The scene belonged in a bad television sitcom about a basketball team: the players are toweling off in the visitors' dressing room, their long faces and a heavy silence letting you know that they had lost, badly. There is a desperate need to dispel the gloom. So the superstar, the class cutup, the one with the pipe-cleaner body, close-cropped hair and stick-out ears, starts humming, quietly at first. Then as his teammates begin to crack smiles, the humming becomes full-blown Smokey Robinson.
"Mama said there'd be days like this, there'd be days like this my mama said," he sings. The others—the veteran guard, the big white kid from Minnesota, the two new centers, the rookies—join in a cacophony that is equal parts R&B and off-key Texas Country.
In comes the coach—a real white shadow, short and skinny with frizzed-up hair, a pearly grin and a high-pitched twang.
"Where the hell is Ice?" he pipes before exploding in laughter. "Ice! Four for 23! Four for 20 bleeping 3! I thought it was bad, but...."
But no, it isn't television. The place is Salt Lake City, the time last Wednesday and the San Antonio Spurs have just lost to the Utah Jazz 109-96.
"You thought it was bad?" says Ice, otherwise known as George Gervin, three times the NBA scoring champion. "I knew it was bad. Some guy in the stands kept yelling to me, '0 for 11, Ice! Two for 16, Ice!' Whew, boy." Gervin bends down and shuffles through a pile of laundry on the floor. "Anybody seen my jump shot?"
Things could have been a lot worse. The defeat was only the Spurs' first since the second game of the season, and although it had snapped an eight-game winning streak, the team still had a 9-2 record and was 3½ games ahead of Utah in the NBA's Midwest Division after less than three weeks of the season. There was still plenty of room for optimism. The Spurs had a new philosophy, a new attitude, a new coach, a new niche in the Western Conference and a new team that had, ostensibly, proved it was no fluke three nights earlier by beating the defending-champion Lakers—and in Los Angeles—108-102. Because the Lakers lost only four times on their home court in all 41 dates last season and are considered to be even stronger this time around, the Spurs could afford to laugh at the absurdity of their defeat by Utah.
To be sure, the Spurs had always been a loose bunch, playing in one of America's great fun towns, with the NBA's most fun fans. San Antonio is the home of the original Baseline Bums, who have inspired togetherness by dressing up as six-packs of beer (six Bums, that is), presenting an oversized bowl of guacamole dip ingredients to Denver Coach Larry Brown and inventing pithy chants, some of which are printable. One current favorite: "Rootie Toot Toot! Rootie Toot Toot! Who's that monkey in the referee suit?"
The Spurs have the distinction of being the only team to have gotten to the playoffs every year they've been in the NBA—they entered with the 1976 NBA-ABA merger—and in fact have made the playoffs in 12 of their 13 years of existence, and they've always entered and exited laughing, while the rest of the league has laughed even harder. First in offense, last in defense was the way the Spurs seemed to rank every year, with two superstars—Gervin, unanimously acclaimed, and Forward Larry Kenon, self-proclaimed—fighting for points and payroll dollars, and the league's most laid-back coach, Doug Moe, who could work up more sweat in an afternoon gin rummy game than in a month of Houstons, Washingtons and Philadelphias.
But by the start of this season a remarkable transformation had taken place in San Antonio. Kenon had become a free agent and fled to Chicago; the Spurs had all but packed his bags for him. Moe had been fired, and Stan Albeck—a man half Moe's size and, more important, with half Moe's ego—was at the reins. Albeck is a meticulous student of the game and a tireless worker who, at age 49, earned his shot at the big time after heroically serving time as assistant to the likes of Alex Hannum, Hubie Brown, Wilt Chamberlain (ah, the San Diego Conquistadors) and Jerry West, and spending last year as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. "You better believe I'm ready for this," he said last week before the Utah game. "With my southern Illinois twang I can pass for a Texan. I even have my authentic elephant-hide cowboy boots. Only problem is the ten-gallon hat. Can't wear one. Leaves a ring around the perm."
And suddenly Albeck had a different kind of Spurs team, a group of hardworking blue-collar types supporting one star instead of two. Gervin is as sublime a scorer as ever, and his backcourt mate, James Silas, is about 90% of what he was in his ABA days, which was the very best guard in the land. The main difference is in the front line. Where it used to be small, quick and weak in rebounding, it is now big, if slow, and strong, and it's the reason the Spurs are holding opponents to 106.3 points per game, almost 14 points better than last year, and outrebounding them by 4.2 per game. The team is a perfect example of addition by subtraction.
Replacing Kenon's 20.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and defensive liabilities, there is free agent Center George Johnson, over from the Nets with his 5.4 points, 8.1 rebounds but 42 blocked shots in 13 games. His backup is Dave Corzine, plucked from Washington's dustbin for the fire-sale price of two second-round draft picks. Now that he's finally getting to play, Corzine has consistently been among the league leaders in shooting with a .600 percentage and is scoring 10 points per game.
The strength at center has made everyone else more effective. John Shumate, the 6'9" journeyman now playing for his 16th coach in seven years, has found a home at power forward, moving bruising Mark Olberding into Kenon's old quick-forward spot. Olberding is scoring at a 13-point clip, four over his career average, and helping to clog up the area around the basket. Close-in defense used to be so porous that San Antonio opponents were practically invited in for layups.
And the reserves are something to behold. Kevin Restani, let go by Milwaukee, and Paul Griffin, once the New Orleans Jazz' mop-up man, are doing wondrous things. Restani is shooting 54% and Griffin is the team's No. 3 assist man, and both are part of a reserve unit that out-scored Los Angeles 35-13 in the second quarter of the Spurs' upset there.
Everybody with the Spurs is happy, including General Manager Bob Bass, who once coached the Spurs and three other ABA teams. One of those was the Memphis Tams, owned by Charles O. Finley. "Like Ol' Charley O once told me," says Bass, "crumbs on another man's table may be a main course on mine."
That theory has worked for the Spurs. "I sensed right away that these guys hungered for direction," says Albeck. "So the first thing I did was analyze every play in the NBA. There are about 20. Then I set up rules to defense each one."
One other stroke of genius, dreamed up by Bass and club president Angelo Drosos, is an incentive plan—an escalating scale of cash bonuses for each player that goes into effect as soon as the Spurs win 36 games, up to and including win No. 56. The deal was first negotiated on top of Gervin's base salary of $600,000. Fifty-six wins would earn Ice something like $900,000. "Then," says Bass, "we felt it wouldn't be right if one guy was whoopin' and hollerin' over a win late in the season and another guy wasn't, so we made the plan available to all the players." Figuring that what's good for the Gervin is good for the geese, everybody else joined, some actually risking a portion of their salaries to enroll in the plan. Forty-one wins is the breakeven point. After the opening-night victory at Denver, Spur players were all whoopin' and hollerin', and Griffin yelled, "One down, 81 to go."
"No," corrected Gervin. "One down, 35 to go."
The plan is working, although it should be acknowledged that with the exception of Los Angeles, San Antonio's 10 victims have a combined record of 29-62. Scouts are coming from all over the league to see them. Al Menendez of the Nets caught their victory in Seattle, whistled at their bulk and said, "Whatever happened to the old Spurs who used to wave when you went to the basket?"
Kansas City's Sam Lacey took one look at the four big white guys—Olberding, Corzine, Restani and Griffin—and said they looked like "lumberjacks." The nickname has stuck. Kings Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons added, "Those guys could pull the Budweiser wagon."
But it seemed last week that the big victory in Los Angeles on Oct. 26 had been followed by a sharp letdown. On Wednesday in Utah the Spurs fell, and on Friday they played a mediocre game in Seattle. Against the decimated Super-Sonics mediocre was good enough, however, and the Spurs became the first team in the NBA to win 10 games this season. Gervin had another bad game—17 points and he fouled out—but Silas picked up the team with 28 points. On Saturday night the Spurs took another hammering on the road, this time from Golden State 123-108. Gervin had shaken his slump and delivered 42 points, as he had promised he would that morning.
"Yeah, I told you I'd get 40," he said. "Only points don't make me no money. Only W's. Nothing but W's. From now on when I get my 40's I'm gonna make sure that we win, too."