SAN ANTONIO – As much as George “The Iceman” Gervin exuded confidence and cool on the court, the man oozed the postgame drip in the 1970s and 80s that helped to keep the NBA at the forefront of driving fashion and culture.
“I liked looking good, man,” he told NBA.com.
Gervin played even better over a legendary career in which he was a nine-time NBA All-Star and named All-NBA on five occasions, in addition to winning four NBA scoring titles. A member of the league’s 50th Anniversary Team, Gervin was also named to the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team.
With an upcoming untitled documentary in the works, Gervin spent time with NBA.com recently discussing a variety of subjects, ranging from his Hall of Fame career, the finger roll (which he’s widely credited for, but didn’t invent), and his reputation as a scorer, not to mention the fact he captured an analytics-driven award (Seagram Seven Crowns NBA Player of the Year and a check for $10,000) even before such data became the lifeblood of many NBA teams.
Gervin also shared his opinion about the current state of NBA fashion, before delving into his five Spurs championship rings (he swears he’ll never wear them), and why he decided to stick around in San Antonio after an 18-year career.
Editor’s Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.
NBA.com: You made the 50th Anniversary team, and you’re also on the 75th Anniversary team. What does that mean to you?
George Gervin: Wow, to make the 50th is special. When you start thinking about all the guys that ever played in the league, which was many, and for you to be named one of the 50 was unbelievable. Now that they looked at it again and wanted to check off the top 75, and you remained in that top 75, it’s special. I played this game, man, because I loved it. I didn’t play to be a Hall of Famer. I didn’t even play to be a top 50 or 75. I played it because I loved it. I worked at it and in the end, they felt I should be in there. So, that’s an honor.
When you were coming up as a kid, they called you “GG” and then your Virginia Squires teammate Roland “Fatty” Taylor gave you the “Iceman” nickname. So, is there a difference between “GG” and “Iceman”?
Heck yeah, man. Think about it. Meditate on “GG.” That don’t sound like that’s who I wanted to be, man. So, when Fatty started naming me Ice, it just took it to another level. And it was a part of my persona. I didn’t talk much. I just went to work in practice. And at the games, I didn’t talk trash. I didn’t beat my chest. Fatty just felt that was appropriate for my style of living and playing. So, in the end, wow. I enjoyed being called Ice.
You won four scoring titles. What was it like for you in terms of your mentality going into games knowing that pretty much every defense you faced was designed almost specifically to stop you?
For me, man, I just say it was a part of loving the game. I prepared. I didn’t take off in the summer. I took off a few weeks to take the family on vacation, but other than that, man, I stayed in the gym. And I was fundamentally sound. I prepared myself to be able to try to handle whatever defense was thrown at me. I think that made a difference for me in my career. I worked at my craft. I just loved the game. So, that gives you confidence and builds up your self-esteem, and then mentally, it makes you ready for whatever comes at you.
In the past, you’ve talked about taking elements of the finger roll from Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving and Connie Hawkins to form your own. What parts, specifically, did you take from each of those guys that actually made you more synonymous with the finger roll than those guys?
The difference was just me flipping it, man. Think about it. The Dipper (Chamberlain), he dipped (the ball) in the hole because he was 7-foot-something. Connie had the big hands. So, he did a lot of one-handed kind of stuff. Doc (Erving) is similar to Connie. He did a lot of one-handed stuff. You can always find video of those guys basically doing the finger roll. I was a student of the game. I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. I am not the inventor of the finger roll. So, I kind of just copycatted them, and then kind of added my own flavor to it. By doing that, mine is the one that they talk about today (laughing).
Everybody always talks about your scoring and the finger roll, but you don’t hear enough about all the blocked shots you racked up as a guard (670 blocks in the NBA, 377 blocks in the ABA). Does that ever frustrate you?
It doesn’t bother me. I know how the system is. Think about it: I scored really easy on pretty much anybody. That was my dominant attribute during my career. People always say, ‘Well, he didn’t play no defense.’ People are always trying to find something with somebody that can do something real good. They always want to say something like, ‘Well, but he wasn’t this.’ You just brought it out. I think I had 110 blocked shots in one season (1977-78). Centers didn’t have 100-something blocks in one season. So, I felt I was a good anticipator defensively. I felt like I could block shots on the defensive end. My lateral movement may not have been as good as most defenders, but I knew how to anticipate, and then I knew people’s games. I studied guys’ games. So, I knew what they could do and what they couldn’t do. I think I took advantage of that with a lot of the guys.
You also came up at a time where it was probably a lot more difficult than it is today for players to just be themselves. What made you decide as a player that just being yourself would be good enough for you to have the legendary career that you had?
The passion for the game. I was confident that I could play. I mean, I knew I could play. Nobody had to tell me that I could play. I wasn’t caught up in somebody saying, ‘You’re this’ or ‘you’re that.’ You look at my work, you look at my stats. I know a couple of years, I was the most efficient player in the league. I shot 51% in my career, getting 26,000-something points (26,595). Most of them guys that’s up there in that same category, they shot 30 times to get 30 points. Somebody called me and said, ‘Man, he got 30 tonight.’ I said, ‘How many times did he shoot?’ He said, ‘35.’ OK. So, he was a gunner. I was efficient. For myself, it tells its own story.
What about off the court?
Off the court, it was upbringing. I give my mom a lot of credit. My mom always said, ‘Treat people like you want to be treated, and you ain’t gone have too many issues.’ That’s how I did people. I took time with people. I respected them. I knew people were coming to see us play, and I wanted to entertain them. I guess my outlook on what I was doing in my game was also a part of my life. I think that’s the beauty of it for me. I knew basketball wasn’t a selfish game. I knew basketball was designed to play one way, and that’s as a team. I wanted to make that a part of my success, having that kind of relationship with my teammates, having that kind of relationship with the guys that I played against. I never took out that perspective that it’s just basketball. It ain’t life.
What’s it like to be one of the foundational pieces for such a rich tradition of San Antonio Spurs basketball?
This is what I tell people about it because people always compare. People always ask, ‘Who do you think is the greatest Spur?’ Well, I think it’s Tim Duncan, actually. But how I look at this franchise, and I’m still a part of it, I look at it like a tree. I look at me being the roots of the tree, and we all know what the roots are. Then, I look at David Robinson as being the trunk of the tree. Then, I look at Tim Duncan being the branches and the flowers. If you look at it that way, the tree can’t grow unless it’s got good roots. So, I let people make their own determination of who is who in the Spurs franchise.
What are your thoughts about Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili not making the 75th Anniversary team?
I’m biased, obviously, because they’re Spurs, and both of them could play. Both of them had unbelievable careers, man. I don’t have any feelings about it that I would address publicly because I know it was hard to pick the 75 greatest guys of all time. I mean, somebody’s gonna be missed. More than somebody is gonna be missed. That’s the nature of the beast and how it was designed to choose the 75 greatest of all time. People were lost. I’ve got a whole lot of names in my mind to say, ‘What about him?’ But I wouldn’t dare challenge the system because what would I get out of it? I would get a lot of criticism. It’s an opinion, and it ain’t nothing I can do about it.
We can’t do this interview without talking about the iconic 1982 Iceman Nike poster of you on the ice throne. Do you still have any copies of that poster? And when you did that photoshoot, did you know that poster would become as iconic as it did? For a lot of guys in their 40s, that poster was probably their first memory of you.
Wow, ain’t that something, man? I think I did that in the 80s. Never knew, man. Never knew that this poster was going to be as iconic as it was. Never even suspected it. Never even dreamed of it becoming what it became. Yes, I still do have some of those posters. People still today ask me, ‘Man, you got any more of them posters? Man, where can I get one of them posters? I saw one on eBay, and I was trying to get it and couldn’t get it.’ So that was like a contribution to who I was in that game. So many people tell me that they had that poster when they were young. It brings tears to my eyes that people really enjoyed my play as a basketball player, but really, just me as a person.
It’s really interesting to see how even back when you played, the NBA played a major role in driving the style and the culture of the day, almost the same way it does even today. How did you come up with your style back in those days?
Man, I’m born in Detroit, Michigan. I came up in the inner city. So, I was caught up with gators, lizards, suits, Borsalino hats, ties, sport coats, sweaters. I liked looking nice, man. That was just that city look that I had, and I brought it up during my career. Let’s fast forward to now. To me, now the guys are out there trying to look the worst that they can (laughing). For a guy like me, I couldn’t wear what these guys are wearing today. I couldn’t wear tight pants. I couldn’t wear pants too short, and they’re not covering your ankles. That’s the fashion though. I watch guys today, and they’ve got suits on and they’re real tight. Then, you look down at their feet, and they’ve got comfortable shoes on. But it’s the culture. It’s the style. I ain’t mad at nobody because the one thing about life is you make your own choices, and you’ve got to deal with the consequences (laughing).
You’ve got the George Gervin Academy and the youth centers in San Antonio. What made you decide to put so much into giving back to this particular community when you’re from Detroit?
I was raised in Detroit. Detroit gave me my foundation. I’ve been in San Antonio for over 40 years. So, San Antonio became my home. I didn’t really want to go back to Detroit because when you grow up, and you see the world, you try to find your own resting place. For me, San Antonio is my resting place. Just being a part of this community, I wanted to give back. I’m a part of a franchise that’s really involved in this community. It’s been a long time, man, and the Spurs have been giving back. Me being here and being a part of that system, I kind of wanted to do my own thing. I started my charter school 25 years ago. I started a youth center program 26 years ago.
And retirement homes?
We build retirement homes for senior citizens. So, I wanted to be a part of this community that creates services for people. We’ve brought into this community over $300 million. A lot of people don’t know about that. I do it because there’s a need. The last retirement homes that we built, it’s called the George Gervin Retirement Home over on the West side. It’s for low income (citizens). I talked to some of the people that were moving in there, and it made me want to cry because they didn’t have any place to live. You just don’t ever know how you affect people’s lives. I realized that it’s better giving than receiving. That’s a spiritual thing with me, and I’m thankful to be able to create these kinds of programs for people.
Why does it seem like all the former Spurs stay here in San Antonio?
It’s a great town, man. Really, it’s a big city with a small-city flavor. It ain’t like the Dallases or the Houstons. But it’s beautiful, man. It’s a destination, now. You’ve got all the different kind of recreational activities, you’ve got golf, you’ve got fishing. It’s got everything I need to be satisfied. I love San Antonio, and I’ve been loving it for a long time.
You have all five Spurs championship rings and you’ve said that you won’t ever wear them. But what did it mean to you for the organization to give you those rings?
It’s special. They felt that I was a part of the foundation to get there. I didn’t earn them as far as playing basketball. But when you’re a part of a great organization like the San Antonio Spurs, I’m a part of that family and they just keep reminding me that I am. What can be greater than being a part of a family? There’s nothing like it in the world.
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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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