Posted Jul 27 2011 1:10PM
SAN ANTONIO -- It is a fitting coincidence that George Gervin made much of his career, and his current home, in a place where Old West outlaws drew first and asked questions later. Because nobody could shoot quite like -- or as quick as -- "The Iceman."
"Actually," he corrects, politely yet firmly, "I was more than just a shooter. I was a scorer and a shooter. Ain't been too many like me."
Gervin was also something else: A game-changer, someone whose impact on the NBA lasted far beyond his final hoop. He didn't invent the shot, but he did refine it and taught everyone who followed him the many different ways to put the ball in the bucket.
"That's the object of the game, isn't it?" he says with a smile.
Even now, at age 59, with the hint of a basketball inside a belly that was once spaghetti-thin, Gervin carries a cool presence. After the Alamo and the Riverwalk, Gervin might be the most recognizable landmark of San Antonio. He's a player who didn't win a single title with the Spurs, unlike Tim Duncan and David Robinson, but is beloved just as much. The folks here fondly recall how he ruled the old HemisFair Arena, a dusty old barn where the views were obstructed by support poles but also filled with supportive fans. It was Gervin, more than anyone, who turned San Antonio onto basketball because that's what scorers do.
Excuse me, scorers and shooters.
But it wasn't just San Antonio that stood in awe of Gervin for 14 seasons stretched between the ABA and NBA. Before Gervin, shooting was mainly a basic execution, a vanilla-looking jumper that stood as the standard. It's not like the NBA lacked creative players; Elgin Baylor and Earl Monroe were well before their time. But those two were masters of body control. Gervin came along and mastered the finger control.
He was the first to put a premium on "spin" or "English" as they called it back in the day, the art of releasing the ball with enough twist of the fingers to make it do wonderfully weird things.
Gervin's shot would ricochet off the glass at impossible angles and fall through the net. He released his shot either with his fingers under the ball or over it, putting a different spin whenever he wanted. His trajectory was high or low, depending on the height of his defender. He made bank shots, running hooks, floaters, jumpers and of course, his famous finger roll.
"It influenced people because I was effective," Gervin said. "I didn't take a lot of long-range jump shots. I took a lot of mid-range jump shots, which is what's missing from a lot of the top-notch players today."
Here's the thing about Gervin: He wasn't a gunner. Not really. He was big on quality more than volume. He rarely took a bad shot, and he has the percentage to prove it: 51 percent for his career, amazing for a 6-foot-7 guard who didn't live under the rim. No guard ever led the league in scoring as many times as Gervin until Michael Jordan arrived. A lifetime 25.1 points a game scorer, Gervin just knew what to do and how to do it. Evidently, folks took notes.
"I believed in accuracy," Gervin said. "You can be more effective from 12-15 feet than from 20-25. My goal was to be able to score as many ways possible, to shoot around players, through them and over them if necessary. The more I could do that, the more unpredictable I became."
In basketball today, who doesn't know how to finger roll? Or drive into the lane and drop a runner? These shots are taken for granted right now, as common as sweat pellets on the court. They are not novelties, but rather a requirement for anyone who wants to specialize in shooting. Or scoring. Or both.
There are snippets of Gervin's influence when players go for layups, or drive down the lane, or pull up for 15-footers. That's when touch is paramount. Gervin takes special pride in his trademark finger roll, which is imitated constantly today.
"It was another way of putting the ball in the basket," he said. "It separated me from the other great scorers. I could be on the side of the backboard and spin the ball off the glass. I worked on that starting in my rookie year in the ABA."
Once Gervin popularized it, players started rolling the ball off their 'tips until it became habit and then the standard way of dropping in a layup. But the finger roll never completely defined Gervin, because he offered variety.
"I'd like to see more players who are shooters and scorers," Gervin said. "Michael Jordan was a scorer until later on in his career, he became a shooter, too, and was more effective. Young guys need to understand that. Once they do, it'll take them to that next level. That's how it happened for me. I could roll with my left, my right, dunk on people and then shoot with mid-range."
He laughed. Gervin explains himself in a way that doesn't come across pompous or arrogant. It's just matter-of-fact cool. He excuses himself, offers a handshake and another smile, but before disappearing he wants to make it clear:
"Scorer and shooter," he said.
Yes. Of course. Twice as ice.
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