Last year, he was regarded almost as a side-show perfomer, a skinny 6-foot-7 forward-tunred-guard with the unorthodox shots, the odd way of talking and the catchy nickname headline writers adored.
But San Antonio's George Gervin, now a two-time NBA scoring champ, has become a center-ring attraction this season. He advanced to top billing as sson as his league rivals began claiming he was being protected by referees.
That is the ultimate honor peers can place on a true pro basketball superstar. They can't stop the great layer yet there must be some reason, other than his ability, for success. So Elgin Baylor always walked and Wilt Chamberlain always pushed off and Oscar Robertson always charged-and the officials always looked the other way.
Now Gervin hears the Bullets moan during the Eastern Conference championship series that he is allowed to shove off defenders with his elbow while he dribbles and that he is jealously protected by the officials every time he fires a shot.
"He isn't a national monument yet," Washington Coach Dick Motta constantly has yelled at the referees during the round. "He's still human."
The Bullets realize the only way they can successfully control Gervin is to get him into foul trouble. Left to roam unchecked, the Ice Man usually performs slightly above human level.
"Let them say what they have to say," Gervin replies to Washington's lament. "I be playing my game out there and that will take care fo that. They know they can't stop me. I know I got them on the run."
Gervin is so good that Motta is not dismayed when he scores 29 or 30 points, his regular-season average. But he does not want Gervin to explode and control the flow of the contest, as he did in the third quarter of Game 4 (20 points) or almost did in the fourth quarter of Game 5 (15 points)9
But how do you stop an Ice Man from being cool and doing what comes naturally?
"You don't," Gervin said. "If I want to score. No bragging involved.I just know what I can do. My game is to put it in the hole. I be doing it any way I can."
And to Gervin that means firing up anything from a twisting, turning, fall-away jumper from 22 feet to a spinning, no-look, reverse layup under the basket that defies shooting logic.
Because his techniques are contrary to anything found in shooting textbooks, Gervin is both unpredictable and almost impossible to defend.
At least Jerry West always took his jump shot the same way.And opponents knew Robertson eventually would turn at the baseline and shoot over them. But even Gervin doesn't know what kind of shot he will try from one moment to the next or from what angle.
His long fingers and unorthodox release-one-handed, without the need for his left hand to provide support underneath the ball-allow him incredible freedom. He can unleash a shot from in front of his head or from his hip or, if necessary, sidearm.
Toss in the puzzling array of spin moves around the basket, refined from his days as a forward, a quick first step, gangly arms, and his unusual height for a guard, and what emerges is a frustrating, exciting, uncontrollable offensive machine.
"When he is on," said Bullet guard Kevin Grevey, who will have the task of trying to stop Gervin in Game 6 Wednesday night, "you can be all over him and feel you have him covered and he still can get off the shot and put it in.
"He also gives you trouble because he goes to the boards so well. He has confidence in his rebounding because he was a forward. He can get inside and, with those arms, it's tough to keep him from the ball,"
In addition to his offensive originality, Gervin also is remarkable for his status as the most accurate shooting guard in NBA history. After three seasons at that position, he has hit 54 percent of his attempts, trying him with Chamberlain for second place on the NBA's all-time field-goal accuracy list.
He alreadly has become the only guard to win back-to-back scoring titles. And he is convinced that if Coach Doug Moe would give him more playing time (he averaged 36 minutes a game this season), he can lead the league as long as he wants to.
Coming from Gervin, that is not bragging. In his measured, street wise, precise way of talking, he does not proclaim his greatness. He just states it as matter of fact. He has been on top for a long time; it's jut taken the national media longer than needed to recognize his abilities.
This string bean native of Detroit learned about life standing in welfare bread lines and learned his basketball shooting at rims mounted on telephone poles.
"My style isn't unusual," he once said. "Anywhere you go in Detroit, they shoot like I do.
And he has never stopped working to improve those magnificent skills.
Superstars usually do not come out an hour before game time and shoot around with the reserves, but Gervin still does. It is during these moments that he will stand around the basket and practice spinning the ball off the backboard and driving the lane while switching the ball from hand to hand and banking shots off the board from 25 feet.
The sensational feats he pulls off on the court are not luck.They are the result of experimentation. In a layup drill prior to one game in this series, Gervin tossed up a no-look, over-the-head attempt that went in. He repeated the same shot 30 minutes later-over a surprised Tom Henderson.
Nevertheless, there are flaws in his game. He gives defense fleeting attention, depending on his height and reflexes to make up for a lack of aggressiveness. His philosophy has become that he will outscore whoever is on him, so why waste energy at both ends?
Instead, he concentrates more on cutting off passing lanes, something he has done successfully against Washington. He will stick out his toothpick arm, knock down a pass and lope to the other end for an easy dunk. And never break a sweat.
Motta also would like to believe Gervin Doesn't perform well under pressure in pressure games. He believes the Ice Man melts just enough to want to turn the ball over to fellow guard James Silas and watch while Silas runs San Antonio's one-four, Down-the-stretch offense.
Gervin, who has settled his contract problems with the Spurs and now says he is happy and content in his adopted home, laughs at Motta's suggestion. Quite the contrary, he says, "Motta's the one who's showing something by putting a forward on me.That's means he's scrambling and when he is scrambling, we've got them on the run."
The winner of this psychological battle probably will be determined Wednesday night in a game the Spurs know they must win. And in those situations, they turn to Gervin.
"Why not" says Silas. "The man is unstoppable. The Bullets can't prevent him from scoring; no one can. He's shown that. He's our main man. He should have the ball."
As the players say in the NBA locker rooms, shaking their heads in admiration: "The Ice is Nice."
Forward Mitch Kupchak said yesterday that it would be premature to rule him out of the NBA championship series, if the Bullets get that far. "It doesn't look like I can play in the San Antonio series," said Kupchak, who is being treated for back spasms at Sibley Hospital, "but I think I can come back and be available for spot duty in the finals. I'm not going to need an operation. I have amazing recuperative powers. I even surprise myself sometimes by how fast I can come back." CAPTION: Picture, George Gervin: "They can't stop me." By Richard Darcey-The Washington Post