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Milwaukee struck gold when it signed UCLA's Marques Johnson to a modest six-year contract in 1977. When Johnson became an instant superstar, the Bucks marketed their team by marketing Marques. But last year, when Johnson tried to bring his salary into parity with those of the game's other stars, the Bucks tried to persuade their fans that Johnson was a greedy ingrate. After he and the team came to terms, the Bucks went back to touting Johnson as "the best all-round player in the NBA," and he led them on a solid charge toward the championship.
"It's the sport that I love, not the business," says Johnson. "The business end messes everything up. I almost wish there was no money in it, then we could all go out and enjoy playing like we did when we were kids. I'd still play if there was no money, because it's the best game there is, and you can play all the time if you want. Anybody who's ever been into it, pro or playground, knows what I'm talking about. When I'm playing ball, it's like I'm not even part of the earth—like I belong to a different universe."
The two top scorers in the NBA the past two seasons—Gervin and Free—are known to most fans as merely that, top scorers. To many, they are anathema to Naismith's concept of team play, even though, in fairness, they have done only what was expected of them. Free was brought to San Diego by his former Philadelphia coach, Gene Shue, who took one look at the undermanned Clippers and said to Free, "Lloyd, put it up whenever you want to." Free did, averaging 28.8 points on 48.1% shooting, and came close to leading his team to the playoffs the last two years. When Paul Silas, a no-nonsense team man, took over as coach of San Diego this summer, he immediately summoned Free to discuss what would be the Clippers' new philosophy. Shortly after the meeting, Silas shipped Free to Golden State. Free was quoted as saying, "Nobody is going to change my game," and his "All-World" rep went with him.
"I never said that," Free claims. "Paul and I would have gotten along fine. The problem was with my contract." How will he get along with Warrior Coach Al Attles, who is famous for settling disagreements with one menacing glance? "Just fine," says Free. "I'll take two shots a game if that's what AI wants. I'm a team man through and through." If Free is sincere, the Warriors will be the better for it.
Gervin is also facing a special challenge this year. The Spurs may have found a way to make the Iceman—a constant contract squabbler—shut up or put up—or, more precisely, put up less. His new contract pays him a base salary of $3.6 million over the next six years, but a unique clause will give Gervin—and every one of his teammates—a bonus for each win between 36 and 56 in the 82-game season. (Last year's record was 41-41.) For Gervin, bonus victories will pay him something like $14,000 apiece.
"I might have to score 30,I might not," says the Iceman, whose 33.1-point average last year made him the fifth player in league history to win three straight scoring titles. "Maybe I'll have to score 50. People have said I'm an individual player, but I don't like the rap. This game here's not an individual game, it's a team game, and a team player's the only kind that wins. On my team I put 'em in the hole because I'm trying to win."
Although this may be a self-serving definition of the "team" concept, there is no doubt that Gervin is a player of such tremendous talent that he can score anytime from anywhere against anyone. Unfortunately, he has a compulsion to prove his scoring ability time and again, mindless of the fact that only once since 1950 has an NBA scoring leader played for the league champion. (That was Milwaukee's Lew Alcindor—he hadn't officially changed his name yet—in 1970-71.) "I'm perfectly happy being known as George Gervin, scoring machine," he says, "because in this game the person who puts the ball in the hole is the person that usually gets ahead." Whether he makes a million a year or $3 an hour, Gervin would still be playing ball, he says. "Always. Until they have to put me in the grave. Maybe even then I might come back if there's a game. I'm always wanting to take somebody one-on-one." The Spurs are hoping that at $14,000 per, Gervin will also learn to appreciate the beauty of going five-on-five.