Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty
The ball rolled off his fingers the way a waterfall rolls off a cliff, a law of nature, sure and sublime. The hand went up, the ball came down, a spinning beauty, falling through the net.
George Gervin still floats his magic 27 years later, sans a ball, minus a hoop, without the cheering. Today, the goal is bigger than a rim, the satisfaction sweeter than a 60-point game. Gervin -- “Ice” to almost everyone -- is helping kids that remind him of himself, and assisting others who need housing, counseling and job skills.
Why? Before Ice became a four-time NBA scoring champion for the Spurs, he played on the streets of inner city Detroit, in the shadow of drugs, gangs and prostitutes. His mother raised six children alone and held two jobs. Ice remembers how she emphasized education, how each of her kids attended college on a scholarship, how the Gervin clan beat long odds and made momma proud.
Those memories inspired him to start a youth center 22 years ago, and later, to open a school for at-risk kids. The George Gervin Academy serves students from kindergarten through 12th grade, and, as you might expect, fields a pretty good basketball team. The Coyotes advanced to the second round of the Class A-1 playoffs behind senior Quincy Boyton, a 6-foot-6 forward who averaged 30 points a game. “What a talent,” Ice says. “Quincy can flat out play. He’s talented enough to go Division I.”
Ice did not open an academy to produce D-1 players. He opened it to help students with learning challenges, to steer them from trouble, to provide resources and motivation to finish high school. Ice visits the academy, mixes with the students, offers straight talk about the perils of dropping out.
“I tell a kid there are two ways you can do your 1-and-12,” Ice says. “You can do it in an educational facility. Or you can do your 1-and-12 in jail.”
That’s what Ice saw in the Detroit of his youth. Some friends stayed in school. Others went to the clink. Ice did not excel in school. But he didn’t drop out. He got much of his education from his mother, Geraldine.
Geraldine set a curfew for young George, and didn’t have to worry about him breaking it. Her son befriended a school janitor, who let him play in the gym. In return, George helped the custodian clean. It wasn’t unusual for the janitor to drive Geraldine’s son home at night.
Basketball, Geraldine understood, helped her son stay out of trouble. It also opened the door to college. Young George played two years at Eastern Michigan, entered the draft and signed with the Virginia Squires in the ABA. It was then, in the dawn of his professional career, that a teammate, Roland “Fatty” Taylor, marveled at Gervin’s cool, at a slender body that never seemed to sweat. Taylor began calling Gervin “Iceberg Slim,” and Gervin took offense.
The nickname “Iceberg Slim” belonged to a renowned a pimp in Chicago, a human trafficker turned author who penned an autobiographical novel, “Pimp: The Story of My Life,” that sold nearly 2 million copies. Gervin despised the association.
“Don’t call me that,” he insisted.
“Okay,” Taylor said. “I’ll call you, ‘Ice.’”
Through a guy nicknamed “Fatty,” The Iceman was born. Five years after he retired from the NBA, a community servant was born. Ice started the George Gervin Youth Center and kept on building. Facilities and programs today include the Newel Retirement Plaza, where the elderly live in homes and apartments; the George Gervin Technology Center, which serves non-traditional students; foster homes for homeless runaways and pregnant teens; and transitional apartments for young adults in need of housing and life skills.
“We create opportunities for families through a lot of initiatives,” Ice says. “I’m proud of the whole package. What I’m most proud of is not just one program. It’s that we have 160 employees. We created jobs for 160 families.”
He’s not through building. There are three basketball courts at the George Gervin Academy. Ice wants three more. The Academy plays host to school and area AAU tournaments throughout the year. Ice wants to host to a national tournament.
“I’d like to take over amateur basketball in the city,” he says. “We don’t have a big basketball presence on the amateur side like Houston and Dallas. I want to create more opportunities for kids. Kids think they will get better by just playing. They need to be trained properly. We’ve got a lot of talented kids. But we don’t know how talented they could be with proper training. It’s all about teaching.”
The Academy has been educating students since 1995. Ice runs into graduates at restaurants, at stores, on the streets. Some serve in the military. Others attend college. Many have jobs. Parents tell him, “thank you.” Grandparents, too.
“When you see and hear the impact you had on a young person’s life, it’s better than all the basketball accolades,” Ice says. “Basketball is a game. But when you change a person’s life and get them on road to success, man it’s unbelievable.”