Gerdy left mark at Davidson as a player, person

Courtesy of Stan Olson of The Charlotte Observer


John Gerdy ('83) worked in the shadows of college basketball.

He arrived at Davidson in 1975, before ESPN made scorers into stars and a decade after Lefty Driesell lifted the little school to greatness.

Davidson, its hands tied by some of the toughest academic standards in the country, was losing the ability even to compete in the Southern Conference, which it had ruled under Driesell.

Gerdy's four years brought 27 wins, 80 losses and five head coaches - if you count the interim coach who finished his junior year and the guy who took the job and left after a few weeks, never coaching a game.

Through it all, Gerdy scored. He finished with a school record 2,483 points.

Today, Davidson guard Stephen Curry could politely push Gerdy from atop the Wildcats' record book. He needs 30 points to take the top spot when Davidson plays host to Georgia Southern at Belk Arena at 2p.m.

But that won't lessen what Gerdy meant to Davidson, or what Davidson meant to Gerdy. He excelled, in school, socially, with charitable efforts. And, obviously, on the court.

"John saved us from national embarrassment," said Dave Pritchett, who coached Gerdy for a season-and-a-half. "Without him, there were games where we might have scored 14 or 15 points."

And if Gerdy's jump shot was a touch mechanical, he was a beautiful machine, capable of perfect repetition.

Catch. Rise. Release.

"He could have transferred to a Big East or an ACC school and been a star there," said teammate Rich Perkey. "But he believed in what Davidson is all about, that the school is a lot more than basketball and points. And he wove his way into the fabric of Davidson."

The late Emil Parker, longtime sports information director at Davidson, pulled out the old game film perhaps a decade ago and was amazed all over again.

"If he had had the 3-pointer," Parker said, "his numbers would be unbelievable, maybe eight, ten points more a game. He would shoot from 25 feet and never miss."

Fell in love with Davidson Gerdy grew up in Little Falls, N.J., the son of Tom Gerdy, who taught high school physics and coached football. He'd shovel snow off courts to play basketball, and dribble a ball as he walked his paper route.

As a high school freshman at Passaic Valley, Gerdy started on the varsity and set the state scoring record for freshmen.

By the time he was a 6-foot-5 senior, there were scholarship offers from Duke and Villanova and Oregon.

But Gerdy had fallen in love with Davidson, where older brother Greg played.

"We played a full-court, one-on-one game one of the summers I was at Davidson," Greg said. "John killed me, although I blamed it on being tired from my summer job. But right there I realized how good he was.

"That day I thought that if he were to end up at Davidson, he would be one of the top Davidson players ever."

Gerdy arrived as one of coach Bo Brickels' highly touted "super six" freshmen, a group that included 7-foot-2 Tom Dore, in 1975. Four years later, only Gerdy and Pat Hickert would remain.

Brickels was fired after going 5-21 in Gerdy's freshman year. But Gerdy, with his natural perm of brown curls stacked high, averaged 17.9 points.

After the coaching change produced a lost recruiting year, Pritchett made him the focus of the offense.

A scoring sensation Perkey recalled a game in Raleigh that sophomore year.

"We would go into a place like N.C. State and it would really be Gerdy versus the Wolfpack," he said. "We would pack it into the middle on defense; we were much smaller and less athletic than N.C. State was, except for Gerd. And then he would keep us in the game.

"The crowd would realize what was going on, and something would happen. Every time he would get the ball they would go wild, and it was almost like they were rooting for him at the end."

The Wildcats kept it close, but the Wolfpack pulled away to a 67-55 win. Gerdy finished with 37 points. The rest of the team had 18.

There were so many other games. Gerdy dropped 41 on Rutgers in a one-point loss on the road. He had 47 in a victory over Canisius. And he made 15 of his last 17 shots as Davidson upset South Carolina, prompting legendary Gamecocks coach Frank McGuire to call Gerdy the best shooter he had ever seen, college or pro.

But Gerdy's best game came against No.7 Wake Forest, again in that sophomore year. In the final minute, he twice launched jumpers from the top of the key over the Deacons' 6-foot-7 Rod Griffin. Each time, Griffin fouled him and each time, he made the free throw, pulling Davidson into a tie.

Wake's Frank Johnson hit a jumper as time expired, though, allowing the visitors to escape with a 70-68 victory.

Gerdy had 40 of those 68 points. He made 18 of 24 shots, four of four free throws. It's been said 10 of those 18 field goals would have been 3-pointers now.

"We played a box-and-one on Gerdy," said Deacons coach Carl Tacy. "We should have played the box on Gerdy and the one on the rest of those guys."

Memories The points piled up. He averaged 23.2 as a sophomore, 25.8 as a junior and 26.7 as a senior, despite being the focus of opposing defenses. But ask him about certain games and there is a long pause.

"It's so long ago; it's kind of a blur," he said. "I don't remember a whole lot about specific games. To me, what I remember is all the other stuff, hanging out in the dorm rooms, road trips, hanging out with your teammates. Those are the things that stick with you."

Gerdy got involved with Seigle Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte helping with projects, and working with kids, many from the Piedmont Courts public housing project.

"He didn't have to do any of that stuff, but he loved the kids," Perkey said. "And they loved him."

He also fell in love with the guitar, jamming with fellow students, blasting Tom Petty and Neil Young.

Team manager Johnathan Rhyne remembered the night when - about 10 p.m. - he and Gerdy and some friends decided to leave immediately for Disney World.

"We stayed up all night getting down there, and I doubt basketball came up once in the conversation. People didn't know how smart he was."

On bus trips, Gerdy would yell out the name of each song on the radio, half a bar into the music.

"I remember him spinning the disco discs in the 900 Room (an on-campus gathering place), wearing sunglasses and a goofy hat," said Perkey. "He was the Tunemaster."

Gerdy would like that characterization.

"A great thing about Davidson," he said, "was that basketball players weren't anything special. They were just students, like anybody else."

Moving on Gerdy had hoped to play in the NBA, but Davidson rarely had pro scouts watching its games. The New Jersey Nets took Gerdy in the third round of the 1979 draft. He had a fine camp, but the two players taken ahead of him had guaranteed contracts, and the Nets let him go.

He spent an injury-shortened season with the Maine Lumberjacks of the Continental Basketball Association, then had a tryout with the Golden State Warriors before he decided to get on with his life.

Pritchett, who coached and scouted for so many years, thinks the NBA made a huge mistake.

"People laugh at me for this, but I always say there were three players I saw who you couldn't stop - David Thompson and Bill Walton, they got all the press clippings - and John Gerdy."

Would it have been different if he had gone to one of those bigger schools? Gerdy won't consider it; never has.

"I have absolutely no regrets about any of it," he says. "Even with all the turmoil and craziness... other than my family, Davidson has had the biggest impact on my values and developing who I've become, in positive ways. It's an extraordinary place."

An extraordinary life There was lots of life after basketball for John Gerdy. He went back to school, earning his master's degree and a doctorate in sports administration at Ohio University. He became a legislative assistant for the NCAA, then an associate commissioner for the Southeastern Conference.

He has written four books, primarily on the relationship of athletics with universities and American culture. He teaches classes at two universities. He sings and plays guitar for a delta blues band called the Willie Marble Xperience.

Gerdy has also founded a nonprofit organization called Music For Everyone, which, among other things, repairs musical instruments for schools and buys new ones.

He lives in a 19th-century farmhouse on a 50-acre farm outside of Lancaster, Pa., with his wife, Follin, daughter Wallace, 14, and son James, 11.

"The most fun I'm having right now is being an `artist in residence' at a local elementary school," he said. "I work with first- through fourth-graders and teach `em the blues."

Davidson, he said, is the reason for his success.

"Davidson gave me far more than I gave Davidson," Gerdy said, pausing as he worked through the thought. "The things I learned there, the people I met and the doors that opened for me. Just the whole perspective it gives you; there's a certain balance at Davidson that's really valuable. And you carry it with you the rest of your life."

The basketball, the scoring record, they weren't the most important things. There was so much more.

Gerdy, 52, thinks about the sport primarily when he coaches his son's team. And yet ...

"It would have been fun," he said, "playing with that three-point shot."

Advice for Stephen Curry John Gerdy, 52, spent three decades as Davidson's all-time leading scorer, a record Stephen Curry will break if he scores 30 against Georgia Southern today. Gerdy will be in the stands today, and wanted to offer Curry this friendly advice:

"Steph, make sure you graduate. A Davidson degree is special, and if you don't graduate, what's the point? At its core, that's what being a Davidson basketball player is all about; getting a quality education and graduating.

"Trophies tarnish with age, and the press clippings fade and yellow. But lasting meaning comes from the things you do off the court, in the classroom and with your friends and teammates.

"Also, I hope you appreciate what you have; step back and look at it objectively. As time moves on, you'll come to appreciate just how special your time was there, and what an honor it was to be part of it.

"I hope you come to appreciate it as much as I do. You will understand the uniqueness of it and the value of it, and it will continue to have an effect on you."