NBA Legend George Gervin Reflects on Historic 1977 HORSE Tournament, 2020 Hall of Fame Class
George Gervin’s version of a coronavirus quarantine isn’t like yours and mine. For one, the nine-time NBA All-Star and four-time scoring champion for the San Antonio Spurs hasn’t gotten on a single Zoom video conference, though that hasn’t stopped him from keeping up with friends and fellow legends like Clyde Drexler and Artis Gilmore.
And while billions of people around the world are coping with “cabin fever,” George has been relatively free to roam—not in town, of course. Rather, “The Iceman,” as he’s long been known, can maintain plenty of physical distance from his neighbors while thwacking golf balls at the driving range on his 30-acre ranch outside the Alamo City.
“I'm a golf enthusiast, man,” he tells CloseUp360. “I love the game.”
Like so many fans starved for fresh sports, George will be tuning into Sunday’s NBA HORSE tournament, featuring All-Stars Chris Paul and Trae Young along with current standouts Mike Conley Jr. and Zach LaVine, soon-to-be Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Tamika Catchings, WNBA All-Star Allie Quigley, and retired legends Paul Pierce and Chauncey Billups.
But unlike most observers, George will be one of the few watching who has actually participated in an NBA-sanctioned version of the classic playground shooting game. Prior to the 1977-78 season, he and a field of stars—including Paul Westphal, Bob McAdoo and "Pistol" Pete Maravich—participated in a pre-recorded HORSE challenge, with matchups airing during halftime of CBS' broadcasts of NBA regular-season and playoff games.
CloseUp360 caught up with “Ice” by phone to discuss his trick shot battle with “Pistol” Pete, his favorite candidate in this weekend’s field, Michael Jordan’s evolution from a young Bull to The Last Dance, this year’s Hall of Fame class—headlined by Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and fellow Spur Tim Duncan—and how COVID-19 is affecting both his sport of choice and his hometown of Detroit.
(The interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
George "The Iceman" Gervin competed in the NBA's first official HORSE tournament during the 1977-78 season. (Pounding The Rock)
CloseUp360: Your hometown of Detroit is having issues with the coronavirus. It's becoming a hot spot for cases. What's your perspective on what's going on there right now?
George Gervin: Well, I mean, it's tough to hear. You gotta follow the facts, man, and the facts say that this thing can spread, and the best way to protect yourself is to stay in until we can get a better perspective on who got it, who had it, and find a way to maintain it. It's sad to hear, man, but we got to all pull together, man, to fight this thing. You just got to pay attention to the authorities, man, and the doctors if you wanna try to make this thing better.
CU360: What's your reaction to the NBA shutting down and how things have progressed in the basketball world since then?
GG: This is the part that make people realize, man, we all are human, no matter what kind of job you got. Who we are, man, it's the human part that affects everybody, you know. This is where it comes to leadership. So you've obviously got to be proud of the NBA and its leadership, man, for shutting things down and understanding the situation that we're in. No matter what, man, you know you got to protect life. I think the guys, Adam [Silver] made a great decision by shutting things down.
CU360: What was your reaction when you heard that the NBA was going to be putting on a HORSE competition?
GG: Well, when you talk about HORSE, I think I might've been in one of the first ones, back in the '70s. We had a little round robin tournament. Pete [Maravich] ended up beating me. I think it's great, man. It's all about entertainment, man. People need it, man. People need something. People need to take they minds off of just sitting around and not being entertained. You know, we're a world of entertainment, of being entertained. To be able to create some opportunities for people to take they minds off this sickness going around, man, I think it's a good deal.
CU360: What do you remember about that HORSE competition you were in?
GG: Man, I remember Pete beating me! I'm still mad, man. I mean, Pete ain't here for me to tell him that, but, you know, I was a scorer, man. I could put the ball in the hole, man, from anywhere, man. But Pete was a trick artist, you know. I felt I could beat him, man, if I just stayed simple, you know. And, you know, in playing HORSE, it's the guy that has the lead that has the advantage. Boy, I missed a shot and gave him the lead, and I'll never forget him telling me, he was saying, "Uh oh, Ice" [laughs]. That's when he went to his little routine, sitting on the floor and spinning it off the glass. Boy, he was a special guy, man. When you're talking about trick shot artists, man, Pete probably had to be the best in the game.
CU360: He was known for that. Pistol Pete was an all-timer with trick shots.
GG: Oh, man! He wasn't a real good bank shooter, and I was a great bank shooter. I kind of took a couple of letters on him shooting bank shots. And then I had the last chance to keep him behind me and went in the corner, shot a jumper, man, when he said, "Uh oh, Ice" [laughs]. Never forgot it, man. I mean, after all these years, man, I was telling my wife, I was saying, "Man, I never forgot how Pete beat me."
CU360: How did you come to be involved in that competition?
GG: Before the HORSE, the NBA used to have one-on-one. They had a one-on-one round robin, where NBA guys would play like we did the HORSE, but they would do one-on-one. So it was just that kind of concept, you know. I don't know who came up with it. I mean, it was done in the summertime and it was quite interesting because everybody grew up playing HORSE. Then, when you look at doing it on the professional level, it even makes it more exciting. So I just signed up. I don't remember all the other guys I beat, but I know Pete beat me.
CU360: What sort of preparation went into that for you?
GG: None. Just show up.
CU360: You already had all the tricks in your bag?
GG: Yeah. But I stayed in shape, you know what I mean? And I shot all the time and played all the time in the summer. After the season, I used to take off and we'd go somewhere with the family, and then I'd get back in the gym. I loved it, man. I loved the game. It just so happened, it was right up my alley to be able to participate in an event like that. So I was glad they did it, and I'm quite sure these guys gon' be glad to participate in it, man. It's good to do little stuff like this, man. The NBA always been pretty creative. I kind of look forward to looking at it.
CU360: Did you have any particular HORSE shots in your arsenal?
GG: In-front bank shots. You know, that's a hard shot, man. Like, a top-of-the-key bank shot. That's a hard shot. You know, because I ain't a trick shot artist shooter. I'm an angles guy. You know, I'm a geometry kind of guy, where I shoot angles. Everybody can't do that. You know, just think. You look at the league today, man, you got very few bank shooters. And that's the best shot in basketball, to me!
CU360: If you get it in that square, it's going in.
GG: Get it in that square, but see, it's two squares. I used to do camps and stuff, and I used to ask the kids, "How many squares up on that backboard?" I used to always say two. They'd be saying, "No, that's a rectangle" [laughs]. They correct me and stuff. I say, "Okay, a square and a rectangle."
CU360: The NBA brought back the HORSE competition for All-Star Weekend in 2009 and 2010, and Kevin Durant won both of those.
GG: He can shoot it. It's all about consistency. You know, it's like with Pete. If I could've kept him out of his strength and kept it in my strength, then I had a better chance to win. I had a better percentage to win it. And that's the key to HORSE. My strategy always was, if I got to make 10 banks in a row, it may not be exciting to people, but if I got to make 10 banks in a row, you got to make 10. So I'm taking the lead, you know, and I'm going with my strength. Because I tried to tell the ref, I said, "Okay, jump shot, no rim," and he said, "Oh, Ice, you can't call no rim." I said, "Well, we playin' HORSE!" He said, "No, you can't call no rim." I said, "Oh, well you takin' it away from me then. You're limiting my ability to win the HORSE contest."
So that was my strength. My strength was shooting the ball and not hitting the rim at all. Just pure. So all net. You know, little short jumpers are tough. It ain't as exciting as Pete, because Pete take it, spin it off the floor and spin it off his finger and put it up and spin it off the glass. But that's HORSE. Take the strength away. So if I could've took that strength from Pete, man, I could've beat ol' Pete [laughs].
CU360: The key is taking control, determining the shot and playing to your own strengths.
GG: That's right. That's the key right there, man. Everybody ain't the same, man. So if you got a nice little right- and a left-hand hook, let me see him a little right, left hand. I had both of them. I could throw a left and right hand up. So everybody can't throw a right- and left-hand hook, you know. It's all about being consistent, man. Hell, if I can shoot 10 bank shots in a row, I'm quite sure he ain't gonna be able to shoot 10 in a row.
CU360: What would you say is the toughest shot that people don't realize is as difficult as it is?
GG: Finger roll, baby [laughs]! The finger roll, I think is the toughest shot.
CU360: That's your specialty!
GG: Hey, that's my own shot there, so that's why I said it. It's hard to say, man, because, you know, we don't know what they good at. You know what I mean? I have to go back to how we played. Pete stood underneath the basket, out of bounds, jumped in and twisted it off the glass and laid it up, because that's stuff that he practiced. He knew he could do it, so we don't know what these guys would be practicing and trying to do, and do it consistently. So it's hard to say what would be the hardest shot, you know what I'm saying? You don't know what these guys have been practicing, man. Some guy could be going to the hole and putting it in between his legs and laying it up, or twisting it off the glass. We just don't know 'cause it's HORSE. The key is to get a lot of letters on you, so whatever it takes.
CU360: Who would you say is the favorite from the upcoming field, which features Chris Paul, Trae Young, Zach LaVine, Mike Conley Jr., Tamika Catchings, Paul Pierce, Chauncey Billups and Allie Quigley?
GG: Trae Young.
CU360: Why Trae?
GG: Man, he could shoot the ball so deep, man, and everybody else, maybe except Chauncey, can't shoot it that deep. He can shoot the ball so deep, man [laughs]. I mean, he young. He probably is the youngest. I think it's his to lose. So that's who I'll go with.
CU360: You think he'll just be launching shots from halfcourt?
GG: Woo! It's better if he could call no rim.
CU360: It's funny you say Trae and Chauncey are the only ones who can shoot from deep, because they're going to be matched up in the first round. I guess we'll find out who can really handle those shots.
GG: Yeah, Chauncey, man, Chauncey got a habit of doing that kind of stuff, too. It'll be interesting, man. Give us something. Entertain us, man. Entertain us! That's what we need.
CU360: Have you watched any of your own classic games during this time?
GG: Nah, nah. You know what I just watched, man? I just watched that scoring championship deal with me and David Thompson. You know, they had that little deal, the little animated deal, when me and David Thompson was going for my first scoring title. April 9 was the [day] that we did it in '77-'78. They just had the anniversary, so they kind of showed that.
CU360: What do you remember about that day?
GG: I remember it was special, man. Shoot! That day there was real special, man—the feat that they probably thought never could be done, man. The closest scoring race in NBA history right there. You know, so that was kind of exciting, man. You know, I still get goose bumps, man. The guy that did it, man, I think he did an unbelievable job in telling the story. He did a great job, man. I haven't had a chance to tell him "thank you" yet, but he did a good job on that. We didn't have no film on that game.
CU360: David Thompson went before you, but you didn't even get to watch his game? They just told you that was where the scoring race was at?
GG: Matter of fact, we played the same day. He played that afternoon and I had a chance to play at night, so I knew what happened. They called and told me what I had to do. They said, "You need 59 [points]." I said, "59?" The rest is history. I got 63 [laughs].
CU360: You got just enough.
GG: Just enough.
CU360: Among other things that'll be occupying our time in the coming weeks is The Last Dance, the upcoming documentary about Michael Jordan's final season with the Chicago Bulls. You played with Jordan earlier in his career when you were with the Bulls. What do you remember about Michael back then, and following him throughout his career and seeing what he became?
GG: I played with him his second year. He just had a drive, man, that I ain't really seen in any ballplayer. When I say drive, his drive to win, you know. That made him special. He was already talented. Then to have that drive, he didn't never like to lose in practice. He played hard in practice. Man, he was who he turned out to be, one of the greatest to ever play. We didn't see that then in his second year. It was just the potential that he showed, the desire to play. Then he ended up getting hurt, so he sat out  games. I was older then. I was on my way out. That was my last year in the NBA, that '85-'86 year. So he got a chance to see the old "Iceman," but had some opportunity to see the "Iceman" of old, too.
You know, I had some pretty good games and stuff while he was sitting down, so he got a chance to see me play. I mean, it was fun to be able to have that kind of relationship and teammate, to see what he turned out to be, you know, because I had a chance to see it from the beginning. It's like, I started my career with Dr. J [Julius Erving] in the ABA and I finished my career with Michael Jordan in the NBA. So I had the chance to see the best of both worlds. People always ask, "Well, who was better?" Both of them was great. I mean, who was better? It all depends what criteria you use, you know.
But it's hard to beat Mike, man. He won six championships, and he was MVP of the league and MVP of the Finals. He was just special, man. This documentary, just to be able to show the facts, you know what I mean? He and myself probably is one of the only two guys to score over 25,000 points, to shoot over 50 percent being guards, you know what I mean? He didn't just put it up, you know. And you could tell, he learned to shoot that in-between jump shot later on in his career.
I ain't saying he learned it from an old "Iceman" or nothing, but he figured it out, you know. And I think that took him to another level. He was already a great athlete, so he can get to the hole and do what he wanted to do. But being able to get by guys and pull up and shoot that in-between jumper, man, I know that changed his whole perspective on how to play this game.
CU360: Was there any advice or tips you gave Michael during your season with him, or was there anything he tried to pick your brain about?
GG: No, not really. I mean, he already had it. He knew what he had to do, you know what I'm saying? He sat and watched me for  games. I ain't gonna be the one to say that he learned something from me. He would have to be the one to tell you that. But I wasn't no "rudy poot", you know what I'm saying [laughs]? I look at guys before me that was great and took something from them. I maybe didn't tell 'em, you know. But I know just seeing greatness, how do you not at least take something from 'em? That's kind of like how I looked at it. Mike wasn't a very big talker, no way. He was a doer. He got it done, man. When you great like that, hell, sometimes, you don't know how you do it. You just do it.
CU360: Speaking of greatness, what do you make of this year's Hall of Fame class—headlined by Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Tamika Catchings—that will be joining you in Springfield?
GG: Good to see, man. I mean, obviously, I'm a little biased with my man Tim. I saw his whole career here in San Antonio. We didn't win a championship until he got here. He definitely is the greatest Spur of all time. I also think he's probably one of the greatest power forwards. They say he was a center, man, but I think he was more of a power forward in the game. And then Kevin Garnett, man, I always was a favorite of his because of how he came in the league. You know, to see him get this status. So I congratulate all of them, man. And then you think about Kobe and how he came in. You got two guys that came from high school that made the Hall of Fame. That's special.
Kobe was always one of my favorites because he's another one like Mike, had that drive, you know, to win. Kobe, he wasn't as consistent as far as shooting the ball, but he had that specialness about him where Kobe would go 5-for-20 during the game, and then it's the last shot of the game, he'll end up 6-for-21. You know, that's what made him so special—his drive, man, and then his not being afraid to lose. I think that always made him special, man. It wasn't a shot that he didn't think he couldn't make. I guess that's why he missed so many of them [laughs].
But he made the ones that counted. To me, man, that sets you apart. Mike was like that too, man. He wasn't afraid to take the shot that everybody will say, like, "Well, you missed, you lose." They was the kind of guys that said, "Well, give it to me and let's see." Everybody doesn't have that kind of drive. That's what separates people that compete. Very proud of them.
Tamika, I knew her when she first came in. Obviously, I played against her dad [Harvey Catchings]. I think that's something her dad's real proud of. You have a daughter that get in the Hall of Fame and you ain't, you know. ... But if it wasn't under him then it wouldn't be her. I mean, she really got it together, man. And she was a winner. She loved the game. She always loved people. She's always been very mannerable, so I congratulate her parents for giving her the values and morals and principles and stuff to help make up what she is. I mean, she's still a beautiful, young lady today, man. Just her character. I'm very proud of her becoming a member of the Hall of Fame.
CU360: When you think about this group, is it fair to say this might be the greatest class we've ever seen inducted into the Hall of Fame?
GG: Ever is always a tricky word, you know what I'm saying? It's a good one. Shaq and [Allen] Iverson and Yao [Ming] went in together. I ain't never saying ever. Like, you say Mike is the greatest ballplayer ever. As great as he was, I mean, if you throw "ever" in there, you're going out of bounds because then you've got to start asking, "What criteria are you using to say 'ever'?" You know what I mean? In my eyes and the way I think, I think that would be unfair. I think it's a great class to get in there. Proud of all of 'em, but it's a bunch of us standing in line and opening the door for 'em and welcoming them to our class.
CU360: Assuming everything settles down by August 29, you'll be in Springfield to welcome them into the Hall?
GG: I would love to be. If everything settle down, man, and we can get a hold of this corona, man, and let these guys and girls have they day to kind of tell us how they feel to be a part of what I think is the greatest honor a basketball player can have. And that's being a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.