George Gervin Ice’s The Celtics

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.”

 

 

What-If Larry Bird Retired In 1988?

Written By: Vinny @sailboatstudios

 

It’s difficult to understand how great someone from the past really was, especially when you’ve never experienced them firsthand. This probably explains why so many people think LeBron is the greatest player ever. All under twenty-five-year olds have of Michael Jordan is YouTube clips, full games the lack the sense of mystery because the viewer knows how it ends. The cold hard numbers help the narrative that even Kobe Bryant is superior; the numbers don’t tell you Jordan took a sabbatical and missed 99 games. All I’m left with of Larry Joe Bird is the statistics, stories and grainy old footage. We label the 1980s as an overrated era of slow, rugby style basketball that couldn’t possibly work today. The past epic duels between Bird and Dominique, Dr. J, M.J, and Magic are forgotten. By the late-1980s Bird’s status grew to the popularity of where Tom Brady is right now. If there was a stat to describe how many times an athlete came through in the clutch, when fans knew they would, Bird would lead the league.

While the era of Brady lives on, Bird it hung up prematurely at the age of thirty-one. 31. Thirty-one. Reminiscent  of Red Auerbach did before the 1965-66 season Bird announced he was giving the rest of the league “one more” shot at knocking him down. Except Auerbach himself did everything short of getting on his knees to beg Larry not to keep true to his word. Camping out of Bird’s estate in French Lick, Indiana, it wasn’t until September when Red saw Bird laying down gravel in his mother’s driveway did he come to grips with the reality: Bird’s back been giving him trouble since 1985, and it would only get worse from here.

It’s alright, Larry.” He told him. “At Least we still have Lenny.”

And just like that the face of the franchise changed from this skinny gent “The Hick from French Lick” to a physical specimen from Maryland that rivaled Jordan in ego and competitive drive. “If it wasn’t for Bias, I wouldn’t have retired after ‘88.” Bird said in an interview with columnist Bill Simmons.

“What?” He didn’t believe it.

“We’ve just won the title, I finished second in the MVP vote to Jordan… I still felt like I had some good years left in the tank. But I knew the Celtics were in good hands. Lenny was someone I liked the moment I first saw him.

The change was drastic and threw fans into a loop. Fans were expected to toss away their black Converse sneaks in favor of a sleek black, white stripe shoes. Outside of New England the transition was easy; within the area they didn’t know how to feel. The sad era of fans thinking the NBA was “too black” wasn’t a distant memory. When Bird became the coach in 1990, fans chanted “Larry Larry Larry” after every win, Bird could’ve personally told them to stop and they wouldn’t.

Bias eventually won the younger generation over in the early 1990s, out-dueling M.J in the 1990 Semi-Final. Bias was Kawhi Leonard before Kawhi was a twinkle in his father’s eye. Locking up the scoring champ in Game 7, holding him down to sixteen points, five turnovers. “It was the worse game i’ve ever played.” Jordan would confess. Behind the lockdown perimeter defense of Bias and outside shooting of UConn shooting guard Reggie Lewis, the Celtics snuck into the NBA Finals, where they would bow out to the Portland Trailblazers. The team labeled “too old” and simultaneously “too young” the Celtics surprised many, Bias proved his worth as a successor to the legacy of Bird.

How could you not sympathize with the Danny White of the NBA? No matter how well Bias did, he was a mere mortal compared to Bird’s Staubach. Maybe a championship would’ve helped him escape the shadow of The Legend. But basketball is a team sport. The fossilizing of Kevin McHale; Auerbach’s inability to replace the greatest post player in NBA history, passing on Shawn Kemp for Michael Smith in the crucial 1989 NBA Draft set Bias up for failure. Coach Larry Bird tried to get around the aging Kevin’s mcHale by experimenting with the 6’5 Kevin Gamble at the power forward spot, but when playoff time rolled around he went back to the traditional lineup that couldn’t keep up with the speed of the Bulls.

It wasn’t until the death of Reggie Lewis in June of 1993 did fans learn to appreciate the talent before them, realizing how good they got it. Bravely the twenty-nine-year old Bias lead the Celtics through the despair, leading the undermanned Celtics passed the Hornets and heavily favored Knicks en route to a gallant defeat at the hands of Jordan. And thus, the book closed on the Bias era in Boston, fans didn’t know it then.

Three Eastern Conference appearance, two-time runner-up, five Atlantic division titles, getting the best of the GOAT twice(!) in the playoffs. It wasn’t enough. He was Superboy taking over for Superman. Any other team Bias would’ve been revered. But not here, where all that matters is bringing home the Larry O’Brien trophy every year.