Sports of The Times;Giant Leap For Gervin, Thompson
By GEORGE VECSEY
Published: February 7, 1996
TOGETHER again. George Gervin and David Thompson, linked by acrobatics, linked by drugs, linked by sobriety, linked by one magnificent day in 1978, are now forever linked by their election to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
They were in the same room yesterday, quietly amazed that they had lived to tell the tale of the day they both went on scoring sprees.
It was the last day of the 1977-78 season. Both had proven they could jam the sedate N.B.A. ball the same way they had stuffed a gaudy red, white an' blue A.B.A. ball.
The scoring title would be decided by scoring average, not total points. Gervin had played all 81 games but Thompson had missed two.
Thompson and the Denver Nuggets went first. That was the big mistake. In an afternoon game, he scored 73 points against Detroit, still the third-highest output in the history of the league. Gervin would then play New Orleans. But let Gervin tell it.
"For whatever reason, maybe television, they moved our game to the night," Gervin recalled yesterday. "I was asleep in my hotel room when a reporter called and said, 'Ice, Thompson scored 73.' I said, 'Well, that's it,' and I hung up and went back to sleep.
"Down in the lobby later, some of the guys on the Spurs said, 'Ice, we're going to help you.' My guys loved me. They kept giving me the ball, and early in the game I couldn't put the ball in the basket, but after a while I got going."
How many points did Gervin need? "Fifty-nine," he said, with practiced delay. "But I made 63 just in case they made a mistake."
The record book says both scored an average of 27.2, but if you keep going to the hundredths, Gervin finished at 27.21 and Thompson finished at 27.15.
They introduced Gervin first yesterday.
"He beat me again," Thompson said.
They have both beaten something bigger and badder than a scoring challenge. They have both outlived drug habits acquired when they were trailblazers in the unmapped thicket of the maniacal late 70's: How much cocaine can a rich basketball superstar stuff into his nose? Lives were ruined.
Nobody wants to be remembered that way. It's better to be remembered as a great international player like the late Kresimir Cosic, or a driven competitor like Nancy Lieberman-Cline, or a smoothie like Gail Goodrich. And the sixth new member, George Yardley, tried to flimflam the young rubes into believing he was just another set-shooter from the stone age. Fact: the old bald eagle was the Thompson or the Gervin of the 50's.
A maven in my office was saying the greatest single play he has ever seen was Thompson's going over Bill Walton to block a layup on the backboard during North Carolina State's upset of U.C.L.A. in the 1974 semifinals.
People remember Thompson not only for the swoops but also for the freefall. He had six straight seasons in the 20's and three straight in the teens, and then he was done.
"I hurt my knee when I got pushed down the stairs at Studio 54, and I couldn't play after that," Thompson said yesterday.
He also went to a prison work camp for beating his wife, and he went through several rehabilitation programs -- "until Jesus Christ took away my obsession to do drugs," he said, in answer to a question. Thompson said he has been sober eight years, and he gives anti-drug talks for two groups, Unlimited Success and the Charlotte Hornets.
Gervin tried that death-defying act, too. He told himself he would never become as bad as John Lucas, who missed practices and games. But then Gervin started missing practi'es and games, too. Eventually, Gervin saved his own life at the rehabilitation center Lucas operates.
"I followed him in that, too," Gervin said.
These days he runs the George Gervin Youth Center in San Antonio, a nonprofit organization that trains young people to get diplomas and learn a trade. He said he speaks at 300 schools a year. "The Hall of Fame won't mean anything to me if I'm not sober," Gervin said.
Both wondered if voters would hold their troubled pasts against them, the way Baseball Hall of Fame voters held off on Ferguson Jenkins for a minor marijuana episode, and shut the door on Orlando Cepeda, perhaps remembering that Cepeda once went to jail for carrying drugs.
"I was hoping it would not be held against me," Thompson said, "but I've tried to help other people by telling my story."
George Gervin and David Thompson were happy to have enough memory left to recall those good old days. They strongly recommended that nobody else try it their way.
Photo: George Gervin (Thomas Dallal)