Best Team You've Never Seen

The eyes of San Antonio may be upon the high-ridin' Spurs, but few others' are
March 08, 1982

Sometime around the start of the NBA playoffs, long after the San Antonio Spurs have galloped to their second straight Midwest Division title, America will find out that Dallas isn't the best show in Texas.

What the Spurs have that the South-fork soap opera doesn't is a star who is so good he doesn't need to rehearse and a supporting cast whose bodies are difficult to ignore and impossible to forget. Not only that, but the Spurs also have won year after year with one of the lowest payrolls in the NBA, making San Antonio's HemisFair Arena the best little poorhouse in Texas.

In the five full seasons since the ABA merged with the NBA, the Spurs have had the fourth best record in the league, have been one of only four teams in the playoffs every one of those years, have had in George Gervin a three-time NBA scoring leader, and have been the only team to have won three divisional titles. Despite those accomplishments, they have been on national television only twice in three seasons, most recently almost two years ago. Unless it had been in Boston or Los Angeles, the Alamo wouldn't have been covered by CBS, either.

Of course, one reason the Spurs are unknown is their habit of falling out of the playoffs before the NBA finals.

"We won 52 games last season, led the league in rebounding and blocked shots," Spurs Coach Stan Albeck says, "and didn't have a single guy named NBA Player of the Week. Figure that out. Yet I think the lack of attention has made us play harder."

If a desire to raise their profile hasn't inspired the Spurs, surely San Antonio's unique system of cash bonuses for regular-season wins hasn't hurt. The incentive plan—it's scaled according to a player's talent and seniority, and could earn Gervin $300,000 in addition to his base salary of $650,000—which began last season, rewards Spur players for every victory after the team's 34th and up to its 56th. San Antonio beat Golden State 143-123 last week to run its record to 35-18. With a subsequent victory over Detroit, the Spurs' Midwest Division lead was 4½ games over Houston and 7½ over Denver. "If the Rockets are going to beat us now," says Albeck, "they've got to win 18 out of their last 25 games while we play just .500 ball."

San Antonio trails only Los Angeles and Houston in team rebounding and has a stingier defense than any of the two teams ranked ahead of it in scoring. The league leaders in scoring, shot blocking and assists all wear the Spurs' silver and black. And in head-to-head competition among the six teams with the best records in the NBA at week's end, San Antonio was 8-3, better than the Bucks' 7-3, Boston's 5-6, Seattle's 4-9, Philadelphia's 4-7 and L.A.'s 7-7.

The most imposing of all those statistics belongs to Gervin—the incomparable Iceman. Gervin, who is averaging 32.8 points a game, is headed for his fourth NBA scoring title in five years, a feat unmatched by any other guard in league history. At 6'8" and 185 pounds, Gervin is as slender and deadly as a bowie knife. His thighs are so scrawny that his uniform shorts look bell-bottomed, and yet he insists that regular fixes of wheat-germ oil and bee pollen keep him strong. "He's amazingly bony," backup Center Dave Corzine says. "I've run into him a few times in practice and it hurts like hell. Ice is quite capable of taking care of himself."

Gervin's face never sheds its mask of inscrutability, and it's fitting that when he cocks his arms to shoot, his shoulders remain so stooped that his body, viewed in profile, assumes a shape very much like a question mark. Gervin has been something of a mystery ever since he left the playgrounds on the east side of Detroit. After graduating from Martin Luther King High School, he played two seasons at Eastern Michigan University, averaging 26.8 points a game and leading the Hurons to the NCAA college-division semifinals in 1972. It was at that tournament that Gervin sucker-punched Jay Piccola of Roanoke College. "I hated that it happened," Gervin says now, "but it turned out to be a positive thing because my whole career began after that." Gervin was declared ineligible for the 1972-73 season by the NCAA because of a testing irregularity, and he wound up playing for $500 a month for the Pontiac (Mich.) Chapparels of the Continental Basketball League. "I was earning a living and I had my own car," Gervin says. "I was happy."

Gervin sees his successes as a logical progression. "I proved I could do it to the high school guys and then I did it to the college guys. There wasn't nothing left but the pros," he says. Gervin was discovered in Pontiac by the Virginia Squires of the ABA during the 1972-73 season, and he kept on doing it after he was traded to San Antonio the next season. Still, perhaps because of his unmagical demeanor, Gervin's name is often added to the list of the NBA's best players as a mere afterthought.

"We are only as good as he makes us," Albeck says. "There's no one in the league who can stop him one-on-one. Most coaches would kill for a guy who can score 22, 23 points a game, and Ice does that in a quarter." Two weeks ago Gervin broke out of a mild shooting slump by making 22 of 29 field-goal attempts for a season-high 49 points against Detroit—in just 33 minutes.

It's useless to shade Gervin to one side defensively because he can shoot with either hand. His long stride and deceptive gait make up for a lack of quickness. "He could get open while standing still," Houston Coach Del Harris once said. Gervin is the most adept practitioner of the bank shot since the Celtics' Sam Jones, though he prefers to slither down the lane for one of his double-pump Ice pick specials. "My best shot is a layup," he says, "and that's what I strive for. But I'm able to shoot the other shots." And Van Gogh could paint a little. Gervin belongs with Julius Erving and David Thompson, on those rare occasions when Thompson flashes his old form, as one of the most exciting performers in the game—even if few recognize it. "If you aren't ready to play," Thompson says, "he'll set a record on you."

Two seasons ago the Indiana Pacers promoted a home game by highlighting the matchup between Gervin and Dudley Bradley, whom the Pacers were then billing as the Secretary of Defense and who, according to the Indiana publicists, was going to "melt the Iceman." Gervin scored 55 against Bradley that night, on a dizzying array of shots. Bradley later mumbled something about having "at least held him to 28 in the first half." One Spur says dryly, "The only way to stop Ice is to hold practice."

Whatever the reason, Gervin is habitually late for workouts and sometimes doesn't show up at all. On most teams that might lead to dissension but the Spurs don't seem to mind. The only real problem caused by Gervin's absenteeism occurred this season between late December and mid-February, when San Antonio had only 10 healthy players on the roster. Forward Paul Griffin went down with a knee injury and another forward, Kevin Restani, was waived. Owner Angelo Drossos let Restani go despite Griffin's injury and didn't replace him for almost two months. The results of this penny-pinching were often comical. When Gervin was AWOL from a San Antonio shootaround in Los Angeles several weeks back, Albeck was forced to use trainer John Andersen to play the part of Laker Forward Kurt Rambis in practice. Andersen just may be a better player than Rambis, but it was an inconvenience nonetheless.

The following week Gervin missed two more practices, but during that period he laid waste to Detroit with his 49-point effort and had 38 in a 126-121 victory at Denver. After Gervin missed three games because of an injury earlier this season, he returned with no practice and scored 47 points against Seattle. "He shows up and plays every night," says Albeck. "He's not like a lot of guys who miss practice and then go into the can in the game." Albeck has frequently fined Gervin and even appointed him team captain to give him a sense of responsibility, all to little avail.

"If we're going bad," Forward Mark Olberding says, "Ice will be there to work on his game. But the guy really doesn't need to practice to get his timing down. He can get 40 points any time he wants to."

"If Ice isn't there," Corzine says, "we know it's because he's got more important things to do."

No matter how it may sound, the Spurs are far more disciplined these days than they were from 1976-77 to 1979-80 under Doug Moe, who's now head coach at Denver. Albeck was hired last season and brought with him a 70-page playbook and some very firm ideas about defense. "We just started with the premise that they didn't know anything," Albeck says. "They liked that." With the addition of the beefy Corzine in the middle, the Spurs were transformed from a finesse team to a combination of fire and Ice. The Bruise Brothers (Corzine, Olberding, George Johnson and Griffin, augmented this season by rookie Gene Banks) set picks for Gervin and then hammered the opposition on the boards. "Mark and I think of ourselves as enforcers," Corzine says. "If somebody takes a shot at Ice, they're going to have to pay the next time they run through one of our screens. We also feel it's a reflection on a lot of other people when George scores 40 points. When he pops open for a shot, you feel like you're part of that."

Corzine also brought some needed scoring when he was picked up from Washington, where he'd been a bench warmer for two seasons. His 9.8 points a game make up for Johnson, the starting center, who averages more blocked shots (a league-leading 3.27) a game than he does points (2.8). At 6'11" and 220 pounds, Johnson is too skinny to be anything more than an honorary member of the Brothers. Last week Johnson was recovering from a broken nose. Someone once suggested to Albeck that Johnson, whose every offensive foray is an adventure, may be the league's first 70% dunker. "More like 50%," Albeck replied. "There's only a 20% chance he's going to catch the ball in the first place."

The Spurs' other statistical leader is Point Guard Johnny Moore, whose 9.6 assists per game lead the NBA. Two seasons ago the Spurs cut Moore, whereupon he returned to his alma mater, the University of Texas, to become a graduate assistant coach. Last season San Antonio gave him a second look and Moore quickly blossomed into the Spurs' best passer. When longtime star James Silas was traded to Cleveland during the off-season, Moore was handed the playmaking job. Moore also has the best assist-to-turnover ratio among the NBA's top 10 playmakers. He generates 4.38 assists for every turnover he commits, compared to the Lakers' Earvin Johnson, who turns the ball over once for every 2.39 assists. Moore, who has played 530 fewer minutes than Johnson this season, has 11 more total assists.

With Moore on hand, the one item left on Albeck's shopping list was a small forward capable of averaging 20 points. "We looked at the other top teams," Albeck says, "and they all had a forward who could get them 20 points every night." Reggie Johnson, the Spurs' incumbent at that position, scored 10.2 points a game last season, and Olberding "didn't want the offensive pressure," according to Albeck. Banks was averaging more than seven points a game but wasn't ready to start, so in December when Cleveland dangled Forward Mike Mitchell and Guard Roger Phegley in exchange for Ron Brewer, who was Gervin's backup, and Johnson, the Spurs leaped at the deal. Brewer, however, was no ordinary backup; he was San Antonio's second-leading scorer and when Gervin was injured, he scored 39, 40 and 44 points in consecutive games.

Albeck, who had coached Mitchell in Cleveland two seasons ago, says Mitchell is just now beginning to shake off the effects of the Cavs' non-stop losing. "I had lost my enthusiasm for the game," admits Mitchell, who reported to San Antonio 10 pounds overweight. "After a while in Cleveland everybody was just expecting to lose."

There aren't any such attitude problems in San Antonio, which is wild about its Spurs. The Sound of the Spurs, a countrified pop band, gets things rocking before each home game, and then the dreaded Baseline Bums take over. There are several qualifications for membership in the Bums, one of which is the ability to drink for at least an hour and still be able to cheer unbelievable obscenities from a semiupright position. One of the things the Bums enjoy most is dressing up for Spurs' games. When Phoenix Center Alvan Adams accused Gervin of breaking his nose with a deliberate punch earlier this season—films couldn't confirm Adams' charge—the Bums showed up for the Suns' next San Antonio appearance with white tape across the bridges of their noses and black makeup under their bloodshot eyes. Slightly less subtle was the Bums' annual Halloween costume parade several years ago, when one of the Bumettes of a particularly religious bent (or a particularly bent religion) came as a pregnant nun. And the Bums have other nasty habits, such as getting themselves so badly hung over at Saturday night Bums' debauches that they are in no shape for the Spurs' Sunday afternoon games. "Those people don't stop throwing up until about one o'clock in the afternoon," Spurs P.A. announcer Pat Tallman says.

For now the Spurs seem content to bask in the beery adoration of the Bums and let the rest of the country go its own way. As Gervin points out, if the Spurs can avoid their regular early disappearance in the playoffs this year, CBS cannot be far behind. "Hey, they're going to come to us if we win," the Iceman says. "They ain't got no choice."

PHOTOAlthough a rough customer, Olberding is no slouch at the subtler aspects of the game. PHOTOGervin, the lean point machine, is shooting for his fourth scoring title in five years.
PHOTODuring visitors' intros, the Bums, ever eager to stay abreast of the news, read the papers. PHOTOWhile bruising Corzine cleans the boards, Brother Banks releases to start the break. PHOTOJohnson leads the free world in blocks.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)