12.16.2015

The George Gervin-David Thompson Duel



George Gervin served as a vibrant link to the days when San Antonio welcomed a failing franchise known as the Dallas Chaparrals and found itself enmeshed in a professional venture that appeared to have more gimmicks than patrons. Gervin appeared in the course of the Spurs' second season, and the manner of his arrival told a lot about the ABA. The Spurs bought the player from the perennially insolvent Virginia Squires for $225,000 but had to go to court when commissioner Mike Storen tried to block the transaction.



Like so many of the league's best players, Julius Erving among them, Gervin entered the league under a cloak of anonymity. Approximately two weeks after he signed a contract, I happened to be in Virginia to research a takeout on Dr. J. "Wait 'til you see this new kid play," general manager Johnny Kerr said. "He can toss an egg off the backboard and not break the shell."

It was an apt description of the skinny forward who had the softest shooting touch I had ever seen. Kerr had discovered Gervin playing in a semipro game in Pontiac, Mich., after he was suspended late in his sophomore season at Eastern Michigan University for punching an opponent. ABA player Fatty Taylor took note of the 19-year-old's phlegmatic demeanor and decided he was "as cool as ice." Thus was born the Iceman, but the legend didn't take flight until he reached Texas.

In Gervin's second season with the Spurs, new coach Bob Bass changed the player's position and the high-scoring forward became an unstoppable force at guard, demonstrating the skills that would enable him to win four scoring titles in five years after the team was absorbed by the NBA. "I had guys guarding me that were 6-1 and 6-2," he recalled the other day, "and I took full advantage."

Indeed, he did, even as an All-Star in 1975 when he led the West squad with 23 points. San Antonio did its best to make that game at the HemisFair Arena into a showcase for the ailing league. Team officials persuaded Willie Nelson to entertain at an all-star dinner and sing the national anthem before a rare ABA national telecast. Still, not everything went according to plan.

In true Texas fashion, the advertised prize for the MVP was a quarter horse and saddle. Freddie Lewis of the Spirits of St. Louis, the game's high scorer, said he had little use for a horse and the Spurs agreed to auction the animal and present him the proceeds. Lewis made a wise choice because the horse died two weeks after it was purchased by an investor in the franchise.

There was one more season before the ABA perished, time for one more All-Star Game, and its reverberations are felt to this day. It was held in Denver, where club officials attempted to hype the event with a pregame concert featuring Glen Campbell and Charlie Rich and a slam dunk contest at halftime. The five contestants in the latter were Erving, Gervin, Artis Gilmore, Larry Kenon and David Thompson, a high-flying rookie who will accompany Gervin into the Hall of Fame in May.

The NBA took note of that exhibition and incorporated the slam dunk contest into its expanded all-star festivities in 1984. Two years later, it added a long-distance shootout, based on the three-point shot it lifted from the ABA. While the established league was publicly contemptuous of the upstart league's style of play, it eventually adopted everything but the tri-colored basketball.

"I think the ABA helped the NBA survive," Gervin said. "We played fast-break basketball, entertaining basketball. We felt the NBA guys were slow. We were running and gunning and I thought only the Celtics did that in the NBA. People wanted to see us."

Erving, Gervin, Thompson and other ABA survivors did not disappoint. Reduced to cult status by their original league's lack of exposure, they blossomed into national figures once they joined the NBA. Those who questioned whether the newcomers could maintain the same torrid pace in new surroundings were silenced by the scoring race during the 1977-78 season.

On the final day, April 9, Thompson amassed 73 points in an afternoon game against Detroit, slipping ahead of Gervin with a 27.15 average.

A call to Gervin's hotel room in New Orleans, where the Spurs were scheduled to play the Jazz that night, disturbed his rest. The caller, a reporter, informed Gervin that unless he scored 59, Thompson would finish first.

Coach Doug Moe and the rest of the Spurs were determined to give him that opportunity. "But then I missed my first six shots," he recalled, "and I told my teammates, 'Don't bother, it's too hard.' " Still, they kept getting him the ball and the shots started to drop. He scored 20 in the first quarter and another 33 in the second quarter.

"I only needed six more points," he said in amusement, "but it took me 15 shots to get them." He didn't stop until he scored 63 points, raising his average to 27.21. After that breakthrough season, Gervin won the next two scoring titles in comfortable fashion while posting averages of 29.6 and 33.1. He finished third behind Adrian Dantley and Moses Malone in 1980-81 and responded with a 32.3 mark the following year for his fourth individual championship.

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