In 1985, tragedy struck the Spurs the day after Christmas. That was the day their point guard, Johnny Moore, was hospitalized with Desert Fever—a rare illness that ended his season and cut his promising career short. It happened just as a new era had begun in San Antonio.
Two months before George Gervin had been traded to the Chicago Bulls. The Iceman's minutes had been handed to Alvin Robertson, a young combo-guard who had become an instant contributor during his rookie year.
It was early in the season, and the Spurs were torturing other teams while executing Cotton Ball—the fast breaking, "he who scores last wins" style of basketball made famous by then coach Cotton Fitzsimmons.
The rest of the NBA had been left a step back by the lightning-fast back court tandem of Moore and Robertson. But it didn't last.
After Moore went down, Robertson became the Spurs' bright spot during that 1985–86 season. He went on to lead the NBA in steals, averaging almost four per contest and set NBA records for the most steals in a single season.
His well rounded play allowed him to record one of the four quadruple-doubles in NBA history—finishing with 20 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists, and 10 steals against the Phoenix Suns in February of that fateful year.
Bob Bass, then G.M. of the Spurs, tried to re-create the magic by drafting another Johnny (Dawkins) to play with Alvin the following summer, but the coupling never quite lived up to expectations.
Flash forward a little more than two decades to this week's coming out party for another young and talented combo-guard who has become an instant contributor for San Antonio: rookie George Hill.
During the past four games, he's scored 20 or more points three times. He would have extended the streak to four straight games, had he not managed to score only 19-points on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. That was the same night that Hill pushed his team to victory after out-dueling the NBA's top draft pick, Derrick Rose, and his Bulls.
Until he stepped onto the floor during the fourth quarter, it had been another tightly contested game. However, Hill's scorching shots burned everyone who tried to keep up with him.
His impressive scoring streak began when the still-tinkering Gregg Popovich decided to hand over most of the point guard duties to Roger Mason. Two things happened as a result.
First, Mason found that controlling the ball also better allowed him to control his own shooting rhythm and his shots began to fall more consistently. Second, Hill slid over to the shooting guard spot, a position he most enjoys playing and the same one that led him to scoring records and titles in college.
Until that slight re-arrangement of the lineup, the coaching staff had assigned veteran Jacque Vaughn to groom Hill into a point guard.
But Hill's scoring isn't what has impressed his coach, teammates, and fans. Hill simply looks like a player who isn't a rookie.
Sure, his energetic defense has shown some tangles against stronger, more experienced all-stars like Baron Davis and Chauncey Billups, but those nights have been exceptions to his usual play. Hill has begun to show much more confidence and does things that most can't find on a stats sheet.
"He's been playing unbelievable," veteran Kurt Thomas said. "I was a little disappointed that he missed that free throw or he would have had four games straight with 20 or more points."
It's ironic that some felt Hill was too short to ever play extended minutes as a shooting guard in this league, since he's the same guy who grabbed 11 rebounds on a night when no Spurs big man could grab more than nine.
"I try to tell him,'You just box out and let the big guys get the rebounds,'" jokes Thomas. "But he's a feisty young man who likes to get in there and show his ability to get off the floor."
"He's had an incredible season," says coach Gregg Popovich. "For a rookie, coming in who has the pressure that he has, the job that he has learning that position, I think he's been fantastic. He got some steals out there. He made some defensive plays that will probably go unnoticed, but that help teams win. He plays an all-around game and he's been doing a great job for us."
Flash forward to the very near future. Imagine what a back court tandem featuring Tony Parker and George Hill might do to the rest of the league.
Whatever that looks like, it hasn't been seen in San Antonio since Moore and Robertson accelerated past defenders at breakneck speed for layups and dunks. Imagine the snappy passes and quick-footed cuts through the paint, the pick pockets pressuring opposing point guards.
Whether the coaching staff might ever decide to "go small" with those two remains to be seen, but it's certainly something Spurs fans are looking forward to. Can't say I blame them.
I was lucky enough to see the original dashing duo lighting teams up in hypersonic fashion during their brief stint at the old HemisFair Arena. It turned out to be fleeting fun and eventually we saw Cotton Ball move to Phoenix where it remained until Mike D'Antoni re-located to the Big Apple this past summer. Yes, it's fun to watch, but it doesn't win championships.
Still, we can afford a little slice of screamin' speed ball once in a while, can't we? Heck, it might even do wonders for ridding the Spurs of the "boring" moniker that the rest of the NBA has bestowed upon them in recent years. Imagine what it might do for the team's lowly television ratings.
Now, before you start to worry that the Spurs may be turning into the old Phoenix Suns, remember that defense still rules in the house that Pop built.
That's what makes the today's possibilities that much sweeter...just as dawn begins to break on a new era in San Antonio.
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