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
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 4� games over Houston and 7� 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.