Years after he played his last professional game, there was still nobody cooler than George Gervin. For SLAM 9, Goldie chopped it up with The Iceman, and the two talked about everything from playing one-on-one with Julius Erving to that always-pretty finger roll.
From an old-school, yo-I-grew-up-before-Jordan, ballin’ in Chuck Taylors perspective, it was like a dream come true. George Gervin—The Ice—rang my spot.
It went summin’ like this: “Gold, this is George Gervin. Give me a holler, my man. The Ice Man. Peace.”
Hysteria! Madness! The whole nine! For the next two days, every individual that I knew in North America got a phone call with me straight buggin’ on the other line, playin’ the message back for anybody who had Ice’s infamous/famous Nike poster on their wall in the ‘70’s. I freaked while every other brother lost it. “Yo ‘$,’ you got to hold that there. Keep that message for life!” is all I heard. They knew the deal. The only call larger woulda been from Ali or Dr. J, and if their peeps are reading this: Yo, I’m still waiting.
For most hoop heads, George Gervin is like a god. Basketball has a lot to do with it, but there’s more. His aura. He always and forever came off as the coolest MF ever! His game reflected everything that every young pimp-player-hustlin’-wannabe shortie was about: Get yours and be smoover than anybody when ya git it. That’s jus’ the way players play. That’s Ice.
He ran the NBA with some Geechi Dan, pimp-for-life skills that made Walt Frazier look as phony as Huggy Bear. The only thing absent in Ice’s game was a toothpick in his mouth when he served. Oh, and did he serve! E’rybody from Marvin Barnes to Marvin Webster. From Ricky Barry to Rick Mahorn. From the ABA to the NBA. Servin’ pj’s he had a following only Doc could mess with. On every urban block in America he was large. And still, to this day, can’t nobody duplicate. He was, by all “player” standards, the Man sittin’ next to THE Man.
RIIINGGG!!! After two days of illmatic phone tag, we hook. “You want me to come to San Antonio to do this? ‘Cause you Carte Blanche, baby.” He laughed, then replied classically, “Naw man, save your cheese. We can do this right now and watch a little OJ while we talk.”
Happy as John Starks at a jump shot camp, Ice and I talk for two hours about his life, his “legendary” status, his new-found celebrity, and, of course, his finger roll.
SLAM: Who discovered you?
ICE: Coming out of the situation I came from, where I left school [Eastern Michigan] and I went to the CBA and played, Johnny “Red” Kerr [the ex-Chicago Bulls coach] spotted me playing in the Continental League. At that particular game, I got 50. He saw that and called Earl Foreman, who was the owner of the Virginia Squires [ABA] at the time, and hell, the next week I was signed and playin’ in the ABA.
Now when I got there, you have to understand this: Julius Erving was my teammate—and that’s all you really heard about. Erving! Erving! Especially me not knowing much about the ABA—and me having the opportunity to play with him—it kinda gave me an edge because Julius was so humble off the floor, while he was so dominating on the floor. He took his time with me. He kinda helped encourage me to more rapidly develop my confidence as a player.
SLAM: So Doc was the man…?
ICE: No doubt. See the ABA was full of young players who wanted to prove they belonged in the NBA. Doc was one of the players that helped the NBA realize they needed us to continue their successful future.
SLAM: In what way?
ICE: See, the game was much slower, NBA-style. In the ABA, we found out that fans like transition basketball. Fans liked seeing players being articulate when they were going to the hoop.
SLAM: Not that John Havlicek shit…
ICE: Naw, that was cool, but we brought in the youth. We brought in some young guys that had a future no matter what league they were playing in! I mean, they [the fans] loved seeing dunks, but also loved seeing a guy make a move, and goin’ around somebody and switchin’ it off the glass.
We changed basketball from a million-dollar corporation to a billion-dollar corporation. We had a lot to do with that because we were able to re-create a product that was marketable worldwide. We brought that flow, the new era of fans. We raised them up entertaining them and now [in the ‘90’s] that’s all they want to see—and it sells.
SLAM: So you were all conscious of that while you were playing in the ABA? The fact that you were actually changing the way the game was played.
ICE: I mean, I can only speak for myself and I know I was really playing to entertain. That was my way of showing my own personal style of basketball. Now if I scored 50 on you in the process, so be it [laughing]; but I do think that we established ourselves as some dominant figures in the NBA once we got there. We had something to prove.
SLAM: A’ight, what about the name “Ice.” “The Iceman.” It just seemed to fit everything you were about. Just cool. Too cool. And it seemed to work for you on and off the court.
ICE: Fatty Taylor [ex-ABA legend] gave me the name. Fatty used to watch me play, and I was quiet and stuff, you know. I used to be shootin’ that jumper, scorin’ and never said nothin’—and he was like, “Man, you cool man. You cold!” then he just started callin’ me “Ice.”
But I never really got into “Ice” while I was playin’. I got into it afterwards. I found out that a lot of brothas comin’ up wanted to be like “Ice.” Hell, look at Ice Cube [laughing]. They had to get that from somebody.
SLAM: It’s all on you…
ICE: My man Chuck D. [Public Enemy] told me one day, he said, “Ice—Ice Cube and Ice T, man they got that from you.” I mean, Chuck’s the one that broke it down to me, and that’s coming from a tough brotha in that [rap] circle, so I guess “Ice” turned out to be a’ight.
SLAM: Was your game one-dimensional?
ICE: Man, my game was transition. Our whole thing was to shoot the ball more times than you. That was our philosophy—and it made sense. If you only get 50 shots walkin’ the ball down the floor and I’m shootin’ a hundred—ain’t no way in the world you gonna beat me! [Laughing.] I’m gonna mess your game up because I’m going to keep running down the floor and you are going to have to come after me. I was able to change the tempo of the game by runnin’, trappin’ and making you give up the ball. I put you in a situation where you had to handle the ball well or give it up because we’re in transition again because we stole the ball.
Nothing melodic. We liked to get up and go. Dr. J-style. We used to get Doc in transition and watch his hair fly [laughing hysterically]. That was the thing.
SLAM: [Also laughing.] Yo, how come you never grew a big ‘fro?
ICE: ‘Cause I didn’t have that type of hair. My kids are mad at me today because they ain’t got that type of hair. E’rybody can’t grow that real big fro, but I used to try. Yeah, I used to put the hot iron on it to blow it up before games, but once the games started and that sweat it hit—SHROOP—it was gone! Shrunk back to normal… But I was still cool [laughing].
SLAM: Okay, talk to me about the scoring title battle between you and David Thompson in 1978 when he scored 73 on the final game of the season and you dropped 63 to win it.
ICE: Well, see, originally we [San Antonio Spurs] were supposed to play the games at the same time, but for whatever reason they pushed our game back while David played first. Now all of these reporters started coming up to me after he scored 73, saying that he was ahead of me by a percentage point. You know, waking me up that afternoon saying, “Yeah George, David just took your scoring titled, he just scored 73!” Now, I’m asleep, trying to get my rest, so I was like, “Cool, if anybody could do it, David can.” Then as the game proceeded to start, Doug Moe [the Spurs coach] asked me if I wanted to go for it, and you know me, I was like, “I don’t care, Coach.” And he said, “Let’s go check with the rest of the team.” They all agreed to go for it.
So when we went out there, I missed my first six shots. Coach called a time-out, and I told him that we ain’t have to worry about it, we don’t have to get this done. But all of the guys were like, “Naw, Ice, we don’t want to hear that! C’mon man, get it done!” I went back our there with about six minutes left in that first quarter and got 20 points.
Then on the second quarter I was rollin’. I got 33. And that 33 I got in that quarter—ain’t nobody broke that yet! So I had 53 at the half. And I just found out the other day that is second only to Wilt [who notched 56 in one half]. And I only played 33 minutes that whole game, and I wound up with 63. But don’t nobody talk about that 33 minutes, you know what I’m sayin’? That’s getting it done. But it really was my relationship with my teammates that enabled me to do that. I want that to be understood the most.
SLAM: Speaking about David Thompson, what would happen if you, DT, Doc, George McGinnis and Moses Malone—you know, like an ABA Dream Team—played Magic, Michael, Bird, Barkley and Ewing? Who’d win?
ICE: Ah man, it’d be a good game—but we’d win. I’d be too big for anybody they got. [Keep in mind that Gervin was one of the “original” 6-7 to 6-8 guards.] Okay, who’d you say? Let’s see, you said Magic? He’s probably have to guard…yeah, he’d have to guard me. Then Mike [Jordan] and David [Thompson], that’s the hook up there. People can talk all they want, but DT was the giant killer. Moses against Patrick? You know the deal there. And I love Doc and Barkley against each other. You know that’s good size, plus Doc had the ability to jump and go get stuff. And at the other spot, who you got?
SLAM: I got Bird down there.
ICE: Oh, you got Bird [sounding like the plot just thickened]: Bird will keep everybody together ‘cause he can play the whole game.
SLAM: But you think you’d win?
ICE: Oh hell yeah! You write for SLAM, take a poll [laughing]. They can talk all of the stuff they want, but you’re talkin’ about tradition and going back… We’d put a hurtin’ on some of those paper-machés [laughing].
See, we never quit. If they beat us once, we’d say, “Let’s play another one.” See, you got some guys that would say, “Good game,” but we’d say, “Naw, you got lucky.”
SLAM: Hit me off with the roll. Talk to me about your finger roll.
ICE: I developed that shot back in the day because I broke my wrist goin’ up to block a shot [playing defense—ironic, huh?]. So I had to stop dunkin’, and I started finger rollin’ the ball over the rim. So as I became an older pro, I just enhanced that finger roll as a part of my game.
SLAM: But Ice, you had RANGE on your finger roll. That’s crazy! I remember sometimes you’d roll one for three….
ICE: [Laughing] Naw, I was never that crazy, but I would always practice that shot by myself imagining that I was rollin’ on Kareem or Mark Eaton or Artis [Gilmore]. [All 7-2 or better.] Once I established that in my frame of mind, I wasn’t worried about nobody gettin’ it. Plus my hands are kinda big, so I was able to grip the ball well and roll it off my fingers from anywhere. I did a camp the other day, and some kids were like, “Show us your finger roll.” And I went behind the basket, you know at an angle, and finger rolled one over the backboard into the hoop. Now I got 8-, 9-, 10-, 14-year-olds lookin’ at me. They got real quiet and started lookin’ at me. So I looked at them and said, “Y’all think I can play?” They all said, “Yeah!” [laughing].
SLAM: So was that just another extension of your personality because it was smoother than dunking, or was it something you had to develop?
ICE: Man, I always played like I felt. I mean, I loved the game, so I always felt good. Not like some of these players today. I always wanted to show my signature when I played. That was my finger roll. You know, goin’ to the hole and makin’ people go, “OOOHH!”. Quiet’n’ the crowd. That was my thing. Havin’ fun out there, but still playin’ the game, I just developed that habit into my style of play. That was just me.
SLAM: When Julius said you’re the best basketball player he’s ever seen, how did that make you feel?
ICE: Me and Doc used to play one-on-one after almost every practice, and he’d dominate me. As I got older and started to pick up my game, I started to win some. That gave us a great amount of mutual respect for each other, but I think during those days he really got an opportunity to see what I was able to do. And even when we played together and everybody—even me—was talking about him, it was amazing to me to find out later on that all that time he was watching me. That humbled me as a person and a ball player. It’s incredible, still to this day, when he’ll come up to me and say things like that.
But Jerry West stopped me in the hallway one day and said, “Ice, you know I don’t come to watch every ball player, but you are one of the guys I pay to see because you come to play.” So I think they understood my love for the game. That enabled them to say, “Hey, he’s got to be one of the best to ever play.”
SLAM: Were you?
ICE: Naw. Wilt was probably the best and Connie Hawkins is probably up there too. But as far as legend is concerned? Probably so. I think my stats and [fans] will decide that. Now between me and you—my personal feelings—if you look at the rest of the players they call “legends” in the country… [begins to laugh again] HELL YEAH I’M ONE! I played with my heart and I was one of those guys who said publicly, “You don’t have to pay me and I’ll still entertain!” Because I loved the game… [he pauses] but I took the check too!
Jus’ the way players play.