NBA 75: George Gervin, the face of a franchise, gets dealt by Spurs

The NBA is celebrating players from the NBA 75 list almost daily from now until the end of the season. Today’s honoree is George Gervin, who became superstar as “the Iceman” with the Spurs but was traded to the Bulls near the end of his career. This column, by Jan Hubbard, originally appeared in the Nov. 11, 1985, issue of The Sporting News under the headline, “Spurs Should’ve Dealt Gervin Sooner.”

DALLAS — Pardon the exaggeration, but when you’ve been getting nailed in print as hard and as often as Angelo Drossos, it is only natural to take the offensive. Drossos understands that it is not important if something is positive or negative, all that matters is how it is perceived

Therefore, he does his best to turn something perceived as negative into a positive for his San Antonio Spurs, who infuriated much of the San Antonio media and the public October 24 when they traded George Gervin, the franchise’s favorite son, to Chicago for David Greenwood.

At the time, Drossos, the Spurs’ president, said the trade “probably would be the most unpopular move in the history of the franchise.”

NBA 75: George Gervin was ‘Iceberg Slim’ before his Spurs days

It probably was, but Gervin had backed Spurs management and Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons into a corner. Gervin had missed two practices without notifying Fitzsimmons, a demanding disciplinarian and teacher. Fitzsimmons said he had been lenient with Gervin’s lax practice habits in the past, but he obviously had had enough. So the Spurs gave Gervin the choice of retiring with full pay, accepting a trade or being waived

The trade was consummated because Greenwood was not in Chicago’s plans, and Bulls Coach Stan Albeck coached Gervin for three years in San Antonio.

Greenwood played far better than anyone expected after reporting to San Antonio. In a game against Utah, he had 20 rebounds. As Drossos said, “You could lock some forwards in a gym by themselves and they still wouldn’t get 20 rebounds.”

After that. Drossos attempted to mute some of the criticism of the Gervin trade by saying the Spurs were going to have the most exciting team we’ve had in 13 years.”

That’s a bit excessive, especially considering the exciting Doug Moe teams of the late ’70s. Remember the run-and-gun Spurs featuring Gervin, James Silas and Larry Kenon? Or what about the Albeck teams that averaged 51 victories a season for three years through 1983? Preseason predictors were so impressed with the current, “exciting” Spurs that it was popular to to put them in the Midwest Division cellar.

And Spurs fans weren’t that excited, either. On the night Greenwood had 20 rebounds against Utah, only 5,213 paid to see the game. When the American Basketball Association’s Dallas Chaparrals moved to San Antonio and became the Spurs in 1973, there were 16 crowds smaller than that. Since then, however, there have been only three smaller, and none has been smaller since the Spurs and three other ABA teams joined the NBA in 1976.

Despite all of the negative ramifications, the Spurs did the right thing in making the trade. Greenwood has not played particularly well the last three years, but he is only 28. He was the second player taken in the 1979 draft after the Lakers chose Magic Johnson.

The last two years, the Spurs won 37 and 11 games, respectively, with Gervin, who is 33. If anything the Spurs should have made the move to rebuild by trading Gervin sooner.

They still have rebuilding to do. Artis Gilmore is 36 and near retirement. But with Greenwood, Steve Johnson (28), Johnny Moore (27), Mike Mitchell (29) and Alvin Robertson (23), who has shown signs of stardom at guard, the Spurs have a nucleus of youth and experience.

They also have height — six players 6-9 or taller. And they are a team with nothing to lose because of the low expectations. When talking about the team. Fitzsimmons says. “This is a fun team to coach.” The implication is obvious. It no longer was fun making allowances for Gervin.

The Spurs will have two Initial problems, however. Free agents Marc lavaroni and Wes Matthews did not join the team until two weeks after training camp began. Guard Jon Sundvold was acquired from Seattle two days before the regular season. Greenwood was acquired the next day. Moore, another free agent, signed after the season began. In all, there are eight players on the roster who were not with the team this time a year ago..

“We’ve got to get acquainted,” Fitzsimmons said. “We’re playing the way I want. We re pushing the ball up, getting after everybody defensively, working extremely hard. But it’s hard to get continuity for 48 minutes.”

And until the Spurs get continuity and begin winning consistently, the fans will not be enthusiastic about paying for tickets The franchise is in no danger, however. Because of sweetheart concessions and arena lease deals, Drossos said, “Financially we are healthy.”

But they are without the Iceman, and it does seem strange. For 13 years. George Gervin was the San Antonio Spurs. Even legends are traded, however.

“It was very hard to imagine,” said Mitchell, “but then you have to get back to reality, and that kind of stuff can happen in the NBA. This is a business. No matter what happens, the best in the world can be traded. The rest of us have to go on.”