Although the city’s mean annual temperature is a comfortable 68 degrees, San Antonio is in the midst of an Ice Age—and loving it. The reason: George “The Iceman” Gervin, the National Basketball Association’s leading scorer (33.4 points per game), not to mention the savior of the San Antonio Spurs. The Iceman cometh to Texas six years ago, and since then the attendance has nearly doubled and the Spurs have made the league play-offs each year. Still, the 27-year-old Gervin hasn’t been pushy about demanding his due. He takes home a mere $350,000 a year—peanuts compared with the salaries of superstars who will appear with him in the All-Star game next Sunday in Landover, Md. “I don’t ever want to ask anyone to give me a raise,” says Ice. “I want to be able to say, ‘Here’s why I deserve one.’ ” In which case, he might simply mention his two consecutive seasons as the league’s No. 1 scorer and four straight years as an All-Star.
Chances are, Gervin will make his point quietly at the end of the season, when he plans to renegotiate his three-year contract (it expires in 1982). After all, he says, “I don’t want to go in there talking crazy,” There was a time, in fact, when he hardly talked at all. As a rookie with the Virginia Squires of the now defunct American Basketball Association, he earned his nickname by his long silences. “I was very quiet,” George acknowledges. “I was eager to learn and felt I would learn more by listening than talking.”
Gervin proved a quick study when Spurs teammate James Silas was injured during the 1976 play-offs: The 6’8″ Ice had only played forward in the pros, but was able to take Silas’ place in the backcourt. Since then Ice has been a guard. “I don’t miss all the shoving, pushing and elbowing a forward has to take under the basket,” concedes the lean, 185-pound Gervin (in high school he was called “Twiggy”). “Without a lot of people hanging on you all the time you feel more like playing.” More like shooting, too. “George may be the slowest player in the league,” marvels Spurs coach Doug Moe “But he has a soft touch like no one else.” “Ice’s game,” Gervin once observed baldly, “is to put it in the hole.”
When Ice was growing up in East Detroit he and his brothers didn’t have a backboard, so they lofted shots into a bicycle-wheel rim nailed to a telephone pole. One of six children, George was raised by his mother, who took almost any kind of odd job to support her family after her husband split. As a teenager, George grew 11 inches in two years (“People thought I was hanging on trees stretching myself”), and used to clean the high school gym in return for the privilege of using it after hours. Sometimes he would shoot as many as 600 baskets before catching a midnight ride home with the janitor.
In 1970 the hours of solitary practice paid off with a basketball scholarship to Long Beach (Calif.) State, but Gervin lasted only a few weeks before transferring to Eastern Michigan University, 40 miles from his home. Two seasons later he quit school after punching an opposing player in an NCAA play-off game. It cost him his scholarship. “That’s the only time I remember crying, because I wanted it so much and I felt like they did me wrong,” he says. “A guy elbowed me and I hit him. We all have days like that, but I never had one before or since. It blew my chance for the Pan-Am Games and the Olympics, and, who knows, it might have meant another million dollars in the pros.”
Back in Detroit, George signed on with the semipro Pontiac Chapparals for $500 a month. “Maybe things work out for the best,” he says. “All of a sudden I had a new car, a place of my own and I could get married. I had the world in my hands at 19.” Gervin moved up to the ABA three months later, after a scout saw him pour in 52 points in one game.
Ice lives now with his wife, Joyce, 26, and their three children in the San Antonio suburb of Green Springs Valley. He is comfortable in a town where T-shirts proclaiming ICE IS NICE sell as briskly as enchiladas, but it will be up to Spurs management to make sure the Iceman stayeth. “Don’t mistake me,” says George. “My love of the game is still there. But now I understand it’s a business.”
And Ice takes business seriously: no smoking, no drinking and a two-hour nap before every game. “What I like most is going out and giving it all I have,” he says. “It ain’t hard; all I have to do is think back. I don’t want to be where I was.”