Marty, the motorcycle cop, unholsters his .41 Smith & Wesson and sets it down on the bench so he can play one-on-one. Bowie, the golden Labrador retriever, makes a puddle in the center circle. George, the star player, wears suede moccasins, bites into an orange and heaves the ball dead into the basket from a concrete walkway. Doug, the coach, itches to leave "this incredible hysteria of practice" so he can make his starting time on the first tee. Is this any way to run a contender? Well, circle the wagons, boys, here come the San Antonio Spurs.
Besides being the surprising runaway leader in the NBA's Central Division and the not so surprising quintessential representative of the old ABA, if the San Antonio Spurs are not the most outlandish, disorganized, laid-back and down-to-the-rootsiest fun team to watch in the whole wide universe, then Speedy Gonzales will eat his sombrero right there in the middle of the Baseline Bums cheering section.
That is a distinct possibility on practically every night that George (The Iceman) Gervin, Larry (Special K) Kenon, Billy (Big Whopper) Paultz and Mike (Philly Dog) Gale, among the other amazing Spurs you have not seen on television this ratings period, begin their frenzied—or is it studied?—attack on the hallowed traditions of the pro game. Rebounding and defense, the two stone pillars upon which successful franchises are thought to be constructed, are mere bagatelles in San Antonio. Which is to say the Spurs seldom remember to catch anything that misses or guard anything that moves. Scouting and a solid college draft are virtually ignored—only one man (Forward Mark Olberding) remains from the club's 11 years of drafting.
In addition, the Spurs are tall but not strong. They are quick but not fast. They have a converted center at forward, a converted forward at backup center and another converted forward at guard. The Spurs live off free agents and waiver-clearers and traded-aways, many of whom make enough mindless errors to send their coach, Doug Moe, wailing all the way to the golf course, not to mention to the dogs. (Moe co-owns a pair of greyhounds with Denver Nugget Coach Larry Brown.) Yet when this fascinating conglomeration of heads-down operators is running and gunning, which it usually is; when the Spurs are leading the league in scoring as well as shooting from both the field and the foul line, which they usually are; when they are scattering around like illegal aliens on a jalape‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±o hunt and filling the nets and the seats and stunning everybody with their passing and ball movement and irrepressible, Remember-the-Alamo-by-damn hustle, there is no team in basketball more dangerous to play against. As Gervin says, "Whereas the Spurs' gig is havin' fun, otherwise the Spurs be comin' atcha."
You figure it out.
As the Iceman cometh, of course, the Spurs goeth. Having struggled early in the season, San Antonio suddenly won 18 of 22 games as Gervin shot 63% from mostly way out and way overhead. The streak began when skinny, sometime Forward Mike Green, who was acquired from Seattle in November, was installed at backup center, which enabled 6'11" Coby Dietrick to move into the starting lineup at forward. The Spurs' resurgence propelled them into first place by a margin that had grown to 6½ games at the end of last week. In one stretch, they put together an 11-out-of-12 win streak, the last game of which will live in the hearts of Texans forever. The Spurs were losing to the Golden State Warriors by 13 points at the conclusion of three quarters in Oakland and Gervin had been held to nine points. In the fourth period, however, the Iceman made 10 of 12 shots and scored 23 points, including the basket that sent the game into overtime. Ice then scored five more points and the Spurs won 131-122. In the locker room all the upstart visitors could do was laugh and laugh.
Gervin has not confined his escapades to the West Coast. In New York he connected on 14 of 20 and scored 35 points. In Kansas City he made 19 of 25 and finished with 42. Then to show the home folks what he could do, Ice threw 17 for 18 (37 total points) all over the Chicago Bulls' bewildered heads. Run that by again? Seventeen for 18. One miss. One. Moe took him out for the whole last quarter. Was Ice hot about that? "Naw, man," Gervin says. "Whereas I ain't hungry, whereas it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Otherwise Ice be cool."
Despite such dazzling statistics and All-Star Game appearances in both his years in the NBA, George Gervin still is the most unknown great player in basketball. This has a little to do with a lot of things, including Gervin's ABA pedigree, a relaxed, low-profile manner and playing in a pleasant, unpretentious, outskirts-of-the-media town like San Antonio.
In contrast to its outrageous daily yellow journals—WINE JUG THUG IN SIXTH HI-JACK, Two TOTS: BLAZING DEATH, scream the headlines—owned by Australian press lord Rupert Murdoch, San Antonio appears to take its heroes in stride. Even though pro basketball is the only real game in town, the suspicion lingers that the local gentry would more readily recognize another Australian in their midst—John Newcombe, who spends half the year at his tennis ranch down the road—than they would Iceman Gervin.
"Whereas I never went fly like some of the boys," says Gervin. "I'm conservative. I got the short hair, the pencil 'stache, the simple clothes. Plus I'm 6'8", 183—no, make that 185—and when you look at me all you see is bone. Otherwise in Detroit I'm known as Twig according to my physique. I just do my thing and stay consistent. I figure the people be recognizing the Iceman pretty soon now. Whereas I be up there in a minute."
In an attempt to run something up the flagpole, local publicity merchants had the felicitous idea of nicknaming Gervin's 18-month-old son, George Jr., Ice Cube and—are you ready for this?—a still-to-be-born child Icicle. Though this gimmick produced some national ink, at home it didn't wash. "Hay back and keep hearing 'Cube, Cube,' but my boy is just G Junior to me," says Gervin, "whereas although if the new baby is a girl, I may have to call her Snowflake."
Out of a broken home in the ghetto of Detroit's east side, Gervin made "all E's" in high school and then went off to spend a few hours at Long Beach State under Jerry Tarkanian, before transferring to Eastern Michigan, where he led the Hurons to the NCAA college tournament in Evansville and concluded his college career with a one-punch knockout of Jay Piccola of Roanoke College. "Whereas the cat bowled me, so I got up fast and he went down faster. Boom. TKO," explains Ice, laughing. But back then the incident resulted in EMU Coach Jim Dutcher announcing that he would quit the profession (he is now at Minnesota) and Gervin dropping out of school.
The Iceman traces his path to the NBA this way: "I played with the semipro Pontiac Capperals in Pontiac, Mich., for seven months until I was discovered by the great Johnny, Red, Kerr—Yeah—who signed me for the Virginia Squires where my pro career was begun and where I played with the great Julius, Doctor J, Erving, for a year and then was traded to San Antonio which I didn't know what it was. I remember the Capperals like it was yesterday because I was with the old vets, copin'. Yeah. And I was thrivin' on that. Uh-huh."
Being a contemporary and onetime teammate of Dr. J as well as having similar abilities (Gervin lacks only Erving's strength), the Iceman has suffered the inevitable comparisons. There was the famous ABA dunk contest that Erving won while Gervin was missing three of five slammers, including his unique "afterthought dunk" wherein Ice glides by the rim one way while reaching back and—boinnnnng—tomahawking the ball the other. "The afterthought be tough, yeah," says Ice. Then there was the bitter 1976 ABA playoff series won by Erving's New York Nets over Gervin's Spurs, 4 games to 3.
But in the 1¾ seasons since Moe switched Gervin to the backcourt (to recover the scoring lost when Guard James Silas injured his knee), the Iceman has proved, says teammate Paultz, that "he can do some things not even the Doc can do."
Last season, while adjusting to his new position, Gervin shot 54% (fourth best in the NBA) and scored 23 points a game (ninth best), but he took too many bad shots and made too many offensive fouls while being frustrated by the terrible physical pounding he experienced every night. In the playoffs the Celtics' Charlie Scott chopped up Gervin unmercifully. This year the Iceman has cut down on his fouls and his preposterous prayer shots. He is scoring 27 a game (second only to Pete Maravich), shooting 55%, seeing the floor better, passing more and even playing occasional one-man zone defense out high.
Now in the crunch Moe holds up four fingers. The Spurs have so consistently mastered their 1-4 alignment—an offense developed for Silas but now the property of Gervin, who does a passable impression of Roger Staubach fading back into the shotgun—-that cynics say the coach could cut off his thumb and still direct the entire San Antonio playbook.
As his moniker implies, Gervin does all this marvelous stuff while appearing to be in a deep coma—face expressionless, eyelids drooping, the Iceman to the letter. "Make him work, he's not even working," Atlanta Hawk Coach Hubie Brown yelled at the referees the other night when Gervin received the benefit of a disputable foul call. But that is precisely Gervin's gig. It is difficult to distinguish between when he is pushing hard and when he is sleeping on the job, so smooth and graceful are his movements, so complete his insouciance. Gervin's explosive first step to the bucket and gliding style also nicely cover up another secret: Ice may be one of the slowest runners in the NBA.
"Whereas I ain't too fast, here to there," Gervin says, "my gig is zigzaggin'."
"To stop Ice you beat Ice up," says Spur Guard George Karl. "That worked in the past. But now he knows he's going to get slapped and bumped every time he goes for the shot, so it doesn't bother him. Norm Van Lier roughed him up so bad the last couple of times that Ice went for twin 37s against the Bulls. It's a joke. The man is just toying with the whole NBA."
The Spurs' inaugural season in the NBA was highlighted by some fairly ridiculous inconsistencies; the team did things like whip the 76ers three out of four and lose four straight to Atlanta. Then, too, it was known around the league that the new boys from the old ABA could be intimidated and that if you got them down they weren't likely to come back.
All of that seemed in the Dark Ages last week when the Spurs proved how tough an opponent they have become—even when their Iceman is a-melting.
In a 118-114 overtime defeat by Portland and a 118-105 victory over Atlanta, Gervin fell into a shooting slump and missed 25 of 41 shots while receiving his standard double- and triple-teaming. Against Portland, San Antonio dropped behind by as many as 15 points in the first half and 12 in the second—formerly the club's point of no return—only to come roaring back to tie the contest and gain possession of the ball with 25 seconds left.
"I consider the game won when Ice has his hands on the ball in that situation," says Paultz. But, working from the 1-4 against Corky Calhoun, Gervin backed and sidled and slid to 23 feet, let the ball go too soon and missed the shot that would have meant San Antonio's second straight licking of the world champions.
Two nights later the Spurs were jingling and jangling when the ghost of James Silas past—who when healthy was the finest backcourt man in the ABA—appeared and scored 15 points in 17 minutes while his teammates were blocking 12 shots in the rout of the Hawks. The Spurs closed out the week by blowing a 24-point lead over Cleveland before Gervin threw in two late slingshot jumpers and two free throws to preserve a 112-108 victory. En route, the Iceman ended his shooting famine by converting 14 of 23 shots and scoring 36 points on a variety of spins and twists that needed to be seen to be appreciated.
This is not so easy.
CBS, which showcased the Spurs no less than eight times last season, has not televised a single San Antonio contest this winter, though one will be aired this Sunday. But with the rejuvenated Silas and the elegant Gervin providing fire and ice; with Kenon having another monster season (the former Net forward is averaging 20 points a game); with a maniacal offensive bench consisting of shooters like Allan Bristow, Lou Dampier and Green; and with Moe trying desperately to concentrate while his greyhound Blockwork runs him into the next tax bracket, the Spurs surely must be at least as attractive a television concept as strong men carrying refrigerators around on their backs.
Last week, in a wide-ranging interview that consumed at least 15 seconds, Gervin explained the phenomenon in Texas. "Now irregardless of where this team is goin' sometimes," he said, "whereas we can go anywhere and play the same gig and, otherwise, win most of the places. Yeah."
Which is the Iceman's way of announcing that otherwise the San Antonio Spurs be comin' atcha. Uh-huh.