Young Doctor Julius Winfield Erving Jr. began practicing in Virginia a mere two weeks ago, but the folks down in the Commonwealth are already mightily impressed. "The Doctor is operating again tonight," Richmond citizens will say with undisguised admiration. Or, "The Doctor reached deep into his bag for that one," say his new fans from Tidewater when another of his specially blended shots gives them the lift they need. In fact, Doctor J., as his closest associates call him, has handled his first few cases so ably that it is hard to believe he is only 21 and largely untrained. He skipped the internship usually required in his profession and, even more unusual, has yet to fulfill the prerequisites for a bachelor's degree.
State laws being what they are, the Doctor cannot legally practice, but that has not prevented him from making Virginians feel good. Erving plays forward for the ABA Squires with the deft touch of a surgeon, the detachment of a psychiatrist and the diverse skills of a GP. His huge, strong hands enable him to palm rebounds, passes and dunks with an ease previously displayed only by Connie Hawkins among noncenters. He is a high, hanging leaper and a fast ball handler who might play guard—except that his rebounding, particularly on offense, is too valuable to allow him to move from the frontcourt. And perhaps the best—or the most—is yet to come, for Doctor J. is a mere stripling of 6'6" who matter-of-factly explains that he will be 6'8" when he finally grows up, a scary prospect indeed for opponents who have already received his treatment: an average of 23 points and 17 rebounds in his first five pro games.
Erving's bogus M.D. is a nickname from his days at the University of Massachusetts. Unfortunately for New Engenders his time there was far shorter than expected. Erving bypassed his final season of college eligibility to join the pros, and he now represents the best of an increasing number of undergrads—variously termed dropouts or hardship cases—who have done the same. Up in Cincinnati, for example, Utah State dropout Nate Williams has dropped in, which is certainly more of hardship for his former college than it is for Royal rooters.
There is even a new drafting procedure for financially pressed college players who join the NBA or ABA without fulfilling the usual requirement that they be four years out of high school. And the NBA has a system to investigate such cases: it carefully checks the applicant's claims, although it has never publicly spelled out its criteria for deciding whether or not a player is a hardship case. Neither league has disclosed how many applications, if any, have been rejected. Six players have qualified for the unique NBA draft, and 11 others were approved under the ABA's similar, "special circumstance" waiver procedure.
Most of the qualified players were then selected in separate September drafts, and Cincinnati got the NBA's first pick—Williams. His situation was typical of the young draftees. "I was married and had a little boy," he says. "We were living off $93 a month, which is what the NCAA allows, and I was in considerable debt around the community from my sophomore and junior years."
His case was declared to be legitimate and Williams was immediately renamed Nate Hardship after rolling into Cincinnati with a broad smile on his face, a three-quarter length leather coat draped over his shoulders and the gas pedal of a sleek, year-old Ford Thunderbird under his foot. "I got the car from a bank," explained Williams, blithe and balding though only 21. "A friend signed for me. I got it on a deferred payment basis. If I hadn't gotten a pro contract, the guy who signed would have been up a tree. He would have had to make the payments. It was a loan, not a gift. I have to pay for it with my own money." Williams' buddy back in Utah presumably has climbed down from that tree since Hardship signed a contract for a reported $75,000.
Two other hardship cases who are already proving themselves in the pros are former California Guard Phil Chenier, who started and scored 17 and 29 points in two games last week for Baltimore, and Atlanta's Tom Payne, the ex-University of Kentucky sophomore center. Hawks' Coach Richie Guerin predicts that Payne will be a top pivotman.
College coaches, understandably distressed as the pros make off with their would-be All-Americas, argue that the leagues are luring players away from completing their education. But the first and most famous undergraduate signer, Spencer Haywood, resents being called a "dropout" simply because he quit college to turn pro two years ago. "Did you know that 87% of the pro players today don't have a degree?" he says of the college system that often features four years of playing but not necessarily four years of learning. "Besides, I'm going to school in the off season."
Most of the other dropouts also assert that they intend to win their degrees. Erving, who returned to the U. of Mass. last summer to continue as a marketing major, even has a special incentive written into his contract: when he receives his diploma the Squires will pay him a $10,000 bonus. The same incentive reward awaits Indiana's exceptional rookie, George McGinnis, except that he claims it will be more money.
It is something of a surprise that Erving, who with McGinnis turned pro during last year's NBA-ABA war, was signed at all. It is doubtful that he could have qualified as a bona-fide "hardship" case, and, since his brief, brilliant career at college had gone almost unnoticed outside New England, he was not considered heavy artillery in the bidding battle. Erving first was offered to the New York Nets, based in his birthplace, Hempstead, N.Y. But Nets Coach-General Manager Lou Carnesecca turned down the deal, even though he knew Erving possessed extraordinary talent. "It was not a moral issue, it was a business issue," Carnesecca says. "I thought if we kept raiding the colleges we'd lose the free farm system they provide us. But if the same situation occurred again—I'd sign him." Erving's agents next turned to Virginia, and that did it.
"When I went to college, my priorities were school first, basketball second and other stuff third," Erving says. "But, imperceptibly, they shifted. So, when I was confronted with the signing situation, I had to admit to myself that basketball meant more. When they asked me what I wanted and made an offer, I signed right away. Well, I called home first to make sure it was O.K."
It was indeed O.K. for basketball fans in Virginia. The Doctor could be their cure-all.