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Bob Bass changed the NBA. As a coach, he revolutionized the shooting guard position and turned George Gervin into a Hall of Fame player. As a general manager, Bass molded the Spurs into an elite franchise and helped transform San Antonio into a basketball-crazed metropolis.
He was supposed to meet Gervin at the Barn Door 13 days ago. The lunch date never happened. Bass was hospitalized after suffering a stroke and died Friday night at his home. He was 89.
“Bob changed my career,” said Gervin, an unstoppable, finger-rolling force who won four NBA scoring titles. “I’m a Hall of Famer because of him. I was playing forward. But Bob recognized that with my ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the basket and shoot the jump shot, I would be more effective at the 2 guard. He recognized that the guys that were guarding me didn’t have a chance.”
In 20 seasons with the franchise, Bass helped the Spurs advance to the playoffs 17 times in a variety of positions: head coach, assistant coach, interim coach, general manager and vice president of basketball operations.
Bass was the innovator in 1974 who replaced Tom Nissalke, the Spurs first coach, after 28 games, ignited the offense and brought excitement to HemisFair Arena. His decision to move Gervin, listed at 6-foot-7, from small forward to the backcourt created a new era.
“I was the first big guard,” Gervin said. Five years later, Magic Johnson made his NBA debut with the Los Angeles Lakers as a 6-foot-9 point guard.
Bass was the front office master who orchestrated blockbuster trades, acquiring All-Stars Larry Kenon in 1975 and Terry Cummings in 1989. The deal for Cummings coincided with the arrival of David Robinson and helped the Spurs achieve the greatest turnaround in NBA history at the time, from 21 victories to 56. As a result, Bass was named NBA Executive of the Year.
He was discovered in obscurity. While coaching the Memphis Tams of the old ABA, Bass impressed Spurs owner Angelo Drossos. B.J. “Red” McCombs, then the Spurs president, had never heard of Bass. But McCombs knew this: Under Nissalke, the Spurs had a plodding offense, a smothering defense, one that held 49 opponents in 1973-74 to less than 100 points, an ABA record. The Spurs needed offense to electrify fans.
“We were building crowds and we were getting better but we needed another jump,” said McCombs, an original Spurs investor and former owner. “Angelo was the one who came up with Bob. I don’t know how he knew him. But he said, ‘There’s this little guy in Memphis and he came out of this little program (Oklahoma Baptist) in the country. He doesn’t have any real record. But you will be happy with him.’ Once we got him, I could tell real quickly he was a guy who knew what he was doing. Bob was everything we thought he would be and then some.”
Bass coached the Spurs for two seasons, became general manager and led the franchise from the ABA to the NBA in 1976. A workaholic with strong instincts and an eye for talent, he at times clashed with McCombs over personnel decisions. In 1992, for example, Bass pleaded with McCombs not to hire Jerry Tarkanian as head coach. Enamored with Tarkanian’s success at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, McCombs hired him anyway.
Recalled McCombs: “Bob almost got on his knees and begged me: ‘You cannot, Red. Please. You can’t take this guy.’ I said, ‘You don’t even know him, Bob.’ He said, ‘I know I don’t know him but I know his program. I know what he does. He is not going to like it once he gets here. He doesn’t know anything about pros.’ And boy was he ever telling the truth.”
McCombs fired Tarkanian after 20 games. Bass objected to other moves Drossos and McCombs wanted to make.
“Bob was solid in what he wanted to do and most everything he wanted to do was the right thing,” McCombs said. “He wanted us to just let him make the decisions without us being involved. Well, we weren’t going to do that.”
In 1995, Bass became general manager of the Charlotte Hornets. Two years later, he was named NBA Executive of the Year. Bass retired in 2004 but never lost his desire and instincts for control.
Several days ago, Pat Bass noted that her husband of 68 years was trying to run business matters from the hospital, despite advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease.
“He’s been very lucid and knows what he’s talking about,” Pat said. “Me and my sisters have oil wells in Oklahoma and he wanted to know if we got our oil checks and if we put them in the bank. He knew when that check was supposed to come in. He thinks he’s the general manager all the time.”
Basketball drove Bass for more than half a century. He coached his first season in 1952-53 at Oklahoma Baptist, his alma mater, won an NAIA title there in 1966 and was named NAIA Coach of the Year. After leaving the game at the age of 73, accolades followed. Bass was inducted into the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame in 2006 and into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.
Forty-four years after switching positions, Gervin marvels at the vision of the coach who saw possibilities no one else did.
“He changed the way teams had to defend us,” Gervin said. “You couldn’t put a big guy out there because I would go around him. You couldn’t put a little guy on me because I would post him up, shoot over him. He made the matches tough with me being at the 2 spot.
“I remember one incident. We were playing Phoenix. Paul Westphal was guarding me. He said, ‘Why don’t you go back down the floor?’ I said, ‘Why? You’re guarding me.’ I said that sarcastically because he was just too little. He wanted me to go back down to forward. Are you kidding? This is easy as pie.
“If I had stayed at the 4, I probably would be beat up now. They couldn’t stop me. The only way to stop me is to torment me, to play physical against me, to try to rattle me because they’re bigger or stronger. I probably wouldn’t be able to hit a golf ball like I do today if I had had to deal with those big guys night in and night out.
“I’d like to thank Bob today and yesterday and many more days to come for shining that light on me and making my basketball career a Hall of Fame career.”