervin arrived in San Antonio, he was immediately pressed into the starting lineup. Over the last 19 games, the Spurs won 13 and George helped lead the Spurs to the ABA playoffs. It would be the beginning of his legend. It was in San Antonio that the Iceman became the Iceman. He calm, cool demeanor on the court had been hardened by experience and failure. His game, however, had been taken from others. Here is how George developed his patented finger roll.
Over the next 12 seasons, George was the face of the San Antonio franchise. In 12 seasons in San Antonio, the Spurs made the playoffs 11 times including 10 straight. When the ABA merged with the NBA, television was made for George and his smooth, silky game. Former Bulls and Mavericks coach Dick Motta said of George,
You don’t stop George Gervin. You just hope that his arm gets tired after 40 shots. I believe the guy can score any time he wants to. I wonder if he gets bored out there?
After the merger, he averaged, 27, then 29, then 33 points a game with defenses designed to stop him. Dr. J may have been the reason for the merger and the player who got all the attention of the east coast media, but it was George who got the attention of the players, coaches, and executives. Jerry West said George was one of the few players he would pay to see.
For me, George was the player I most built my game after. Playing Nerf basketball in the house, I used George’s finger roll to perfection. However, on the playground, a short white kid from south central Polo did not have much use for a finger roll. But one could dream of flying through the lane and dropping a roll. His game was like watching art in sports. It was a thing of beauty. He is now a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and works with underprivileged kids in San Antonio. If you combine his ABA and NBA stats, he is the Spurs all-time leading scorer. He would end his career playing for the Chicago Bulls. Despite playing on 2 gimpy legs, the “Iceman” managed to average 16 points a game.