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NBA legend George Gervin reflects on his career and his time at EMU ahead of statue reveal

George Gervin
EMU Athletics
George Gervin


Josh Hakala: When anyone thinks of Eastern Michigan basketball, the first name that comes up is George Gervin. He's not only one of the greatest players to ever wear the EMU uniform, but he later became one of the greatest NBA players in history. The university will honor the Iceman on Thursday when they unveil a statue at the arena that bears his name, the George Gervin GameAbove Center. George Gervin is here with us now on EMU, your home for EMU basketball. And thanks so much for joining me.

George Gervin: Hey, good to be here.

Josh Hakala: Hey, well, you had an incredible college and NBA career. You're named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. And then, for the 75th anniversary, they kept you on the list as one of the all-time greats. You're on the Basketball Hall of Fame. Your number 24 is retired by Eastern Michigan. Your number 44 is retired with the San Antonio Spurs. Your name is on the arena where EMU calls home. But getting a statue is a pretty special honor. What was your reaction when you found out that EMU wanted to put your legacy in stone in front of the arena?

George Gervin: Well, you know, first thing is I'm humbled. I mean, just having been my name on the arena, you know, it's humbling. I'm just thankful, you know? I'm thankful that, you know, Eastern Michigan will allow my name on the arena that represents Eastern Michigan. I'm real proud of it. You know, what can you say? Thank you. I mean, that's the word that first come out of my mind and feelings. Wow. You know, it just humbles you as a person there to be thought of, you know, in that capacity to where they want to put your name and now a statue of you. Wow. I mean, it's just unbelievable.

Josh Hakala: Did you have any input on the statue? Or did they just say, "We're making a statue. Show up on Thursday and we'll show it to you."

George Gervin: Well, I mean, obviously, I had input, but I think the people that they went to to design it, they have a lot of confidence. And the sculpture, you know, that it would represent not just me, but the university of what I look like. So, I think that's the most important part is it does look like me. And, you know, I have some pictures of it that, you know, obviously I haven't seen the statue itself, but it's incredible. I mean, Eastern Michigan and GameAbove didn't hold back. They went after one of the best sculptors in the country yet. And we'll get a chance together to see his work.

Josh Hakala: Well, you were a Detroit kid. You were a star player at Martin Luther King Junior High School. Your senior year really puts you on the map. You were an All-State selection. And you got recruited to play for the legendary Jerry Tarkanian, although, at the time, he was not legendary. He was just in his early days at Long Beach State. And Tarkanian was really just starting out. And, ultimately, it wasn't a good fit for you to play out there in California. And you came back to Michigan to play at EMU. Can you talk about that period in your life?

George Gervin: Well, you know, to play with Jerry Tarkanian would have been special. To play against UCLA would have been special. That was the opportunity that really got me to go out there also is to be able to play against a renowned UCLA. So, I went. But, you know, like everything else, the grass is greener on the other side, I thought. I never been anywhere. You know, I'm coming from the inner city of Detroit. I haven't been anywhere, you know, pretty much just out of Michigan. So, to take a 17/18 year old and put him in a situation that, you know, I wasn't used to, I wanted to come back home. Jerry, I told him that it don't have anything to do with you. I just want to, you know, go back home there. And Eastern Michigan was the place that, you know, I could achieve. So, you know, I made the necessary changes to come and play for Eastern Michigan.

Josh Hakala: Well, just for my own curiosity, did he chew on towels back then, or did that come later in life?

George Gervin: Well, no, but I know he chewed on a towel after I left. So, I don't know, man. But, you know, like I know him. He was one of the great coaches in that era at that time. But he would have been a fun game to play for.

Josh Hakala: What were some of your favorite memories from your time at Eastern Michigan?

George Gervin: Well, one of the special moments is I met my wife, Joyce. I met her her first year and her first day at Eastern Michigan. She was a freshman, and I became a sophomore at that time. So, that was probably one of the most special times in my life. And, 47 years later, we're still married. So, that to me, is a special place for me in that respect as far as creating and beginning my family. So that, in itself, to me is, you know, outstanding.

Josh Hakala: Yeah. It's nice to have not only your playing career start there, but having your family there just makes it even more special.

George Gervin: Wow, man! Because, you know, you ain't as old as I am, but, once you get to a certain stage in your life, we would always hope that it could be earlier that you find out family is everything--to be able to be with somebody and create life and spend your life together for the rest of your life. You know, it's unbelievable. So, you know, Eastern Michigan has so many good memories for me there. So, you know, I'm proud that I had that opportunity to go there, and look what came out of it for me.

Josh Hakala: Well, I'm here with basketball Hall of Famer George Gervin. He is being honored with a statue on Thursday at the George Gervin GameAbove center. And tell us. Where did you get the nickname The Iceman?

George Gervin: Well, once I became a young pro in the ABA, Paddy Taylor was the one that started calling me Ice. I was about 175/80 pounds, real thin, didn't sweat much, you know, when I played. You know, you play and everybody's soaking wet, and my uniform wasn't wet at all. And I competed real well. So, you know, he kind of started that Ice. He said, "Man, we played 30 minutes man! You ain't even sweating, man! That's like ice." And that's how that name came about. And they've been calling me Ice ever since, man. So, I kind of took to it myself.

Josh Hakala: Well, not only the nickname, but you also made the finger roll famous. And while some players utilize it from time to time, you see it in the modern game. But, much like the skyhook, which by the way, I will never understand why no one tries to emulate that, but very few players make that their go-to shot. Like, how did you first learn the finger roll? And why do you think we don't see it as much in the modern game?

George Gervin: Well, I mean, different era, you know? I, at the time, looked at Wilt Chamberlain. He had his own version of the finger roll. Tony Hawkins had his own version of the finger roll. And then, Dr. J had his own version. So, I looked at it. I'm really a copycat, you know? So, I kind of copycat it off of them players and kind of created my own version of the finger roll. So, you know, people ask me all the time if I'm the inventor of the finger roll. And I'm not the inventor. You know, I copied somebody else who had their own version. Then, I created mine. And mine was different, but yet it was mine. And mine is the one that really became famous. And I'm like you. If anybody 6-10 to 7 feet and don't throw a hook, you do wonder why not. You know, Kareem had, percentage-wise, one of the greatest shots in basketball history and with a lot of success. And we don't see it today when you see a lot of 6-10, 6-11, seven foot-tall players. They prefer to shoot a jumper. So, you know, the era changed, and they didn't do like I did. You know, I didn't have to reinvent the wheel. It was already invented. So, I learned from it and was able to utilize what I learned and make it better for me. You hear hookshot, you know it's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. You say finger roll, you know it's George Gervin.

Josh Hakala: Absolutely. And you were one of the best players in the ABA. And you were then with the San Antonio Spurs with the merger of the NBA. And I mean, the laundry list is huge: a nine-time All-Star, five-time all NBA first team selection, you led the league in scoring four times. The list goes on and on, but you played through some important basketball transitions. The merger, as I mentioned, into the eighties with the Lakers, Celtics, and later the Pistons. And then, of course, you had a front row seat seeing a young Michael Jordan in your last season in the NBA when he played with the Bulls. And some would say was sort of a passing of the torch. How have you seen the game evolve over your career? And how do you think the modern game is?

George Gervin: Well, it's beautiful. I'm a part of the foundation to see where the game has grown today. I then moved to play my last year in Chicago, you know, with Michael Jordan, really gave me a good perspective on how the game was evolving. To see him as a second-year player and just see how dominant his attitude was about winning. He played hard all the time. He played hard in practice. He played just as hard in practice as he did in the basketball game. I saw potential in him. It was scary. I never knew he was going to be as great as he was, but I saw the potential there. It was incredible. So, to be a part of that beginning from Michael and start my career with Julius Erving is special for me. It started with Julius and finished with Michael. You know, people always ask, "Well, who was the best?" Both of them were great. You know, we played two different eras. Both of them will be recognized in basketball history forever. So, I got a chance to experience it with both from a great experience, and I really appreciate both ones' careers.

Josh Hakala: So, I know a lot of people like to talk about and compare eras. Sometimes, it's not fair. But, you know, it is what it is with sports fans. But if I was to go back in time to take George Gervin in his prime and bring him into today's NBA, do you think your game would translate to today's league?

George Gervin: Oh, they can't touch it. I'd averaged 30 with hands on you. The day the game is played where it's not as physical. And the game is played also, when I'm played, the game was inside out. Now the game is outside in, you know? So, we saw the evolution of the game change. So, for me, I think I could play in this era. I think I have more of an advantage because I was fundamentally sound, you know? So, I understood how to play the game, I understood how to score, and I shot, you know, a great percentage. I shot 51% career. So, you would ask yourself, "Do you think Mr. Gervin could play in this era with the abilities that he had back in yesterday's era?" So, I would ask you to ask yourself that, you know, versus me then. Oh man, I could have a great time in this era, but in reality, I feel I really could.

Josh Hakala: One of the things I wanted to ask you about just because of your San Antonio Spurs connection, one of the greatest Spurs of all time, because it's a good time to be a Spurs fan right now. The Spurs won the lottery. They drafted Victor Wembanyama, the seven-foot-four teenage sensation. What are your impressions of him and the the future of the Spurs?

George Gervin: Wow! You know, definitely on the up! Once we got the first pick, you know, we knew Victor was out there, so everybody knew that's who our first round pick was going to be. So, 2000 season tickets the day after. So, potential-wise, he can be real special. His ability, I mean, for his size to be able to do the things he can with that basketball is pretty phenomenal. But being a ballplayer, just like anything else, potential is not anything until you do something. So, I'm real excited about this year. I think, personally, with his ability and how the game is played today, he's going to be outstanding. You know, bar injury because all of us going to get injured, you know, playing out there, and you know, we hope that he can stay healthy. I really think San Antonio is in for a treat. He's got basketball sense. He understands how to play. He plays with guys. He actually make guys better. He's got all the quality to be something really special. So, I'm looking forward to it. I have my season tickets, so, you know, I'll definitely be giving them away. I don't go down much because I got a big chair at home. I like to sit and watch the game, but I'm excited for this year.

Josh Hakala: Yeah. And then, he's got a decent coach to coach him. So, that'll be that'll be really interesting to see.

George Gervin: Yes, he do. Yes, he do. Gregg Popovich--he has the system that's been working for a long time. I mean, he still needs players. To work on the system you have, you still need players to fit into that system, to get the job done. I think that's in any aspect of life. We create a system that works, you know, for the objective that you're trying to reach. Then, you just watch it develop. Popovich is one of the kind of coaches that is real good at developing guys. And I think one thing he said to Victor that makes so much sense because, you know, people always try to compare. You're going to be the next Tim Duncan. You're the next David Robinson. And Pop shut it all up and says, "Victor. You just be Victor. And that'd be good enough for what we're trying to accomplish here in San Antonio."

Josh Hakala: Well, I feel like most people take it easy once they retire. And since you walked away from basketball in the early nineties, you might be even busier now than you were before. But tell me about some of the organizations that you've started and what coaching it's been like in Ice Cube's three-on-three league with the Big3 Ghost Ballers.

George Gervin: Well, you know, when I retired, I started a youth center here in San Antonio. We started, like, a $150,000 program at a strip mall, you know, back in the early nineties. And we grew from there into a charter school. So, I didn't have the George Gervin Academy for 30 years here in San Antonio. We have pre-K to the 12th grade. We are rated. Right now, we're rated a B school. We were an A school for the last seven or eight years, but the pandemic came. And the pandemic hurt all of us, you know, as far as not being able to educate our children. So, I'm all about education. San Antonio's been good for me and to me. And the way I feel to give back is to create programs for children. And that's what we did. I built another charter school in Phoenix, Arizona, called George Gervin Preparatory School. You know, that's doing well. That's about 11 years old. You know, we build retirement, low-income homes for senior citizens. We have three of them--the George Gervin Retirement Home. And we got one named after my grandma called the Newell Center because of my grandma and granddad's name. My mom kept us in programs when I was young. So, being a product of programs, I know they worked. You're able to create programs for young people. You can help guide them and mold them and try to keep them, you know, out of the streets and, you know, out of that world that tries to draw our babies to destruction. So, I'm a part of that positive aspect of trying to get them educated. So, I feel good with what we're doing here in San Antonio over the last 30 years. We created over $350 million bringing into this community with services, education, housing. So, that's kind of like what I've been doing now. You know, I just finished up the season with the Big3. Ice Cube created a three-on-three league for retired NBA and European players. And it's been six years since I've been coaching, and I ended up getting the coach of the year this year. We went to the semis, and we lost the semis and didn't get a chance to make the finals. But I was able to go over to London, just got back a couple of days ago, and I coached the all-star team in London and the finals of the Big3. You know, it was in London. Gilbert Arenas and his team is the one that ended up winning the Big3 championship. So, I had a full summer. I enjoy it, and I'm in my office at the school today. You know, my son has a fifth-year senior program here at the school where, you know, he created a program for young athletes, basketball players, that want to continue the play. You know, it's kind of set up like this, you know, where a kid plays in high school and really don't get the opportunity or, you know, get a chance to play as much because somebody in front of them, you know, was playing real well. So, this gives a kid another opportunity to go around the country. They take them around the country and showcase them. And a lot of college coaches come see him. And they get scholarships to go--a lot of them to junior college. We got some went to Air Force, and it's a beautiful program. And I'm real proud of my son and Mark Reed, who run this program--another form of education. So, we stay busy. You got to stay busy because if you don't, you know how that world just creeps in and kills your ambition. So, you know, we try to be motivators to help young people know how important it is to stay focused.

Josh Hakala: Well, you're definitely staying busy. And we've got the statue unveiling taking place on Thursday afternoon at the George Gervin GameAbove center starting at 4 p.m. I've got my money on a finger roll pose, but I guess we'll find out on Thursday afternoon. We'll see what happens. But, George Gervin, it's been a pleasure talking with you. And congratulations on your latest honor.

George Gervin: Thank you very much. Again, I thank Eastern Michigan and GameAbove for the opportunity to represent them there. You know I'm gonna represent them well.


George Gervin

George Gervin GameAbove Center

GameAbove: "George Gervin to be Honored with a Statue at Eastern Michigan University"

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Josh Hakala is the general assignment reporter for the WEMU news department.
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