When George Gervin retired from the NBA, his four scoring titles were only surpassed by Wilt Chamberlain. After beginning his career with the Virginia Squires of the ABA, Gervin would be traded to the San Antonio Spurs to become one of the most prolific and entertaining scorers in basketball history. Along with players such as Julius Erving and David Thompson, Gervin was a pioneer of creative style in basketball.
Where did the nickname Iceman come from?
Roland “Fatty” Taylor gave me that nickname. I’m from Detroit, so I wore gator shoes all the time. I wore a big suit. I drove a Cadillac, because that was the environment I grew up in. In the inner city, I’m around hustlers and pimps, and I’m walking around with my eyes wide open, saying, “Wow, these guys look sharp!” So Fatty started calling me Iceberg Slim, and I didn’t like it, because I knew that Iceberg Slim was a pimp. There wasn’t nothing pimpish about me, and he understood that because he was from DC, and he grew up in a similar environment. So he said, “I like Ice though, so I’m going to start calling you Iceman.” And then the way I played the game too. Fatty would say, “You score 30 and you don’t even sweat.” Man, I weighed 185 pounds!
Detroit was a tumultuous place in the 1960s. Was it tough growing up there?
I was born in 1952 to a single parent. My mom raised all six of us—four boys and two girls. Being raised by a single parent in the ’50s and ’60s, it may have been difficult for her, but the way she took care of us, it made it seem like we weren’t poor. She gave us the values, morals and principles to understand what it takes to grow up. She was all about education. One of her primary goals was for us to stay in school. When you read, you get to understand things and see the bigger picture. She always wanted us to have better opportunities.
Where did you develop a love for basketball?
My older brothers, Booker and Claude Gervin, they took to it, and I followed in their footsteps. Booker and Claude were always having competitions with one another. Who could do the most sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups? As a young man, they were my heroes, because they could do 500 sit-ups, maybe 40 push-ups. I couldn’t do three of them (laughs). At that age, they understood what it took to be an athlete. But I didn’t start playing organized basketball until I was 13 or 14, when I joined a church league.
That seems late for someone with your ability.
People don’t realize, when I was a freshman in high school, I was 5-foot-9. Then as a sophomore, I shot up to 6-foot-6! So at 5-foot-9, I could dribble. I could do things, but I was so small, I couldn’t finish the layups. Fortunately, I had a coach named Willie Merriweather. He was the assistant coach. He started working with me on my footwork. The next year, when I came in at 6-foot-6, they couldn’t believe it, but I still had those ball handling skills. Now I could dunk, handle it with both hands, and shoot.
Because you started out smaller, is that why you developed your legendary finger roll shot?
Wilt Chamberlain had a version of the finger roll, but it was called the dipper. He’d flip the ball down into the hoop. Connie Hawkins had it too. He’d fly above the rim and just flip it. Julius Erving would leap with that big afro flying in the breeze and flip it in. I took a piece from each of those guys, made it my own, and made it famous. I would do it from different angles. I like to say that everyone can dunk… but not everyone can finger roll! (laughs). Just think, there’s two shots in the history of the game that as soon as you say it, you think of one player—the sky hook is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And the finger roll is George Gervin.
You had an extraordinary repertoire of shots. Only a true gym rat could have perfected so many different shots. How did you do it?
In high school, there was a janitor named Mr. Winters. He would let me stay there and use the gym after school, as long as I swept up afterward. I would be there alone for three hours a day—just me and my imagination. I wasn’t thinking I was going to be a great player. I was just in love with basketball. So I’de use my left hand, my right hand. I was creative at a young age, but I also had the fundamentals because Coach Merriweather gave me the foundation.
You were one of Detroit’s best players in your senior year of high school. Did you think you’d become a pro?
Never! When I was in college, I was producing. I was averaging 30 points a game at Eastern Michigan. I got into a fight in my sophomore year, and got kicked off the team. So I withdrew from school and went to play in a semi-pro league for a team called the Pontiac Chapparals. I was playing on the weekends against grown men—guys that didn’t make it to the NBA, but loved the game. It was all about being at the right place at the right time to get that shot.
Is that where Hall of Famer Johnny Kerr discovered you?
It was perfect. I was averaging 38 points a game there. Another guy named Justice Thigpen was averaging 37 or 38. What made Johnny Kerr come see me play that day? I don’t know. Maybe he came to see me? Someone else? I don’t know. That game, I think I scored 50. Kerr called Earl Foreman, the owner of the Virginia Squires of the ABA. Foreman flew in me and Sonny Vaccaro, who was representing me at the time. They had me shoot around, and signed me on the same day.
We’ve heard so many stories about what a strange wonderful place the ABA was to play. What was it like for you?
It was like heaven. I had the pleasure of starting my rookie career with a guy named Dr. J.—Julius Erving—and he was Mr. ABA. Doc took me under his wing and helped me build up my confidence to the point where he made me feel like I belonged. After our regular practice, me and Doc used to play one-on-one against each other all the time. I would try to go to the locker room, and Doc would say, “Hey, Rook! Where you going?” Well, I’m about to go get changed. “No way, Rook, we’re not through yet,” and he’d throw me the ball. That was the challenge. And we’d go at it. We did this for weeks.
It’s a shame there is no film of this—two of the greatest one-on-one players of all time battling each other.
The first week, I was scared to death. I’m going against the best player in the league. Up close, I could see why he was the best. So now, I have a chance to play him, and one-on-one was my thing! Once I was able to get past the ooohs and aahs, I could settle in and compete against him. And people always ask me, “Well who won?” Well, he won! Then I won! I was fundamentally sound, and I could shoot the jumper. Once I could see his strengths—getting around you and dunking on you—I was able to adjust. I would set you up with the jumper and then go around you. The great ones can put it on the floor and score, then back up and shoot it. In my day, guys like Roger Brown and David Thompson could do it. Later on, of course, there was Michael Jordan.
The game has changed so much since then.
My goodness! Guys could hold you! They could just stick their arm out and stop your forward progress. And I was a skinny guy, 185 pounds. And I’m going up against guys that are 220 pounds and much stronger than me. I really needed to have the footwork and skills to deal with guys that were much stronger. That’s why I say, only guys in an era can say how great guys are in that era, because they knew what that era was like! They set the NBA up now like college, and I understand why. But they say guys today are so much more talented than the guys from yesterday, and that’s just not true. Today, it’s more entertainment. That’s what the league is selling, and nothing is wrong with that. But don’t take away from the history of the game and the way it was played.
Who are the guys from your era that are unappreciated?
George McGinnis! They saw George McGinnis at his worst when he was in Philly! Big George was something special! And he gets no credit! He’s not even in the Hall of Fame! That’s crazy to me, because I know how talented he was! Thank goodness Mel Daniels got in. There were so many great players that were overlooked because there were two leagues, and the guys in the ABA weren’t being seen. No one talks about David Thompson anymore! Bobby Jones! You want to talk about defense? TR Dunn! Movin’ Marvin Barnes! I’m talking about guys that would play the game with passion, skills and talent. Artis Gilmore just got into the Hall of Fame, and he was one of the most dominant big men to ever to play the game! It’s ridiculous!
I’ve been told by several players, many of whom had to guard you both that you and a young James Silas in San Antonio may have been the best backcourt in basketball at that time in either the ABA or NBA.
James was scary good, man! I understood my role because James was with the Spurs before me. Nobody could do nothing with us! He was so valuable down the stretch, that they called him Captain Late! He was going to back you down and either shoot over you or get a free throw, and he ain’t missed a free throw yet! And it’s 2016! (laughs). I remember one game against Washington, we were losing by a point, and he got fouled with no time left. I walked into the locker room, because I knew the game was over! No way we are losing with James Silas on the free throw line!
Speaking of the Spurs, you learned the business of basketball early when your contract was sold from Virginia to San Antonio in the NBA.
It was so confusing. I was still young. Earl Foreman sold my contract to the San Antonio Spurs while I was on the road in Utah with the Virginia Squires. I kept getting telegrams from Angelo Drossos saying that I was now the property of the San Antonio Spurs, I didn’t belong to Virginia anymore, and I was not to play in tonight’s game. I’m only 21 years old at the time. I hope all the guys playing today get involved in the business side, so they understand it. So I called my agent, Irwin Weiner, who was also Dr. J’s agent. And he said, “It’s true, it’s all legit.” So the Spurs flew me down and put me up at the Hilton Del Rio. And I couldn’t play until they had the court case, because Earl Foreman tried to rescind the trade, and Angelo Drossos said no. They took it to a Texas court, and (laughs) there was no way Angelo Drossos was going to lose a court case in Texas. So a month later I was able to practice and play with the team.
What’s your craziest memory of playing with the Spurs?
Indiana had a rookie named Dudley Bradley, and he was supposed to be Mr. Defense. I was coming into town, so the Pacers had a promotion—hold Gervin under 30 points and everyone gets free McDonald’s. Well, I broke the record for that arena. I scored 55. When I walked out of there, I said, “No one eats for free on Ice! (laughs).
Here’s one other thing that no one ever mentions. You were part of the very first slam dunk competition with the ABA in 1976.
It was me, Doc, David Thompson, Larry Kenon and Artis Gilmore. Now I could dunk, but why was I there when they had Doc and David Thompson? I guess me, Larry and Artis were fill-ins. I tried to get them to take a guy on our team named Henry Ward, who was about 6-foot-4 and could jump out of the gym. I mean, I could dunk, but I ain’t no dunker. But what I am so appreciative of is that we were part of what would become the amazing All-Star Weekend that we have today. And we owe that to the brainstorming of Angelo Drossos and Carl Scheer, the president of the Denver Nuggets—the two innovators who put that together. If I remember right, we had All-Stars playing the Denver Nuggets that year.
It’s amazing how much that event in 1976 has changed the culture of the game.
That’s what made me feel good about my contribution to the league. We were the foundation for what was to come. ESPN hadn’t come in yet, so people didn’t see these great players. Basketball was on TV one time a week on CBS. We had tape- delayed playoff games! And even when we were on TV, it was always Boston and Philadelphia.
So how did it feel after the merger, when the Spurs joined the NBA? Usually, the league forms an expansion team, but you were already a team.
It felt great. We had one goal—to prove to the NBA fans that we belonged. And after one season, check to see how many ABA guys were in the All-Star game! I give Bill Russell a lot of credit. He used to bring his teams down to play the ABA teams in preseason. He knew there was a lot of talent there, and the only way we would be seen is if we played against NBA teams. Russell likes to tell this story about how when he was coaching the Seattle Supersonics, he would ask his players, “Who’s down there playing on San Antonio?” And they would say, “Nobody.” So when he sees me, he says, “This guy was nobody. Then he has 40 at halftime.” (laughs) But he was the type of guy to recognize the talent we had in the ABA and that there was more opportunity for jobs.
How did the game change with the ABA/NBA merger?
I still believe the ABA injected a different spirit into the league to help it grow. Everyone says Bird and Magic is what made the NBA what it is today. But I know it’s not true. I know it was the ABA merger. It gave the NBA four more teams with nothing but talent—Indiana, Denver, San Antonio and the Nets. We brought so much energy to the league and it changed all of our careers. It put us on a national stage bigger than the one we had in the ABA. Without that change, the league was moving too slow. That’s my opinion, and I’m biased, because I’m an ABA guy. I do think it’s fair to say that though guys like Earl Monroe and Pete Maravich may have been the initial guys to bring flair to the game, it was players like me, Julius Erving and David Thompson who took the creativity to an entirely different level. We brought fans out of their seats because of something creative we did on the floor. I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me through the years to tell me how I entertained them. When you make a special move on a guy, and people say, “How did he do that?” It’s special. But a lot of people never got to see it. Do you know that when I battled David Thompson for my first scoring title, there’s no film of it!
Wait, the most famous last day of a season in NBA history in 1978, when David Thompson scored 73 points to go ahead of you in the scoring race, and you scored 63 to win the title. There’s no video of that anywhere?
Nothing! I was supposed to play at the same time that he did. But for some reason, we ended up playing at night. That day, he’s in my hometown of Detroit scoring 73 points! I led the league in scoring for the entire season up to that game. When it happened, reporters are calling me up at the hotel, waking me up from a nap, saying, “Ice, David Thompson scored 73 points. You need 59.” Fortunately for me, David Thompson’s coach was Larry Brown. My coach was Doug Moe. Larry and Doug were best friends, but they were competitors. My coach said, “I’m not just letting this happen.” So Doug Moe tells the team in the locker room, “Look, we already made the playoffs. We know where we’re going to play. They set it up to get David the scoring title. What do you guys think? Can we help Ice get 59?” They said, “No problem.”
It must have felt great to have that support from your team.
It was a heck of a feeling for me, because I always had nothing but respect for my teammates. I could play with guys and still score 30 points. I didn’t have to shoot 30 times to get 30. I tried to be a team guy. Fortunately, my guys cared about me and wanted to see me do it. I missed my first six shots that game. I told my teammates, “We ain’t gotta worry about this no more.” They were like, “C’mon, Ice! Let’s do it.” They are setting picks for me, getting me the ball. I got 20 in the first quarter. Second quarter, I start hitting everything! I score 33 in the second quarter, which was the NBA record until about a year ago. That’s with no three pointers! I ended up getting 63 in 33 minutes. I knew I could score with the best of them that ever played.
In that game you ended up sitting out part of the third and all the fourth quarter and still had 63. What was it like to see that record for a quarter broken?
Klay Thompson broke the record with 37 points, but he needed nine three-pointers to do it. I didn’t feel like he broke my record. I felt like he set his own record. Well people didn’t like it when I said that, but it’s only common sense. And I don’t take anything away from Klay Thompson, because he was perfect. He had a special game, the same way I had a special game. The beautiful thing that happened was that I ended up meeting Klay in New York City during All-Star Weekend with his dad. I had played against his dad, Mychal Thompson. And he told his son, “Don’t get caught up! Because that brother over there, no one played like he played.” (laughs) And Klay was so beautiful, he came up to me and said, “Mr. Gervin, I didn’t break your record.” I said, “Young man, don’t get caught up in all that.” And that night, the record went out the window for me. Because it was all about him understanding who I was. He showed me so much love, and he came and honored me. So nothing could get in between us after that. As athletes, that’s all we want is to be respected and appreciated for what we accomplished, especially by another athlete.
Was it a shock when you were traded to the Chicago Bulls after such an incredible run in San Antonio?
I understood the business part of it. For me, it was a bad choice. I could have stayed. Cotton Fitzsimmons was the coach, and he was old school. We had Alvin Robertson and Johnny Moore, two young bucks that should have started. I realize that now in hindsight. But it was the way Cotton came to me and told me, “These are my two guards! They’re starting!” Not appreciating being talked to like that, they had to trade me. Angelo Drossos, the owner, pulled me aside and said “GG, I don’t want you to go.” I was going to make $800,000 that year. He said, “If you retire, I’ll give you $400,000 this year and $400,000 next year.” And I still wanted to play. It was probably one of the worst decisions I made as a pro by leaving and going to Chicago. If Cotton had said, “George, what would be best for me and the team is to put these two young guys out there and let them wear people out. Then you come in and put numbers on the board.” I probably would have said, “No problem, coach.” But he didn’t come to me like that, so it created a bad situation. I never told that story to anyone before.
You were coming to the Bulls at a strange time. Michael Jordan was becoming a star, but he was injured for most of the season.
Michael was definitely coming into his own, but he broke his foot, and he had to sit out most of the year. So he got a chance to see the Iceman of old up close! He was able to see some of those big games where I had 30 at halftime. He would make fun of me, because I’d score 30 at halftime and end up with 35, and Michael would say, “Did you get tired old man?” (laughs). Mike would needle me all the time. At that point, I knew I was done. I was going to play the year out and be done with NBA basketball. So I had the chance to start with Dr. J and finish with Michael Jordan. Pretty amazing, right? I appreciated the opportunity to play with Michael. His potential was scary as a second year pro. That was one guy who played just as hard in practice as he did in the game. In practice, I’d say “Slow down, young man!” And he’d say, “Go sit down, old man” (laughs). He did not like to lose! I didn’t know how great he would become, but I have nothing but respect for him.
You recently did a Gatorade commercial with Dwyane Wade. Did that help a new generation discover the Iceman?
It gave me a stage so that people who watched me play could tell a younger generation who I was. I got a chance to spend time with Dwyane Wade, who is such a beautiful young man. He was so respectful to the history of the game. I’m thankful to Gatorade and my friend Paul Corliss who put that all together. It was a perfect fit: Gatorade Frost and the Iceman!
What are you most proud of in your life outside the game?
What’s special to me is that when I retired, I came home to work with the San Antonio Spurs in community relations. I had the opportunity to bring my sister Barbara down with me. I was the product of different afterschool programs, because my mom put us in programs, and it helped us become what we were. So I started the George Gervin Youth Center, where we started afterschool programs for kids. We grew and then we built the George Gervin Academy. I started the charter school over 21 years ago. When I was younger, I didn’t appreciate the value of education the way my mom tried to instill it in me. In those 21 years, I’ve graduated over 1,000 kids. I have 1,700 kids in my charter school this year. We have created several other programs in San Antonio, including a house for teenage pregnant runaway girls. We’ve built retirement homes for low-income seniors. I’ve been part of the San Antonio community for over 40 years now. Basketball was my job, and I was pretty good at it, but nothing brings me more joy than when a grandmother or mother comes up to me and says, “My child graduated from the George Gervin Academy.”