San Antonio Spurs: George Gervin’s bizarre ABA trade of 1974

Portrait of George Gervin, guard for the San Antonio Spurs. Gervin, better known as 'Iceman' lead the league in scoring four times and was elected into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996.
Portrait of George Gervin, guard for the San Antonio Spurs. Gervin, better known as 'Iceman' lead the league in scoring four times and was elected into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996. /

A reminder of how the San Antonio Spurs acquired George Gervin, who went on to become one of the franchise’s greatest players.

Before David Robinson and Tim Duncan came along in the 1980’s and 90’s, respectively, George Gervin ruled the basketball court for the San Antonio Spurs. He’s maybe their most prolific scorer of all time, with an average of 26.3 points per game and a handful of scoring titles.

Gervin didn’t play his entire career in San Antonio. He started and ended it on different teams. While the season on the Chicago Bulls wasn’t anything to note, the Iceman’s career beginnings are worth the look-back, with the bizarre story of how he got traded to the Spurs in the 1973-74 ABA season.

*Information and quotes below come from Loose Balls by Terry Pluto*

After the 1971-72 college basketball season, Gervin left Eastern Michigan University for professional play. He went to the ABA and joined the Virginia Squires, the team NBA legend Julius Erving was on. It’s a lost piece of history that these two played on the same team, even though it lasted just one season.

The reason for this historic duo not lasting long? Money. The Squires were short on cash, so they gave away their star player to the New York Nets, who played at the old Long Island Arena in Commack, NY and the Nassau Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, NY. Dr. J averaged what turned to be a career high of 31.9 points and 2.5 steals in the 1972-73 season, his second and final one before the move to New York.

For the 1973-74 season, this left Gervin as the Squires’ primary player. He broke out, quickly living up to the hype Squires owner Earl Foreman told former ABA Commissioner Mike Storen about:

“I got a guy just like Julius Erving, only he shoots better.”

Gervin put up 25.4 points and 8.4 rebounds in the 49 games he played for the Squires in 1973-74. It was an 11-point spike from the previous year, which came with the increased minutes.

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Virginia was below-average, however. They were 18-31 in Gervin’s time there, and things only got worse from there.

Early in the season, Virginia traded center Swen Nater to the San Antonio Spurs for a draft pick but, most importantly to the team, cash. After this deal, Foreman looked to sell another player to get money back.

Angelo Drossos, the Spurs’ owner from 1973-88, claimed Foreman agreed to deal Gervin. It was called a “delayed-delivery” deal, which let Drossos pay Foreman $225,000 up front. After the 1974 All-Star Game, Gervin would go to San Antonio.

Drossos: “I said, ‘I’ll pay you the $225,000 now. We’ll wait until right after the All-Star Game and then you deliver Gervin to me. Until then, you can keep him.”

Earl said, “All right.”

It came with reluctance, however, as Foreman was aware of Gervin’s potential and popularity with the Squire fans. That was the smallest complication.

After the All-Star Game, Foreman told Drossos the Gervin deal can’t happen. Foreman told Storen this, who relayed back to Drossos that he can pick any player he wanted from the Squires, except Gervin, get his money back and 10 percent interest as a “penalty.” Drossos declined and said “No, we made a deal for Gervin. That’s the player I want.”

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Storen wouldn’t allow Drosses to acquire Gervin, so the Spurs owner went to measures that would receive all the press in the world in the modern-day NBA. Drossos called Gervin to tell him “federal marshals” would pull him off the court if he stepped onto it for Virginia, due to the Spurs being in possession of his contract.

Gervin and his agent went to San Antonio and worked out a new deal, but not before Storen came back into the mix. He told Drosses the Spurs would forfeit any game Gervin played for them, if he did not go back to Virginia. One angry telegram from Drossos later, and it went to court. Drossos won the decision, which took place in San Antonio, with a San Antonio judge.

Would anything like this happen in the modern-day basketball game? The closest that happens is second-round picks geting swapped for cash, but nothing close to the complexity of this, especially with an owner’s (Foreman) attempt to sell his best players for money. Think of this as if the Minnesota Timberwolves decided to sell Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins just a handful of years into their NBA careers. There would be an uproar over this, getting just cash. It would never happen, however, with draft picks and other asset-laden compensation packages used in trades. Teams also have more money than the cash-strapped ABA did, and by a mile.

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As for Gervin, the rest was history. He remained in San Antonio until the 1984-85 season and never averaged below 20 points per game. He peaked at 33.1 points in the 1979-80 season. Couple that with an All-Star Game appearance in every year he wore the Silver and Black.