Mention the American Basketball Assn. to Hall of Famer George Gervin and his eyes twinkle, the same way they did when he was driving to the basket, winning four NBA scoring titles, earning his place as one of the 50 greatest players in history.
There are stories to tell, stories about that outlandish 3-point shot, stories about the red white and blue ball, stories about playing for a team with three home courts. Much of the anecdotal material is contained in an HBO special, “Long Shots, the Life and Times of the ABA,” debuting Monday night and airing seven more times this month.
The ABA’s longest shot was challenging the established NBA, a buttoned-down league that was not amused by the interlopers. It created a dandy battle for the hearts and minds of fans and players as the fly-by-the-seat-of-its-pants league sought to gain a foothold.
The ABA was run-and-gun basketball, a freewheeling operation where anything went. With no nightly highlights--cable TV was just a gleam in Ted Turner’s eye in those days--it was like basketball’s underground, a shadow league with little exposure. “Nobody saw us,” Gervin said. “We were a word-of-mouth league.”
All it had was talented, young players like Gervin, called the Iceman. He picked up the nickname from teammates Julius Erving and Fatty Taylor. “That was because I never broke a sweat,” he said. “I was 155 pounds with no water in me. People thought I was Ice because I was cool. Nope. It was because I was skinny.”
Strange things kept happening in the league, things like the mysterious sale of Gervin from the vagabond Virginia Squires, who played home games in Hampton, Norfolk and Richmond, to the better-funded San Antonio Spurs.
The Squires, who had already dumped Dr. J and others, were hesitant about the deal so they kept quiet while they considered it. Nobody even told Gervin. He continued to travel with the Squires, benched for no clear reason and getting telegrams at every stop from the Spurs telling him not to play for Virginia.
A tad confused, he turned to his agent. The two men flew to San Antonio, hoping to get the matter resolved. Gervin was squirreled away in a hotel, while the lawyers sorted out the mess. The Iceman was on ice and not a bit happy about it.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘What am I doing in San Antonio? There’s nothing here but the Alamo.”’
Finally, the issue was settled, and after a month Gervin was in a Spurs uniform. After that he became an anchor for the franchise and the city.
When ABA-NBA peace was approaching, Red Auerbach, remembering the player raids, the signing wars and the court fights, looked down his nose at the red, white and blue league and sneered, “Let ‘em rot.”
The young ABA players brought a different perspective. “We were 19, 20 years old,” Gervin said. “We wanted to run their tongues out. We were just as good as they were and we wanted our chance to show what we had.”
The ABA signed young players who brought with them the spirit of the playgrounds. “It was street ball. The ABA understood that stuff was entertaining.”
And the NBA? Gervin chuckled. “They were playing old-man ball,” he said. “They were peeking around the corner at us because they knew we could play. They scored 70, maybe 80 points a game. We scored that in a half. “
One particular half stuck in his mind.
When the Spurs arrived in Indiana for one game, the Pacers had a big promotion going. Gervin remembered the details. “They said if they held the Iceman under 30, everybody in the building would get free chicken,” he said.
This was a leftover from the old ABA promotions, when the league would do anything to bring in fans. Now in the NBA, the Pacers were still in promotion overdrive.
The lure of free chicken had the fans in a frenzy. Indiana did its part, assigning Dudley Bradley, known as the Secretary of Defense, to guard Gervin. This, of course, did not disturb the Iceman.
“First half, I scored 25,” he said, his eyes dancing at the memory.
As he trotted to the dressing room for halftime, Gervin had a message for some courtside fans.
“I was yelling at them, ‘No chicken tonight!’ I got 55. It’s still the arena record.”