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�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 6� 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."