He was a skinny, 21-year-old kid - just old enough to be a college junior. He had barely a year's pro basketball experience. He was a raw talent.
But in winter 1974, George Gervin gained the attention of commissioners, lawyers, a group of Virginia businessmen and a federal judge.
The strange tale of how Gervin became a member of the San Antonio Spurs dates back to when Earl Foreman obtained the American Basketball Association franchise in Oakland, Calif. - reportedly for the price of assuming its $500,000 debt - and moved it to the Washington, D.C., area. The team became the Virginia Squires in 1970, but never quite overcame its financial troubles.
Foreman came upon an idea for keeping the franchise afloat: He sold its best players. The list of former Squires sounds like a Who's Who of the ABA - Rick Barry, Dave Bing, Bob McAdoo, Julius Erving and Swen Nater.
The Spurs purchased Nater in November 1973. Gervin was sold to the Spurs in January 1974 for a reported $225,000.
ABA commissioner Mike Storen opposed the deal, probably on the grounds that selling off the Squires' last standout player would make the team unattractive to potential buyers. Foreman was looking to sell the team, but wanted what he could get for the players first.
Gervin wasn't too thrilled at the idea, either.
"I didn't want to come here. I was satisfied to play with Dr. J (Erving) and Fatty Taylor and those guys in Norfolk, Va.," Gervin said Monday after being selected for induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Sometime between when the deal was signed on Jan. 13 and when it was supposed to take effect on Jan. 31, Foreman had second thoughts - or someone had them for him. He wanted to back out. Gervin was staying put.
No way, said Spurs owner Angelo Drossos, who had worked out the deal. Drossos went to U.S. District Court Judge Adrian Spears in San Antonio and filed a lawsuit against Foreman and the Squires, forcing them to finish the transaction.
Foreman had the money. Drossos just wanted Gervin.
"Once Angelo went to work, and we all know what happens when Angelo goes to work, it was a deal," Gervin said.
At some point after the suit had been filed, Storen offered a compromise: Give Gervin back to the Squires, refund the $225,000, plus interest and attorneys' fees, to the Spurs and give them the Squires' George Carter instead. Drossos agreed, but a group of Virginia businessmen, who in the meantime had purchased the team from Foreman, was against it.
Storen called a news conference to say Gervin would stay a Squire.
"You do not have that power," Drossos said he told Storen after the news conference. "I will take whatever action necessary to preserve the rights of our stockholders."
Their parting words: "I'll take my best shot and you take your best shot."
Drossos' best shot was better.
Spears, outraged at the way Gervin was being bandied about, blistered the league and the Squires by granting the Spurs a 10-day injunction on Feb. 6.
"Unfortunately, the one most directly concerned, Mr. Gervin, has not even been made a party to this suit, and it must be disconcerting to him, to say the least, for his name to be bandied about while this controversy over where he is to play, and who for, is being pursued in the courts," Spears wrote in the injunction.
The court order said Gervin could play for no other ABA team for the next 10 days, which covered five games. The Spurs brought him to town and hid him at the Hilton Palacio del Rio. He started for the Spurs on Feb. 7.
Spears scheduled hearings on the suit for the week of Feb. 11-15, and heard from everyone from Drossos to Storen to Spurs coach Tom Nissalke. On Feb. 15, the judge announced he would have a decision within 10 days, "and hopefully sooner," and Gervin was allowed to play with the team for two more games.
Spears granted a temporary injunction in favor of the Spurs on Feb. 20 and made it permanent March 3, pending any appeals. His ruling was that Storen had no authority to block a legal deal, and the Squires had to live up to the agreement.
No one ever appealed the ruling, and Gervin was a Spur.
"Once I got here and saw how the fans were, the love they had for their basketball team, I knew I had found a home," Gervin said.
Chronology of a strange deal
- Jan. 29-30, 1974: At the ABA All-Star Game in Norfolk, Va., rumors are rampant that Virginia Squires owner Earl Foreman has sold forward George Gervin, the league's fourth-leading scorer, to the San Antonio Spurs. No one involved with either team will confirm the report on either day.
- Jan. 30: The Associated Press reports that Gervin has been sold to the Spurs. ABA Commissioner Mike Storen denies any knowledge of the sale of Gervin, but reports say he would veto any sale in the best interests of the team and the league.
- Jan. 31: Gervin remains with the Squires, but reports indicate that Foreman has paid a $250,000 debt he was unable to pay a month earlier. Spurs trustee Angelo Drossos and general manager Jack Ankerson meet with Storen and Foreman about a purchase of Squires forward George Carter, but nothing is decided.
- Feb. 1: The Spurs file suit in U.S. Western District Court in San Antonio against Foreman and the Squires, alleging the Squires reneged on the deal to sell Gervin to the Spurs.
- Feb. 3: Gervin leaves the Squires, who are in Salt Lake City for a game with the Utah Stars.
- Feb. 6: U.S. District Judge Adrian Spears issues a restraining order stating that Gervin cannot play for any other ABA team for the next 10 days. It also prevents the league from doing anything about the situation for the same period of time. The Spurs hold a news conference to announce that Gervin will play for the team for at least the next five games, and he will wear No. 44.
- Feb. 7: Gervin starts and scores 12 points as the Spurs fall to the Stars, 86-83.
- Feb. 8: Foreman sells the Squires to a group of Norfolk businessmen, who say their first move will be to regain Gervin.
- Feb. 15: After a week of hearings, Spears says he will have a decision on the case within 10 days, and "possibly sooner." He says his previous order will be extended for 10 more days, giving Gervin two more games with the Spurs. In testimony, Storen says he had offered Drossos a compromise - Virginia would keep Gervin and give the Spurs back the $225,000 plus interest and attorney's fees, and the Spurs also would get Carter. Drossos agreed, but the Squires' new owners vetoed it.
- Feb. 19: Spears grants a preliminary injunction in favor of the Spurs, saying Storen did not have the authority to block the deal. League sources say Storen probably will not pursue the matter further.
- March 6: Spears grants the Spurs a permanent injunction, allowing Gervin to remain with the team.
- Postscript: The league never filed an appeal. Gervin went on to average 23.4 points a game for the season, fourth in the league, and the Spurs lost to Indiana in the first round of the playoffs. Virginia went 28-56, then won only 15 games in each of the next two ABA seasons and folded before the merger with the NBA in 1976.
This article Copyright © David King and the San Antonio Express-News and used with permission