For the first time in nearly a decade, the NBA scoring race is poised to swing on a decimal point. Wizards guard Bradley Beal (31.41 points per game) maintained a slim lead for most of the 2020–21 regular season but fell out of pole position in April when the Warriors’ Stephen Curry (31.76) took a flamethrower to opposing defenses, setting a new record for threes in a month with 96. Two contests remain for each team, and while the unknown health of Beal’s recent strained left hamstring might sway how the final weekend unfolds—he's already listed out for tonight—the injury hasn’t drained their duel of drama.
To wit: On Saturday night, Beal hung 50 points on the Pacers but exited early to nurse his hammy. Hours later, Curry dropped 49 in 29 minutes in a blowout over the Thunder, admitting to reporters that he knew about Beal’s heroics. (“Of course I did,” he said.) This led Warriors reserve Kent Bazemore to juice up Curry’s stat line at the next day’s shootaround while also squeezing in a shot at Beal. “Forty-nine points in 29 minutes, though, that’s unreal,” Bazemore said. “And we’ve got guys hurting hamstrings trying to keep up.” Beal clapped back with a pointed Twitter screed that he punctuated with a GIF of a circus clown.
Social media shade aside, the epic back-and-forth between Beal and Curry is reminiscent of other famous down-to-the-wire individual scoring competitions. In 1993–94, David Robinson put up 71 points in the Spurs’ finale to edge out Shaq by 0.44 ppg, thanks to a team-wide effort centered on force-feeding him passes, despite constant double and triple teams from the opposing Clippers. “Those [Clippers] were mad. They were cursing me out on the floor, saying, ‘No way you’re going to get the scoring title,’ ” Robinson recalled.
In 2011–12, meanwhile, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant seemed destined to settle their scoring differences in a last-day, cross-country showdown. “Hopefully it’s a fun one,” Durant told reporters in anticipation. “That’s what the fans want to see.” Kobe spoiled the fun by sitting out the Lakers’ season finale, but there was still plenty of suspense: Durant still won by just 0.17 ppg, the second-slimmest margin ever.
But nothing will ever compare to the events of Sunday, April 9, 1978, when two future Hall of Famers bearing superhero sobriquets—George “Iceman” Gervin and David “Skywalker” Thompson—blessed basketball with an all-time battle. Both were torchbearers for the old ABA, by then defunct for two seasons after merging with the NBA, and yet forebearers of the free-flowing, trigger-happy superstars who define the modern era. Their teams tipped off on the road hours apart, separated by 1,000-plus miles. One scored 63 and won the title. The other had 73 and lost. There were no three-pointers.
The showdown was overlooked by national media at the time, as rightsholder CBS instead opted to carry the end of John Havlicek’s Celtics farewell tour. No archival footage from local TV broadcasts appears to have survived either. Any radio recordings seemed lost to history.
But the events remain fresh in the memories of the players, coaches, play-by-play men, PR reps and fans in attendance, either for that afternoon’s tilt between Thompson’s Nuggets and the Pistons or Gervin and the Spurs’ nightcap against the New Orleans Jazz. Sports Illustrated spoke to 20-plus for this story, seeking to relive the wildest final day in NBA history. To a man, when asked about that day, they all broke out laughing—the sort of close-your-eyes, shake-your-head chuckle that accompanies the return of a decades-old memory.
“It was one of those surreal times in sports that you were in disbelief of from the moment you were in it,” former Nuggets radio broadcaster Al Albert says.
“It was a sight to behold,” former Spurs radio broadcaster Terry Stembridge says.
“You’re going, ‘Holy cow, I got to witness that?’” former Pistons big man Ben Poquette says.
“Unbelievable,” former Nuggets forward Bo Ellis says.
“The whole thing, in my mind, has kind of a carnival feel to it,” former Jazz big man Rich Kelley says.
“Amazing,” former Spurs guard James Silas says. “That’s why everybody gotta give you that laugh. They didn’t think it was possible. It was crazy. Just crazy.”
Similar to Beal four-plus decades later, reigning scoring champ Pete Maravich spent most of the NBA’s 1977–78 season atop the points-per-game leaderboard before suffering a knee injury that left him, as the Pistol put it, “like a car without breaks.” Unable to return, the New Orleans guard would finish his team’s schedule below the 1,400-point qualification threshold, cracking the door for two new contenders: Thompson and Gervin.
From a stylistic perspective Thompson and Gervin were polar opposites. Thompson, then 23, earned his nickname soon after Star Wars (1977) was released in theaters, having pioneered the alley-oop at N.C. State despite dunking not yet being allowed in college; he would simply soar above the rim and drop the ball through the hoop. “The power he generated,” fellow Hall of Famer Bobby Jones says, “people feared that.” Meanwhile, Gervin, who was 25 in ’78, was dubbed Iceman while playing for the ABA’s Virginia Squires after some teammates noticed that he hardly ever seemed to sweat, even after torching them in practice. His signature move was a silky finger roll, scooped under a defender’s outstretched arm and kissed off the glass.
“Different skills,” says Bob McAdoo, who finished third in scoring in ’77–78 as a Knick with 26.54 ppg, “but both scorers deluxe.” And so, with Maravich out of the picture, the stage was set. Trailing Gervin by two-tenths of a point per game heading into the final day of the season, Thompson arrived in Detroit knowing that he needed to outscore Gervin, whose Spurs were due to play that night in New Orleans, by at least 17. Both of their teams had already clinched playoff berths, and both of their opponents were already mathematically eliminated.
The low stakes in the standings led to fewer than 4,000 fans showing up at Cobo Arena that afternoon, less than a third of capacity, even though it marked the Pistons’ final game in their blimpish home arena. Attendance was so sparse that future NBA big man Earl Cureton, checking out the action while a student at Detroit Mercy, encountered zero trouble upgrading his and a teammate’s seats from the nosebleeds to courtside. “I knew about the scoring title, what was going on,” Cureton says. “I had no idea we were going to see a show like that.”
For his part, Thompson had no idea he would put on the show that he did, either. Before the game then Nuggets coach Larry Brown had approached the mild-mannered, soft-spoken guard to ask whether Thompson wanted to take a run at the title if Brown gave him a long offensive leash. “I said, ‘Nah, we’ll just play and see what happens,’ ” Thompson recalls. “It wasn’t that big of a deal to me. Two-tenths of a point, I thought that was a lot.”
The Nuggets had other plans. “The entire aim of that game was to get David as many points as we could,” Denver big man Dan Issel says. “That was the entire pregame talk [from Brown]. We didn’t go over any scouting reports. It was just, ‘Hey, David’s got a chance to lead the league in scoring here, and we’re going to call a play for him every time down.’ ” Despite Thompson’s pregame bashfulness, though, this message turned out to be superfluous. “David didn’t need any help,” Jones says. “You didn’t have to set a screen for him. Just give him the ball and get out of his way.”
As the game tipped off, Pistons guard Al Skinner drew the unfortunate challenge of defending Thompson. “Every time he catches the ball, he’s really aggressive,” Skinner recalls. “So I’m like, ‘Damn, what’s up?’ I come to the bench and someone finally said, ‘Well, he’s going for the scoring title.’ I was like, ‘Aw, shucks, I’ve gotta deal with this?’ And it wasn’t shucks.” The only other time Skinner had seen Thompson that aggressive was when they squared off for the 1975–76 ABA championship, which Skinner’s Nets claimed over Thompson and Denver. “Usually he’d take it in the flow of the offense,” Skinner says. “This day, he was the offense.”
After the opening 12 minutes, Thompson’s totals were eye-popping enough: Playing the entire period, Skywalker hit 13 of 14 shots from the field and scored 32 points to break Wilt Chamberlain’s single-quarter records in both field goal attempts and points, set in 1962 during the latter’s 100-point game in Hershey, Pa. The overhead scoreboard at Cobo Arena didn’t display individual stats, though, so Thompson had no idea how much he had scored until he returned to the bench. “Guys wouldn’t talk to me,” he says. “They didn’t want to touch me, didn’t want to break my zone.”
Thompson took a two-minute breather in the second quarter but still added 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting, bringing his halftime total to 53. Calling the game on KOA 850 AM, the Nuggets’ radio affiliate, Albert noted how the Denver bench had “been in hysterics,” slapping one another in disbelief after each basket. Tracking the box score on a homemade scoresheet, as there were no statisticians or computers at the broadcast table back then, Albert quickly ran out of room in Thompson’s column and resorted to scribbling in the margins. Soon crews from local television stations began arriving, too. “It was the 1978 version of breaking news,” Albert says.
Still, Thompson didn’t realize that was already past the midway point to Wilt’s mark when a PR official asked him to stick around at halftime for a live interview with CBS’s Brent Musburger (which fell through due to technical difficulties). “I was excited,” Thompson says. “I was just amazed at how accurate I was, what I’d done.”
Over in the home locker room, Skinner and his teammates were no less impressed. “All we could see was jumpshot-jumpshot-jumpshot, dunk-dunk-dunk,” guard Eric Money says. “Just an incredible display of athleticism and all-around shooting.” Even on the wrong side of history, though, the Pistons maintained good humor about the absurdity of the situation. “We ended up having a lot of laughs because no one had ever come close to breaking Chamberlain’s record,” swingman M.L. Carr remembers. “But our mantra was: Whatever it takes, don’t let David do it.”
Fatigue set in during the third period as Thompson again played all 12 minutes but shot just 3 for 8, bringing him to 62 for the game. He hit 64 with about 4 ½ minutes left, then 66 on a one-handed floater, then 68 on a baseline jumper. Another jumper gave him 70, which put him in an exclusive club that, at the time, contained only Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor.
Finally, with 1:10 left, Thompson drove into the lane, sank a twisting one-hander despite contact and knocked down the ensuing free throw to reach 73, clinching the highest-scoring game in NBA history by someone other than Wilt—and ensuring Gervin needed at least 58 to beat him. “I guess the other guys were aware of it,” Thompson says, “because M.L. Carr came up to me late in the fourth quarter and said, ‘DT, I think you got it. I don’t think Gervin can get you now.’ ”
A tepid celebration awaited in the Nuggets’ locker room considering the result, as the Pistons had overcome a 14-point halftime deficit for a 139–137 win. (“One amazing thing was, some of the guys from the other team brought the stat sheets over and wanted me to sign them,” Thompson says.) But when the team flew home that night aboard United Flight 311, players arrived at the Denver airport to find hundreds of fans cheering, waving signs, begging for autographs or otherwise waiting at the gate to greet them. “I didn’t realize how big it was until I saw all these TV cameras and they interviewed me live off the plane,” Thompson says.
As Thompson drove home from the airport, he flipped on the radio and found the Spurs-Jazz broadcast, curious how Gervin was faring down in New Orleans. The reception was fuzzy, though, so he wasn’t able to fully tune in until he returned home. He wouldn’t listen for long.
“I wasn’t sure if he was gonna be able to get that many points,” Thompson says. “But I thought, if anybody could, it’d be Gervin.”
Hours earlier, Gervin jolted awake from his pregame nap to the shrill ring of his hotel phone. On the other end was a reporter—so relaxed were the access levels back then—looking to gauge Gervin’s reaction to the latest breaking news. “They told me David had just scored 73,” Gervin recalls. “I said, ‘Oh, wow, if anybody could do that, it’d be David Thompson.’ ”
Heading downstairs in the lobby of the New Orleans Hilton, Gervin ran into Spurs coach Doug Moe. Moe, an old college teammate—and later ABA colleague—of his Nuggets counterpart, Brown, had heard about the events at Cobo Arena and wanted to see how Gervin felt. “Doug said, ‘Yeah, they concocted something over there in Detroit and let David go off and score 73. When we get over to the gym, I’m gonna ask the guys if they want to do the same,” Gervin says.
A little while later, Moe entered the Spurs’ locker room at the Superdome and made an announcement. “He said, ‘I’ve got some good news and bad news’ ” Silas remembers. The good news was that guard Louie Dampier needed just two points to reach 15,000 for his career. The bad news? Gervin needed nearly 60. “It was all about George,” Silas says. “Louie just had to fit in and get his, so all the focus was on Ice.”
Sure enough, Dampier got a bucket early on a dish from Gervin—the only assist the Iceman would log that entire night. But a minor stir was soon caused when several Spurs teammates ignored Moe’s direction and hoisted some early field goal attempts. “Well, Doug calls a timeout,” San Antonio’s Allan Bristow says. “And I would say, on a scale of 10, he’s probably stage 5. Guys go back on the court. Basically the same thing happens: Somebody takes a jump shot, not George. Doug calls another timeout. And now he’s at stage 9.”
“He came unglued,” Kelley says. “He starts screaming: ‘When I say nobody f------ shoots it but Ice, I mean nobody shoots it but Ice!’ ” Unlike Thompson, however, Gervin got off to a slow start, recalling later that he missed his first six shots. Discouraged, Gervin returned to the bench and told Moe to call off the chase. “Supposedly he told Doug in the huddle, ‘I don’t think I can do this,’ ” says Wayne Witt, the Spurs’ director of public relations. “And Doug says, ‘Forget that. You’re gonna do it. Keep shooting.’ ” So he did. “Man, did I start dropping them,” Gervin says.
Pullup jumpers, free throws, even a few of those famous finger rolls—Gervin scored in a smorgasbord of ways. “It was like Casper the Friendly Ghost was guarding me,” he says. “I was going through everybody.” He finished the first quarter with 20, then added 33 more in the second to eclipse Thompson’s hours-old record for points in a quarter, no matter how little defense he played. “A couple times, I’m not kidding, he’d stand at half court and catch his breath and it’d be five on four,” Kelley says. “Then we’d score, and Billy Paultz would whip it to Ice, who was cherry-picking.”
The fatigue carried into halftime, as Gervin made what was a famously long hike from the Superdome court back to the visiting locker room. “I turned around, and he just looked at me and shook his head and said, ‘D, I’m done,’ ” Spurs big man Coby Dietrick remembers.
Well, not quite. Needing just five more points to pass Thompson, in the third Gervin started jacking up shots and lost his rhythm. (He would finish with 49 attempts, 11 more than Skywalker had mustered, despite playing 10 fewer minutes and making five fewer shots.) With trainer Bernie LaReau keeping score by hand—and keeping Gervin abreast of his totals—Gervin says he finally hit 59 in the third before asking to stay in. “Let me get a few more in case they miscalculated,” he recalls telling Moe, though not before he received an extra boost to the finish line, courtesy of an unexpected source. “Pistol Pete was on the sideline, really encouraging me,” Gervin says. “It was like a kid being rooted on by a big brother. He was like, ‘Get ’em, Ice!’ What motivation. What respect.”
The Jazz cruised to a 153–132 win, capitalizing on San Antonio’s one-man offensive obsession. (“We killed them because [Gervin] played no defense,” Kelley says.). But the only tally anyone cared about was Gervin’s 63, which gave him a season scoring average of 27.22 and pushed him .07 points per game ahead of Thompson. With their flight home to San Antonio not scheduled until the next morning, a few Spurs hit up nearby Bourbon Street and threw back shots to toast the end of the regular season. Not Gervin—not after all those other shots he had just chucked up. “I was so tired, mentally,” he says. “I’m human. To accomplish something like that, it takes a lot out of you. I was beat.”
Midori Oishi had forgotten about the tape. Then last month the second-generation Nuggets superfan got a call from Thompson, a longtime family friend, who mentioned that a reporter was doing a story about the end of the 1977–78 season. Thompson told Oishi that her late father, Yuji, had once told him it existed. So she descended into her recently flooded basement in Denver, fished around some dusty boxes—“Like some Raiders of the Lost Ark archive stuff,” she says—and unearthed a historical relic: an audio cassette, featuring a sliver of tape on the case, onto which her father had written, simply, DT 73.
“It made me emotional,” Oishi says. “This is a tape that I never dreamed we still had. It’s been over 40 years. And the fact that I was able to find it in piles of stuff just feels like a miracle.”
Sticking the cassette into an old boombox, Oishi soon found herself listening to the second half of Albert’s radio call from Thompson’s 73-point game. “I think that may have been the only audio tape that my dad ever recorded,” Oishi says. “But I think he realized that something monumental was happening in Detroit.” (Later that night, Yuji and his wife, Masako, were among the fans who flocked to the airport to greet Thompson upon his arrival.)
Tangible evidence of the NBA’s greatest scoring duel remains in other small forms. Skinner saved a photocopy of the stat sheet (though partly because he too had a career-high point total: 27). Ellis and several other former Nuggets still cherish a plaque that Thompson gave every player as an end-of-season gift to commemorate the performance. “It was one of my greatest sports thrills,” he wrote on the plaque. “Thanks to everyone for being a part of it.”
But little else exists. Filmmaker Dan Klores exhausted every known avenue for potential video footage while producing a seven-minute short about the day for ESPN’s Basketball: A Love Story. “I went to the league. They had nothing in the library,” Klores laments. “I went to both franchises, went to the local TV stations—all over the place. Nothing.” Even audio is in short supply. “I had the tape of that game somewhere, with 63 written on the outside,” says Stembridge, the old Spurs broadcaster for WOAI 1200 AM. “I can’t find it. It disappeared.”
On some level, this bums out the two men at the center of the race. “I’ve been looking everywhere to get that game,” says Thompson, who recalls once seeing a few local news clips that an old NBA contact from Detroit sent him, but nothing more. “I’d love to have a copy.”
Adds Gervin, “It’s like a ghost game, when you think about it. As big as this game was, how is it not, in some way, recorded? That’s a big part of history missing.”
But the legacy of April 9, 1978, endures in many other ways. “Following the merger a year before, this day represented a major ABA moment of confirmation,” Albert says. “The Nuggets and San Antonio were two of the best teams in the merged NBA, but it still didn’t seem as if they were accepted. That game brought a spotlight on how great these two players were.” Indeed, aside from perhaps Julius Erving, no two ballers better reflected the offensive flair of the era still visible in scorers like Curry, Beal and others. “The 3-pointer is the game today, but we were a big part of the change,” Gervin says. “Think about it: We were a fast-paced, scoring league.”
Above all else, though, the legendary duel of Iceman vs. Skywalker lives on through the many stories told by those who were there to witness it. “At any gathering, if the right people are around, somebody will bring it up,” Silas says. One such occasion took place at the ABA’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2018. After a group dinner, dozens of alums decamped to the lobby of the Indianapolis Marriott where, as former Nuggets guard Mack Calvin recalls, a few of them, including Erving, started teasing Gervin about his lone assist against the Jazz.
“Man,” Calvin says Gervin replied, “I just had to win the title.”
Forever bonded by their big games, Gervin and Thompson have remained close over the years, too. “Most of all I want to thank George Gervin for ... well, not really beating me in that scoring race, but for bringing out the best in me,” Thompson said at the 1996 Hall of Fame ceremony when he and Gervin were fittingly honored together. Since then they have reconnected on the court at NBA legends games, on the staff of fantasy camps and at the 2003 NBA Finals in San Antonio. “My grandson was young at the time, and David developed a little friendship with him,” Gervin says. “David’s a beautiful guy, man. I’m proud to know him. We set a stage to where, if it ever happened again, you’re going to have to talk about David and Ice.”
And what happens when Gervin and Thompson talk about the games themselves?
“Well,” says Gervin, “we just laugh.”