For the San Antonio Spurs, the 1970’s was all about coming in dreadful second year after year. Lead by the prolific scorer George Gervin, the Spurs won 191 of the 328 games they’ve played from 1976-77 and 1980-81, failing to make the finals every one of those years. The closest they came was in 1979, losing a hotly contested conference finals (back when they were in the East) to the Washington Bullets, after going up 3 games to 1, the Spurs dropped three straight to the Bullets and seemingly missed their window.
The NBA of 1980 was different than in 1978. There were two big dawgs roaming the junkyard, ready to push out the old dawgs. Moses Malone, Erving “Magic” Johnson, Larry Bird gunned for the likes of Gervin and Julius Erving. If the Spurs were going to change content in this new era of fast-paced, two-way basketball, they had to get clever with how they molded their roster, and general manager Bob Bass was up for that challenge. After a pedestrian 41-41 record in 1979-80, Bass needed to overhaul the defense, which gave up a league worst 119.7 points per game, ranking 22nd. He fired Doug Moe and installed Stan Albeck as head coach. Bass didn’t want to score 120 a game and hope to God the opponent didn’t get to 121. Electing not to re-sign twenty-seven year-old Larry Kennon, Bass received two draft picks in return for the five-time All-Star as compensation, one from the Bulls themselves, the other from the league. In the 1980 draft, prior, Bass selected University of Tennessee power forward Reggie Johnson to help the defensive woes in the front court. Later, he would trade for Washington Bullets center Dave Corzine and Portland Trail Blazer two-guard Ron Brewer to help shore up the bench.
The ‘Bruise Brothers’ consisted of hard nosed big men like the aforementioned Corzine, Mark Olberding, George and Reggie Johnson, they ranked first in the league in blocks per game (7.8), and helped the Spurs defense to a more respectable seventeenth in the league. Behind Gervin’s ever reliable scoring, the Spurs finished 52-30, earning a first-round bye in the 1981 postseason. A hard-fought seven game series against Moses Malone and the Houston Rockets, the Spurs ended their Cinderella run, survive small point guard Calvin Murphy’s offensive explosion for 42-points. Behind George Gervin and his selfish backcourt mate James Silas, the Spurs survived and advanced to the Conference Finals for the first time in their heartbreaking lost to the Bullets in ‘79.
The “Iceman” was eager to carve his name into the long list of champions, years spent paying his dues have lead to this moment under the bright lights of the Boston Garden. The Spurs faced the Celtics twice in the 1980-81 season, losing both times, one of those games ended in a unlikely Gervin – Robert Parish duel, Iceman finished with 40 points, the center rallied up 49 in the close Celtics win.
There wasn’t a more star studded cast of players in the East outside of the Celtics. Nate “Tiny” Archibald, Cedric Maxwell, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Larry Bird, the ‘81 Celtics could kill you in a variety of ways. The Spurs, on the other hand, in a defensive oriented league, had to hold together their core with duck tape. How were they ever going to stop the leaner, meaner Celtics? Why, George Gervin, of course. Twenty-nine points to open up the series, followed by thirty-six, then forty-one in Game 3 at San Antonio. Finally, Bill Fitch decided to double-team the electric two-guard. Fitch should thank his lucky stars the series was only 2-1 in favor of San Antonio.
Stan Albeck raised eyebrows around San Antonio shorting the playing time of point guard James Silas, a unselfish veteran that perfectly fit the shoot-first guard Gervin. Silas was benched in favor of 22-year-old Johnny Moore, who shot a respectable 47.9% from the field off of 6.3 attempts per game; Silas shoots 47.7% on 13.3 attempts per game. Still, Moore was a skilled passer and better fit the defensive identity Albeck was going for, Moore averaging 1.5 steals a game, to Silas’s 0.7.
For Boston, Bird struggles forced the veteran forward Cedric Maxwell to pick up the slack on offense. The task with guarding Gervin on one end of the floor drained the second-year pro from Indiana State of his energy. “Just when you think you’ve got him where you want him, he rises above you and drains a jump shot without breaking a sweat.” Bird said after Game 2. Fitch adjusted, placing Bird on the offensively challenged Olberding, and placing twenty-five-year-old Gerald Henderson on Gervin, after veteran guard Chris Ford fell to injury. The change proved unsuccessful, Gervin still thrived as the finesse of the San Antonio Spurs backcourt proved too much for the grisly Celtics to overcome. The series ended in six, a rowdy Spurs crowd charges the court, mobbing hero George Gervin after a 51-point performance to close the series out.
“I told you Ice had them on the run!” George howls to reporters on the way to the locker room to get a the traditional championship champagne shower. “They didn’t want any part of Ice!” Gervin waited a long time for the chance to redeem himself for his past failures, he relished pointing out which reporter doubted him and his abilities to take a team to the next level. Gervin’s line was what you’d expect out of a All-NBA First Team player, 28.5 points on a cool 49% shooting, while the rebound and assists were low, the Spurs didn’t need Gervin to do anymore than he was comfortable with.
Bob Bass graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, credited as the man who “Saved the Spurs”, a moniker that bothered Gervin as it did others on the Spurs. But Bass was a courteous fellow, throwing water on the smoke before it became a fire. “It all starts with Gervin” he said proudly. “A GM is only so lucky to walk into a situation with a cornerstone like George already in house. Corzine, the Johnson Boys anchored our defense and helped us get passed the Malone’s of the world. That’s no easy feat.”