Some days go better than others for an old man staging a comeback in a young man's game. But this doesn't appear to be one of them.
Twenty-thousand feet above the frozen middle of America, George Gervin stares out at the snow, listens for the dull roar of twin propellers, and shudders. He draws a full-length coyote fur across his shoulders, considers the question, and shudders again.
Even an Iceman feels the chill sometime.
"I'm not the same guy I was 10 years ago, and I'd be a damned fool if I thought I was," he said. "But the game is still about winning and entertainment, and even with all that's passed in the meantime, I can still fit both of those molds."
Ten years ago, George (Iceman) Gervin held the basketball world in his large, finely boned hands. He was 27 and living a millionaire's life in San Antonio, Tex., flying across the country in chartered jets while purposefully carving a path toward the second of his four NBA scoring titles and the third of nine consecutive All-Star appearances.
Sunday, headed home to the Quad Cities and seeming as handsome and polite and graceful as he ever was, George Gervin set out on Day 10 of his campaign to retain a grip on the larger world and reclaim some small corner of his sport. He is 37 now, a recovering cocaine addict with only some of his magic left, flying puddle-jumpers to Continental Basketball Assn. stops like Grand Rapids, Mich.; Sioux Falls, Iowa; Rapid City, S.D., and Wichita Falls, Tex., searching out the fastest route back to the big time.
He harbors doubts about many things, but none about his eventual success.
"Sobriety is still my No. 1 priority," he said. "I don't hide the fact that I'm a recovering addict. In fact, I'm proud about it--it's better than just being an addict.
"Compared to that, basketball is just a job, even though my love for the game never left. I played all the time I was in rehab in Houston, and I'm the type of player who was always able to get my game together by myself. My conditioning is coming along and all I need is to get my timing back.
"Of course, everybody likes to be remembered, and right now, the memories people have of me aren't all bad. I don't expect to make it back as a superstar. I can settle for a role. This is humbling, but it's an important step for me, both as an addict and a basketball player.
"And if things don't work out with the game, well, at some point, I'm going to have to do some soul-searching . . . sit down and look hard at this dream and see if it really can come true."
Sunday, George Gervin looked like any other $600-a-week employee of the Quad City Thunder trying to survive his fourth game in five nights. Trying to show flashes of brilliance, trying to avoid serious injury, trying to match cunning and his unerring feel for the flow of the game against the muscle of young bucks who once idolized him, but now want to run over him and get on with their own stalled careers:
Gervin misses his first three shot attempts with former UNLV and current Rapid City Thriller star Jarvis Basnight breathing down his neck. His fourth, a right-handed jump hook at 5:39, finds its mark and some three minutes later, he picks up a loose ball in the lane with his back to the basket, spins to his right and softly kisses a left-handed hook off the glass.
As the night wore on, it became apparent that even though the circumstances of Gervin's life have changed, his game has not. He scored 24 points in 37 minutes--both about average for his short CBA tour of duty--and still regarded defense as the interlude between his last shot and his next.
"I'm from Detroit, too, so I saw him a lot growing up and he's still kind of a hero of mine," Basnight said afterward. "And he still knows when to lay low and when to start it up.
"I've got faith in him. He can still do it when he needs to, and there have got to be some teams out there who can use his 20 points a night."
Gervin settled on the Quad City franchise because here in western Illinois, of all places, he found an after-care facility where he could continue his rehabilitation. In the bargain, he got a headstrong and innovative owner, Anne Potter DeLong, the daughter of a publishing magnate and pro basketball's only female chief executive. And he got a veteran CBA coach, Mauro Panaggio, who was willing to retool his offense to get Gervin his time and his points.
When he hit bottom last February, overdosing on cocaine, George Gervin sat in a rented apartment in San Antonio, separated from his family, and tried to figure out his first step.
"It was either go to the hospital and face all the publicity or . . . " he said, his voice trailing off. "At that point, I didn't give a damn about the publicity. I wanted to live."
For all Gervin's willingness to break silence, however, some revelations will have to wait. He has completed six chapters of an autobiography titled "Pieces of Ice," and there, among other things, he will disclose just how far back his battle with drugs stretches.
He makes little secret of the fact that he would like to be in the NBA at the time of release, but won't say exactly how long he's willing to wait to get there.
"There's only one question most people want answered anyway. Am I an old George Gervin," he said, flashing a disarming smile, "or the George Gervin of old?"