It’s 1993 and an addict is tending bar, probably the worst possible job for an addict besides, maybe, professional basketball player in the 1970s.
Daniel “Gus” Gerard is behind the bar at the dive, Spinnakers, in the rural anonymity of Madison, Ohio, his 6-foot-8 frame bending and reaching for empty glasses sitting about twice as far away as any other bartender in North America could reach. As the crowd starts filing in, Gus becomes the star of the show, cranking the jukebox and encouraging everyone to dance and have a good time. He pours drinks freely—the locally infamous Gus-a-Roo special that has varying ingredients from night to night—occasionally taking a quick break in the back of the bar to do lines and key bumps with the small-time coke dealers who had come to see him.
He’s just been thrown out of his brother’s house. He went to live there after the money from his ABA and NBA contracts dried up, and after he tried and failed to clean up for his wife—his first-ever girlfriend, his college sweetheart—and his children. His wife’s family held an intervention for him after he’d been forced to sell his home in Virginia before the bank foreclosed on it, and his wife told him he had one more chance to kick his addictions. He didn’t, and he arrived home one day to an empty house and a note on the table telling him to pack his things. He would be allowed to see his kids again, the note said, if and only if he ever got clean. He wasn’t planning on that, so he got his stuff and left.
Six hours later, he arrived at his brother’s home. It didn’t last long. He got home drunk and high and loud in the middle of the night one time too often, and his brother told him to get out. He needed help. Please, let us get you some help. We love you. Your children love you. Please.
Gus gets a job at the bar, instead. It’s the perfect gig for someone like him, someone who likes to drink until he can’t stand up and snort coke until he can again. A job where he can pour drinks for customers, party all the time—and get paid for it—and be close to drug dealers. That’s what he needs. He doesn’t need help, he just needs more friends. He needs people who understand him and like to be around him, feeding off of his larger-than-life personality. Sucking up his energy. The bar owners don’t care. They see the crowds who gather for the sinewy-framed star with a smile as bright as the lights he used to play under. He’s a genius with people and instantly likable. If some of the customers he’s bringing in are taking him away for a moment to feed his growing hunger, they still pay their bar tab every night. And Gus gets more energy every time he disappears for a few minutes, pouring drinks even faster and racking up even larger tabs and tips for everyone working.
Now it’s Christmas. He’s alone. He gets to talk to his kids on the phone and they tell him about their lives, what’s happening in school. They ask when they can see him and he tells them soon. He tells his ex-wife—they’ve divorced now, though Gus never bothered to show up for the divorce hearings and a warrant was issued for his arrest—that he will send gifts to the children. She knows he won’t, and so does he. When they hang up, he puts his nose to a line of coke on the table so that he can try to forget what just happened. It works, that time.
Now it’s one of his kids’ birthdays. They have the same conversation. He makes the same promises. He puts his nose to the table again when they hang up, and it still works, but not as well as it used to.
Now it’s the other kid’s birthday. And when he goes to the table this time it doesn’t work at all. In fact, it makes it worse. So, Gus makes what he thinks is the rational choice. He scoops up as much cocaine as he can—from the table, from the bedroom, from the kitchen—grabs a handle of vodka, heads to his car. For two days he drives around, deciding how to kill himself.
Daniel Gerard was born and raised in Uniontown, Pennsylvania—not too far from Pittsburgh, not too far from Morgantown. Coal and steel country. His father was a long-haul truck driver, meaning he wasn’t around much during the week, so they bonded on the weekends, watching the Sunday basketball broadcast. Being the ‘60s, it was usually the Celtics and the Sixers, or the Celtics and the Lakers.
One day, Gus decided to teach his son how to play, so he nailed a piece of plywood with a rim to a shed out back. Once it was finished, he threw up a hook shot from about 15 feet away, and the rim came crashing down. His son cried, the new basket destroyed before he’d even had a chance to take a shot. So, Gus took his son to the nearby playground, putting his trust in the public works budget to make rims that would hold up a little better.
Daniel went to the playground every day, often by himself, just dribbling and shooting. He was already lanky and still uncoordinated, growing faster than his brain could keep up with, and he wore massive, thick glasses. He fell over himself, he missed more than he made, but he loved the game. He would shovel out the court on wintry days so that he could keep playing. If his coordination was poor, his vertical leap was coming along, developed climbing hills doing a paper route on the steep O’Connell Avenue. When the time came in junior high, he decided to go out for the eighth-grade team.
He didn’t have his own bag or gear, so his father gave him his old stuff from his high school playing days. Embroidered on his father’s old bag was his name, “Gus,” so when Daniel showed up to tryouts, he became a “Gus” too. Being the tallest kid there, he made the team.
As his coordination caught up to his growth spurts, he started showing dominance in the competitive Western Pennsylvania high school basketball scene. During one junior varsity game, he was pulled at halftime. Gus was down on himself, assuming he did something wrong, but the varsity coach came to him in the locker room and told him to get changed. He was playing varsity that night, and he was going to start. He had 35 points and 19 rebounds.
Western Pennsylvania is not really known for its basketball anymore, but in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when industry was still booming and the population was more than double what it is today, things were much different. Laurel Highlands alone had produced multiple D1 basketball players, including the great Wil Robinson, who went on to West Virginia and broke Jerry West’s single season PPG record with 29.4. A few miles down the road, Uniontown High School was pumping out D1 talent including Stu Lantz, the leading scorer for the undefeated 1964 state championship team and a future NBAer. And, of course, 50 miles north was Pittsburgh itself, churning out stars like Maurice Lucas, Ken Durett, George Karl, and Walter Szczerbiak.
Always a shy kid, Daniel hadn’t had many friends at school, and while the bullying wasn’t torturous, it ate at him that he never got invited to sit with the cooler kids at lunch. That all changed once basketball intervened. No longer the gangly introvert picked on for his lack of coordination and thick glasses, Gus was now an in-demand future local legend. Alumni complimented his game and thanked him for carrying the legacy, pushing him to be better. He had friends, real friends, and wouldn’t have to play at the playground near his home by himself anymore. Basketball had given him a sense of community he didn’t have before, with a home that was often half-empty while his father worked and a school that had previously ostracized him. That’s when the partying started, though not in earnest. He would get invited places, would enjoy having the spotlight on him for a bit, smoke a little bit of weed here and there. But that’s all.
Gus was heavily recruited, but chose the University of Virginia over North Carolina because he worried that the Tar Heels’ 1971 recruiting class that included Bob McAdoo and Bobby Jones would compromise his ability to play as soon as he would like. He was an instant star as a sophomore at Virginia (at the time, freshmen were not allowed to play varsity in D1). That’s when the partying started in earnest. Gus was invited to what felt like every single party thrown on campus, and his competitive spirit took over. He wanted to go to all of them, to be the best partier there was, to please his newfound fans and friends. Just like at the playground, he would be the first one there and the last to leave.
During his junior year he averaged 20 and 10, second in the ACC in scoring average behind only the legendary David Thompson. In 1974 he was selected for Team USA at the World University Games, and was drafted by the Carolina Cougars of the ABA, who folded shortly thereafter and became the Spirits of St. Louis. They flew him to New York to offer him a contract: $950,000 over five years, and $75,000 just to sign his name. Gerard consulted with his high school coach, Harold “Horse” Taylor. Horse asked him how he was doing in school and, upon hearing that he had flirted with academic eligibility issues, told Gus what he already knew was true: You will never, ever make that much money doing anything else in your life. Gus signed the contract, and his professional basketball career was under way. He’d never had more than $10 in his pocket, and suddenly on paper he was nearly a millionaire.
On the way back from New York to Uniontown, Gus stopped with his friends at a bar on Route 51. They had $12 among them, and an uncashed $75,000 check in Gus’s wallet. They asked for three six-packs to go and explained the situation: they didn’t have enough money, but they could bring more later. They just needed to celebrate. The bartender gave them the six-packs for free and told them that during his rookie year, Gus could pay for them by sending an autographed picture. That signed photo hung over the cash register in the bar until it closed 20 years later.
By the time Gus went pro, he was into cocaine, the status drug of the ‘70s. His only rules were never during a game and never before tipoff, but everything else was fair game. According to Gerard, cocaine use in the ABA at the time was common. He definitely wasn’t the only guy on the Spirits using it. In fact, if he’d held out, he might have been the only one not using it.
Marvin Barnes, who earned the nickname “Bad News” because of all of the trouble that chased him on and off the court, was Gerard’s favorite party mate on the Spirits. The self-proclaimed “macaroni from Providence” was the ABA Rookie of the Year, though he always told teammates that he didn’t even like basketball and just wanted to be “a pimp.” Marvin would show up to Gerard’s apartment and ask him where the weed was, and they’d light a couple of joints and relax. They’d break out the cocaine and do some lines on the table, drink a few beers. After about 90 minutes Marvin would say he had to go. He’d had a girlfriend downstairs in the car the whole time, and if he made her wait much longer than she’d be mad.
Gus made the ABA’s All-Rookie Team that year, and was a All-Star the following season with the Denver Nuggets, who’d acquired him via trade. Larry Brown was coaching the Nuggets at the time, and had previously drafted Gerard when he was coaching the Cougars, before that team folded. Brown finally got his man, and he brought out his best two seasons in the pros—one in the ABA, and one in the NBA, after the merger.
The merger had brought a new level of stardom for all the ABA players. They were on TV more, with recognition came status, and with status came more and bigger parties. Road trips meant visits to the hottest clubs in the biggest cities. He was with David Thompson that night at Studio 54 when an intoxicated Thompson tried to push his way past the line. The bouncer pushed him down the stairs, injuring his leg and ending his career.
David was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, Gus figured. It could happen to anyone.
After being traded to the tanking Buffalo Braves in 1976, Gus continued to bounce around the league, his addiction largely flying under the radar because he had never missed a plane, never been late for a practice, never shown any of the signs typical of an addiction consuming someone’s life. He hated his time in Buffalo and demanded a trade so he could get more playing time, landing in Detroit—ironically enough, he was swapped for Marvin Barnes—to play for the famously enthusiastic shrieker, Dick Vitale. Vitale was about as well-liked by his Pistons players as he was by everyone else in America, and Gerard witnessed Bob Lanier throw a trashcan at Vitale’s head for telling him to hustle harder. Nobody told Bob Lanier what to do during training camp.
Vitale cut Gus, and he signed with Kansas City, playing with them for a couple of seasons before being traded to the Spurs to finish out his contract. By that point, the cocaine was consuming him. His minutes per game continued to dwindle, even as his general production stayed fairly consistent in the playing time he was given. That offseason, his focus shifted away from basketball and entirely towards partying. He drove friends to Atlantic City on the weekends to gamble, paying everyone’s way. He flew around the country, drinking and snorting with teammates and friends. For the first time ever, his addictions had overtaken his love for basketball, and as a result he let himself get out of shape. The Spurs invited him to training camp in 1981 but he wasn’t the same player. They cut him loose, and his career was over.
He was still just 28 years old, and it only took a few years for to blow through his million dollars. He’d sustained himself best he could by picking up odd jobs here and there: drywall, landscaping, moving companies, anything else that could give him a few hundred dollars to get through another month or two. The bartending job kept him afloat for four years, feeding his addiction and giving him a place to live, but the addiction caught up. Money gone, home gone, wife and kids gone. It wasn’t long before he was in a friend’s garage, ready to die.
1993, and Gus was finished driving. It was time to get on with it. He drove to his friend’s house on the lake, a friend he knew wasn’t home. He parked in the garage and closed the garage door and rolled down his windows and let the engine run.
Gerard still remembers what went through his mind then. He remembered beating Julius Erving’s Nets in the 1975 playoffs, an upset that shocked the league. He, Maurice Lucas, and Marvin Barnes—the first ever all-rookie frontcourt in ABA history—had needed only five games to destroy the Nets. He remembered the trips to Studio 54 with David Thompson.
Most of all, he remembered Uniontown. His friends Leroy and Barry took him to the black side of town and told him that if he could play there, he could play anywhere. The high-flying, rim-destroying signature of Gus’s game was born on those playgrounds and the confidence and reputation from those days carried him in his career. He was the mean white boy who talked shit and would rise up and dunk on anyone, or meet them at the rim. He would’ve given given anything to be back there, instead of in a car waiting to die.
Gus was lightheaded, a feeling he was familiar with, but there was no euphoria, no energy, not this time. He was tired. He’d been tired for so long.
He woke up a few hours later.
As it turned out, driving around for two days had drained his gas tank. The engine died before the fumes could kill him, and so Gus lived.
He walked into his friend’s house. On the table was an issue of Parade magazine, the cover showing John Lucas, his old teammate and roommate for the World University Games and now the head coach of the Spurs. The story was about John’s recovery from his own alcohol and cocaine addictions, and how he had opened the John Lucas Treatment Center in Houston to help other athletes with substance abuse issues. Gus called the Spurs and left a message for Lucas.
He got a call back from George Gervin, the Iceman himself, that very night. The Spurs had just been eliminated from the playoffs on a late shot by Charles Barkley of the Suns. Gervin, an assistant coach, assured him that Lucas would call as soon as he was done with media interviews. Before Lucas had even addressed his team, he called his old friend back.
“Will you come see me in Houston?” he asked Gus.
“I don’t have any money,” Gus said. “I don’t have insurance. I don’t have anything. I can’t pay for rehab.”
“Motherfucker, I didn’t ask if you had money,” Lucas said. “I asked if you would come see me.”
So, he did. His sister bought him a one-way ticket to Houston and told him that if he got clean she’d buy him a ticket home. John Lucas was there to welcome him to his facility.
Exercise was part of the program: swimming, running the track, playing basketball. Gus spent much of his rehab experience playing on the same practice court as members of the Houston Rockets, trying his best to keep up with Hakeem Olajuwon. He held his own, even at age 40. Hakeem did what Hakeem did to everyone, but Gus played well enough against some of the other pros that a coach for a pro team in Mexico took notice. He asked Lucas if Gus would be interested in playing for his team for the rest of the season, as the team hunted for a playoff spot. He’d pay him $12,000 in cash for the service.
Gus was nervous. He’d only been 90 days sober at this point. Once again, Lucas was his voice of reason.
“How much do you owe in child support?” Lucas asked.
“About 10 grand,” Gus told him.
“Get your ass down to Mexico. You’ll be fine. Pay your kids what you owe, and get your fresh start.”
He didn’t speak a word of Spanish, his trip involved precarious bus rides through the hills and down dirt roads, and he had to listen to Alcoholics Anonymous tapes at full volume just to stop himself from having a panic attack on the bus, but he made it. He played the rest of that season, got his money, and made his payments.
Gus returned to Houston and moved into a halfway house. Obsessed with his recovery—the zeal of a convert—he decided to pay his experience forward, going to work for Lucas as a counselor at his facility. And that’s what Gus Gerard did for more than a decade, counseling athletes with substance abuse issues and giving motivational speeches at companies and colleges. He could not change what he had done to himself, to his family, or to his friends. But, he could try to help steer others away from making the same mistakes. Sometimes it worked, even.
Gus went back to Uniontown for the first time in 20 years for Horse Taylor’s court dedication at Laurel Highlands. Most of the bridges he’d burned have since been mended, a far cry from the days in the ‘80s when people would bust his windows over unpaid drug debts, or call his mother in the middle of the night to threaten her and tell her that her son was worthless. There are still some old friends who turn the other way when they see him, or people who speak ill of him when he’s not around. He can’t stop that. He doesn’t try.
It’s 2019 in Uniontown and an addict is tending bar. Gus still has the same reach as he did in Ohio, but he is a bit slower and more deliberate with his movements. It’s a slow Tuesday, and the place is quiet, country music playing over the speakers and the Penguins game on the TVs.
At the bar, a man with fresh stitches in his head pleads quietly with his companion. She is convinced that the tree that fell on his head that day was intentional, and that the workers on his tree trimming crew did it to send a message. He insists they offered to pay for his medicine, so they couldn’t have done it on purpose.
This is Gus’s Pub. He owns the place. He’s still addicted—he’s accepted that he always will be—but he doesn’t use anymore. There are no more key bumps in the back. No more rowdy jukebox nights. It’s a calmer crowd here in his hometown. Gus is pouring himself a drink, but it’s a ginger ale.
He is conflicted about the bar. When his friend offered him the space to open it up, Gus called his sponsor to ask the question that was eating at him (and still eats at him): How do I square being in recovery while distributing the same stuff that helped put me in this mess? His sponsor told him to think about the jobs he would be giving to people, and the opportunity to build a place that puts money back into the community.
That isn’t quite enough for Gus, so he also talks. His story is widely known in Uniontown, which isn’t that big, certainly not so big people would forget a local legend. As such, his customers sometimes seek his help. A nephew is struggling with heroin addiction. A cousin drinks too much or too often. Gus will do what he can, use his connections in the recovery community to get them counseling or a spot in a rehab facility.
His bar is his vehicle for spreading his story. It’s all he wants, for something positive to come from the darkness he faced and still faces, living his life moment to moment and only ever being able to commit to not drinking or getting high that day.
The walls are adorned with photos of Gerard’s history—and of course, the history of his friends and teammates. There’s a signed photo of Gus guarding Julius Erving in the post. A photo of Gus, his old teammate Mike D’Antoni, and their broadcaster, Bob Costas. The biggest photo assortment, however, is the one featuring the the legends of Laurel Highlands. Wil Robinson. Jimmy Hobgood. Horse Taylor. Buzzy Harrison.
Gerard remembers what it was like to idolize someone, to just want to fit in.
“I was never one of the kids in school that would hang around with the cooler guys,” he tells me. His voice is heavy and slow, his eyes losing focus. “I never tried to hurt anybody, I tried to help people out. I always gave money away. If my friends in Charlottesville needed something, I gave them money. I bought my family stuff, my dad a truck, bought a friend a car.
“I didn’t need to. People liked me. They liked me because of what I did or what I accomplished. Cocaine gave me that sense of power, or euphoria, the grandiosity it gave me. It made me feel like a king.”
He doesn’t carry his regrets outwardly. At the bar, half the people who are there make sure they stop to chat with him when they arrive and say goodbye on the way out. He’s jovial and sweet with them, remembering their names and their families’ names. He helps players at Laurel Highlands who ask for his help. His smile, bright as it was in the glossy photos on the wall, doesn’t show pain.
But there are regrets, one above others that eats away at him. Before he lost himself in his addiction, he had lost himself in basketball. The playground near his house was his fantasyland, where every shot he took was a last second shot to win, and every dunk was over Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain. On the court, the anxieties that would eventually sink him disappeared for a few hours at a time. He still loves the game, but he knows that he never got to see how far he could take his abilities.
“I shortchanged myself. Had I gotten sober when I was playing, I maybe could’ve played 12 or 15 years,” he says. He pauses a moment, and the fire is there. “I mean, look, Larry Bird, I blocked his shot. Julius Erving. I blocked his shot. I couldn’t do all the things those guys did, but I could get up with them.”
Casey Taylor is a writer living and working in Pittsburgh. If you’d like to praise him, yell at him, or offer him an unfathomably lucrative writing opportunity, you can email him here or follow him on Twitter.