He took him to school. That, in the parlance of the pros, is what Knickerbocker Dave DeBusschere, D. D. (Doctor of Defense) did to his young colleague, Dr. J.—the Nets' Julius Erving—who at the tender age of 23 holds advanced degrees in kinetics, aerodonetics and slam dunkery. And though it was only an exhibition game, it typified what is going to be the tone of the '73-'74 season. In the 18 minutes the 33-year-old DeBusschere played before a bruised thigh knocked him out of the first of a pair of home-and-home games last week between New York's NBA champions and their suburban ABA rivals, he outscored Dr. J. 12-4, blocked one of his shots, guarded him so closely away from the ball that Erving did not get one of his huge mitts on it for the first 2:34 and generally laid enough hands, elbows and torso on him (left) that the Knicks had a five-point lead when DeBusschere went to the bench.
DeBusschere would turn in more spectacular plays, but the first serious encounter between him and Dr. J. best demonstrated what Erving, the sport's finest offensive forward, faced in his first game against the finest defensive cornerman and, by extension, the lessons the old pros can pass on to the young as the game enters an unusual period of transition.
Only 30 seconds had elapsed and Erving was standing nonchalantly near the corner to the left of the basket. His apparent disinterest was a ruse to lower the guard of DeBusschere, who was overplaying Dr. J. to such an extent that he was in front of him, inviting Erving to take the baseline route to the basket. One of the Nets passed the ball to Center Billy Paultz at the high post, initiating the classic forward's ploy against the overplay: the back-door move. Erving took a quick jab step toward the sideline and, as DeBusschere shifted slightly to cover him, reversed his direction and sprinted along the baseline toward the hoop. With barely a glance at the action behind him, Paultz threw a pass down the lane designed to yield an easy dunk for the streaking Erving if he had been able to gain the least part of a step on DeBusschere. But neither Erving's feigned indifference nor his outside fake had fooled DeBusschere. Paultz' pass was on the money but so was DeBusschere, who batted down the ball, picked it off the floor and sent the Knick offense rolling upcourt.
Erving proved an apt pupil. Only once more did he foolishly challenge DeBusschere; otherwise he patiently waited for good shots and remained content to pass superbly, four times whipping the ball to teammates under the basket for easy buckets. But when DeBusschere left the game, school was out for the Knicks. Erving beat assorted defenders to put in 23 points in the final 30 minutes. On the last scoring play of the game he swiped the ball from Walt Frazier, drove from midcourt and, waving the ball aloft in his left hand as he levitated from the foul line to the hoop, crammed in the points that made it Nets 97, Knicks 87.
Two nights later the Knicks showed that the Nets still have a lot to learn by defeating them 105-87. The eight-point advantage the Knicks held after the two games is an accurate measure of the difference between the teams. But the underlying lesson was not that the Knicks are better this year; it is that the Nets may be better next season. Only one Net regular is older than 25 while four important Knicks are over 30. This spring DeBusschere will retire to become the general manager of the Nets—and Erving's boss. Bill Bradley, the Knicks' other sterling forward, also may quit to pursue his long-heralded career in politics. Last week a New York columnist even predicted it would be a congressional seat (New Jersey's 13th) that Bradley would run for in "74. Bradley denies this. He does not deny, however, that the interest in public service which almost led him to campaign for state treasurer in Missouri in 1972 is still very much alive.
The possible decline of the Knicks and the potential rise of the Nets are not isolated prospects. Similar patterns are evolving in both leagues, and spotting the comers and goers will be an added pastime for fans as the season unfolds. Among the top teams of recent years, Los Angeles and Utah would seem to be the first to go. For other good clubs the falling off may be more gradual. At Carolina the forwards are Billy Cunningham, 30, and chronically injured Joe Caldwell, 31; Boston relies on John Havlicek and Don Nelson, both 33. Chicago has Chet Walker, 33, and Jerry Sloan, 31: Golden State has Nate Thurmond, 32, and Jeff Mullins, 31; and even Milwaukee, a young club overall, will probably have to replace 34-year-old Oscar Robertson next season. All of which suggests there may be room at the top for such teams as Denver and Virginia, Atlanta and Buffalo and Detroit and Phoenix. Whether they will be ready to move up will depend on how well they absorb the schooling of the sort the Knicks gave the Nets. For most of these clubs what will count is not how they finish in the standings this season but how they played the game.
"On a team with young talent like the Nets the individuals can improve their own play for two or three more years," said Bradley after whipping a good Net rookie, Larry Kenon, for most of his 27 points in the second game. "But if a team is to become better than the sum of those parts, it must develop poise as a group. The players must come up with a sense of what their teammates will do in certain offensive situations. Some guys never learn this, but it's really fairly simple. The hard part is team defense. That's where you must forget yourself. It's easy to yell at a guy and say, 'You blew it!' What's hard is making yourself help the other man and realizing you are partly responsible for every point the team gives up."
The ABA, in another try at making its inferior—though rapidly improving—game seem jazzier than the NBA's, has come up with a rule change that should help young players on defense. There will be no foul-outs in the ABA. After six personals a player will be allowed to remain in the game, but in most cases the opposing team will be awarded free throws and possession of the ball on every foul he commits thereafter. Carolina's young center, Jim Chones, took maximum advantage of the new rule in a recent exhibition when he fouled 12 times, a feat that the ABA's oldest player—if the courts allow him to suit up—has already performed in the opinion of more than one NBA coach. Thirty-seven-year-old Wilt Chamberlain is inordinately proud of surviving 1,205 NBA games without a disqualification, although some opponents feel that the refs should share the credit with Wilt. Now, for sure, he will never foul out.
New rules and new prospects—but please, not another new Wilt—do not mean a new order of finish. The Old Guard will prevail one last season. In the NBA the Knicks should win the championship again, and so should the Pacers in the ABA.