March 10, 2011

International Iceman: George Gervin assists with the NBA Cares program in India

I wrote this article for, where it was first published on March 7, 2011. Read it on SLAM.

Surrounded by a group of Indian schoolkids in New Delhi, India, 58-year-old NBA Hall of Famer George ‘The Iceman’ Gervin took a little break from the shooting drills. Beside him was Marty Conlon, former NBA journeyman who had also been involved with NBA programs in India for the last year.

Conlon grabs a microphone and points at Gervin. “His right-hand is a little tired now – it’s scored over 26,000 points.”

The audience, understandably, wasn’t exactly well-versed on Ice. Most of the 15-year-olds are Kobe fans who haven’t been fans long enough to remember that Kobe used to wear #8. And The Iceman, the man who pretty much patented the finger roll, is way old school, emerging as one of the bridges of the era between the ABA and the new NBA. I’m not even close to old enough to having been able watch Gervin or even the legacy that he left behind, but I do have a different type of connection. The Iceman is my favorite player’s favorite player. I grew up idolizing Gary Payton, who himself once said that George Gervin was his favorite player to watch as a kid.

So when the NBA joined hands with the US Department of State to plan a “Sports Diplomacy” trip, The Iceman and two-time WNBA Champion Katie Smith of the Minnesota Lynx were brought to India at the end of February, and it was an opportunity for me to meet a legend.

He has achieved several highlights over his career, including several ABA and NBA All Star appearances, being nominated into NBA’s Top 50 as well as the Basketball Hall of Fame, and most importantly, scoring, scoring, and scoring! He scored 26,595 points in his NBA/ABA career, and averaged 26.2 ppg in the NBA, good for eighth highest of all time. Most impressive, though, might’ve been his field goal average, as The Iceman shot 51.1 percent from the field over the course of his NBA career.

And yet, when I hear ‘George Gervin’, I think of one (and only one) story before I think of any of his other achievements. On April 9, 1978, the last day of the 1977-78 season, Gervin, while with the Spurs, edged David ‘Skywalker’ Thomson, who was playing for the Nuggets, by 0.07 points per game to win the NBA’s scoring title in its tightest race ever.

You have to love an era when the game’s best players are nicknamed ‘Iceman’ and ‘Skywalker’. Most true red-blooded NBA fans know the story from that day: Gervin started the day leading Thompson’s average by 0.2, but Thompson went on to score a spectacular 73 points (the second highest individual score at that point to Wilt’s 100) to take the lead and finish with a season average of 27.15.

Gervin needed 58 to win the crown. He went out and scored 63, pushing up his average to 27.22. And oh yes, he did it in 33 minutes.

So of course, when I got a moment to interview The Iceman himself, the conversation inevitably came back to April 9, 1978. “Take me through that day,” I requested, “Your first scoring title. You know what I’m talking about.”

Luckily for me, The Iceman was as cool off-court as he had once been on it. He had been showing incredibly energy and positivity when interacting with and training the kids, and he showed the same enthusiasm at my question.

So, over to the Iceman:

You see, I had been the leading scorer all season. He [David Thompson] was right behind me, but I was leading.

That day, Thompson had an early afternoon game (against the Pistons). And he went out and scored 73 points on them. I was playing in New Orleans later that night. I knew I needed 59 to win the title. Oh well… The coach came to me and said ‘Ice, we’re here to help you get that title back’.

I told the coach ‘It ain’t a big deal’… But it was!

The game started – I went out there and I missed my first six shots. I had to call a timeout because I was really feeling the pressure. I thought to myself, ‘Forget it, I can’t get it’. But my coach and my teammates had my back.

So I went back in and I started heating up. By the end of the first quarter I had 20 points. In the second quarter I scored 33. That is an NBA record by the way – that is a record that still stands today.

I had 53 points already, before the half, and I only needed six more. Once I got to 59, the coach said ‘Well you’ve got it now, we’re gonna take you out’. But I asked him to keep me in the game. ‘Coach, let me get a couple more just to be sure,’ I asked, ‘What if they didn’t get the calculations right?’

So I played a few more minutes and finished with 63 points. In 33 minutes. See, people talk about the points, but it is the efficiency that you must look at. It is the efficiency – 33 minutes to get 63 points – that is important.

That was The Iceman’s first scoring title: he won two more over the next two years and finished with four in five years between 1979-1982. But what he insisted during our interview was that the number of points weren’t as important as the high-percentage (51.1 percent) with which he scored them.

After his NBA career ended, Gervin played a few years in Europe, featuring in stints with Banco Roma (Rome) and TDK Manresa (Spain). Over 20 years later, the list of NBA players who have started their pro careers overseas (Brandon Jennings), taken a mid-career stint overseas (Josh Childress), or are finishing their careers overseas (Allen Iverson) continues to grow.

“Bob McAdoo and I were probably the first big name players to go overseas and play,” he said, “It was just the beginning then. Now, you see how much things have changed and how amazingly global the NBA has become.”

And the global influence of the game has effected every aspect of it: from foreigners playing in the NBA, to NBA players going to foreign countries to play, to NBA games being held in other countries like the Raptors/Nets games in London last week. More than ever now, NBA-affiliated programs and leagues are spreading over the globe, from Europe, South America, Africa, South-East Asia, and of course, China and India.

“With the NBA Cares program, you now have NBA-related events all over the world to involve kids in basketball,” Gervin added, “We want to use basketball as a tool to make sure that the kids get a good education. I enjoy working with kids a lot and have been doing it at my academy back in San Antonio, but this is the first time I’m doing something like this overseas – hopefully I can come back to India in the future.”

While in India, Gervin and Katie conducted basketball clinics with the Indian youth, met with university students, and participated in local community events in underserved areas. In Delhi and Mumbai, the two attended the finals of the Mahindra NBA Challenge, a recreational, inner-city league organized in several Indian cities in the past two years. Additionally, In Mumbai, they participated in a clinic at the YMCA International Court and held a special Women’s Empowerment Clinic at Sophia College for students from Sophia College and SNDT Women’s University. They also held a basketball clinic with students of Magic Bus, a non-profit organization working with children from marginalized backgrounds.

In Delhi, Gervin and Smith held more clinics at universities, school, and even a special basketball beginner’s clinic for underprivileged children in the outskirts of the city.

It was a great gesture by the two, particularly Gervin, an older legend of the game, to come halfway across the world to share his hoops enthusiasm, even though it was to an audience that were too far-removed from his achievements and his highlight reels. Last year, current All-Stars Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol were in India, and they were obviously treated with louder fanfare. But it would be reckless to forget about legends like Gervin: I found an interview with Austin Kent of ‘The Good Point’ a few years ago, where The Iceman had said “When I played, the media wasn’t as involved, the technology wasn’t there. If the world had a chance to see a lot of the guys – like myself – in this era, we would probably be looked at differently.”

Well, in India, we got to see a very different Iceman; we got to see someone who has a new legend off the court that matches the Hall-of-Fame career he had on it.

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