Julius Erving was near the front of the line as the New York Nets snaked out of their dressing room in the Nassau Coliseum and jogged down the tunnel heading for the gleaming floor where they would play host to the ABA's Eastern Division-leading Carolina Cougars one night last week. But by the time the Nets began their layup drill Erving (see cover) was no longer with them. He could barely be made out in the dim passageway doing something pro players rarely deign to do, something most would consider uncool immediately before a game. He was talking animatedly and signing autographs for a boy and his father, a small man wearing a black velvet yarmulke. Erving had never met them before, but when he heard that the rabbi had driven 150 miles from upstate New York to fulfill his boy's fondest Chanukah wish—to see Dr. J. play—Erving, quite naturally for him, could not resist stopping to chat.
Amenities completed, he rejoined his teammates, slammed a few perfunctory pregame dunks, did a quick sideline critique of Center Billy Paultz' father's basso profundo rendering of The Star-Spangled Banner ("Not bad at all, but I could teach him a few things about projection"), and then went out and put on another ho-hum performance against Carolina. He scored 23 points. He grabbed 12 rebounds. He stole the ball three times. And he tipped in the deciding basket as the Nets won 99-96, knocking the Cougars out of first and moving themselves within a half game of the new leader, Kentucky, in the hottest three-team race in the pros.
Yes, Julius Erving has brought his Dr. Nicely-Nicely routine back home to Long Island. He has done nicely on the floor, where he has led the youngest starting lineup in the pros—average age 22.6 years—back from a skitterish start and into title contention. He has done nicely off it as well, charming the clergy, his employers, the recently re-elected Nassau County Executive (whom he endorsed after extracting pledges for recreational programs for his hometown of Roosevelt), and even the Madison Avenue types who are after some endorsements of their own. Naturally enough, Dr. J. now spiels for Dr Pepper.
However, Erving has obviously saved his best charm job for the young woman who was constantly in his immediate vicinity last week.
"What's her name?" he was asked.
"You know, t-u-r-q-u-o-i-s-e."
"Oh, it's spelled just like the color."
"Yeah, and so is her last name, b-r-o-w-n."
The smashing Ms. Brown is accustomed to confusion over her name. "Most people just call me Turk," she says. "But one of Julius' friends has trouble remembering names. He calls me Aqua."
Turk lives in North Carolina and commutes to nearly every Net home game, and with good reason. "I love to watch Julius play because he's so unpredictable I never know what he'll do next," she says. "But I love him because he's so reliable and calm. He never gets mad, and when sometimes I get angry he settles me right down. He'll say real quietly, 'Don't you get no attitude now.' "
More through his demeanor than his words, Erving has been saying the same thing to his fellow Nets, particularly the survivors from last year's squad that slumped early and finished out the schedule playing as much against one another as against their opponents. Indeed, Erving's quiet congeniality may be as important as his 27.6 points, 11.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game and his 50% shooting average, 108 steals and 120 blocked shots. "Believe me, I know from experience, it's one heck of a lot easier when your main man is a good guy," says Net Coach Kevin Loughery. "I was in Baltimore when Wes Unseld got there. It didn't take the players long to figure out that on top of being a great player, Wes is a great man. He turned the Bullets' whole attitude around by just being there, and Doc has done at least as much for us."
Two years ago the Nets rallied late in the season and advanced to the final round of the playoffs. But last season began on a depressing note when Net star Rick Barry was ordered by the courts to return to the NBA Warriors. Things went downhill from there. A six-game losing streak in November led to a rancorous team meeting. Then one player took himself out of the lineup with an injury some of his mates felt was more imagined than real. Next a rookie center flatly said he would rather not play at all than be forced to operate at forward. By the close of the season New York had drifted to a 30-54 record and General Manager-Coach Lou Carnesecca had announced his resignation.
With that, Owner Roy Boe went for all the youth money could buy. He signed 33-year-old Dave DeBusschere to a 10-year, $750,000 general manager contract and then gave him a year off to finish his playing career with the Knicks. A five-year deal lured Loughery away from Philadelphia. At 33 he was the youngest coach in the pros (a distinction he lost in November when Kansas City-Omaha named 32-year-old Phil Johnson to succeed Bob Cousy) and had less than a half season's experience. In a role that was more custodial than creative, Loughery had guided the 76ers to five wins in their final 31 games last season.
Shortly thereafter, Boe shipped about $1 million to Virginia and Atlanta to secure the much contested rights to Erving. Then he signed the 23-year-old ABA scoring champion to a $2.5 million, eight year contract. Boe added round sums for a flock of rookies including 6'9" Forward Larry Kenon, 21, of Memphis State and 6'2" Guard John Williamson, 22, of New Mexico State, who have become starters even though they both should now be college seniors.
Hiring undergraduates is hardly a new procedure for the Nets. Not one of New York's first five—Erving, Kenon, Williamson, the 25-year-old Paultz or 22-year-old Guard Brian Taylor—completed his college eligibility and not one was drafted by the Nets. Erving and Williamson came into the ABA as free agents and the remaining three were selections of other teams that would not or could not sign them. As the league's richest club, New York could and did.
Still the assembling of prime, young talent has rarely yielded an instant winner in the pros. Even after they had brought together the then-young group of Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley and Cazzie Russell, the Knicks needed two seasons, a coaching change and a major trade (DeBusschere) before winning their division. Boston, after drafting Dave Cowens, and Milwaukee, after adding Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, each required a year of seasoning before becoming first-place clubs.
That the Nets are already threatening to become a division titlist is a marked achievement for Loughery, a cigar-chomping Irishman from the Bronx who was known in the NBA during his 11-year playing career as Murph. He was also distinguished by his toughness—in one playoff with the Bullets he wore a plastic plate strapped under his jersey to protect a collapsed lung and a couple of broken ribs—and by the fact that he was the highest scorer in NBA history never named to an all-star team.
As a player, Loughery was readily identifiable as a prospective coach. He was a backcourt man who invariably turned "th's" into "d's" and always included an "s" on the end of the second person plural pronoun. Clearly he was of the species East Coast guard. Twelve of the 27 pro coaching jobs are now held by men of this ilk. Four of the five coaches in the Nets' division of the ABA are former guards who learned the game within about 100 miles of one another.
It looked like Murph's fine breeding might be wasted on the Nets when they slipped into a virtual replay of last season in November. After winning four of its first five games, New York dropped nine in a row, fell into last place, eight games from the lead, and called another team meeting. It was then that the mood which Loughery credits Erving with setting held fast. The meeting passed without incident and two days later the Nets broke their losing streak. Shortly thereafter they won nine straight. Since halting its run of losses, New York has taken 21 of 28 and has been in or just out of first place for the past month.
"The reputation of the Nets last year was that if you got up on them early they'd start squabbling among themselves," says Erving. "They were losers. From the minute I knew I was coming here I was preparing myself to stop that from happening again. I knew I'd have leadership responsibilities, not as the designated leader—that's the role of the team captain, Bill Melchionni—but on a different basis.
"There has to be criticism among players on a team, but I guess what I've tried to do is make it constructive and cut down on the meaningless griping at each other. I don't think you should cuss at a guy for missing a pass. You should boost him up by saying something like, 'It's all right. We'll get it next time.'
"And when something goes wrong in a game or there's a flare-up at practice I know it's easier for me to be the one who apologizes. A guy who the public doesn't consider such a big star might feel, 'Damn, I'm not gonna bow down to the blankety-blank just because he's the big shot around here.' But for me it's no problem to go over and say I'm sorry."
Something the Nets are not sorry about is two tactical moves Loughery made in the game that ended the losing streak. He junked the pressing defense he had used to good effect with the 76ers. He felt it was wearing down the Nets' slender guards—Taylor, Melchionni and John Roche—often causing the team to blow big leads in the second half. And to beef up the backcourt, he replaced Melchionni in the starting lineup with Williamson, who is built like a cornerback. A high-scoring gunner in college, Williamson has played with a discipline on offense and concentration on defense unusual in one so young.
And since the losing streak the rest of the Nets have been showing only the most casual deference to Erving's offensive prowess. In half of New York's last 12 games Dr. J. has not been the team's high scorer and his average is dropping toward the 25-point figure he thinks would be best for offensive balance. Kenon, an unabashed shooter, has averaged 16 points a game, but it is Paultz, a 6'11" mound of a man, who has developed into the Nets' second best offensive threat with a 17-point average.
Even though Loughery can still safely describe Paultz' physique as "lacking definition," the Net center no longer looks quite as much like Baby Huey as he did when he came into the pros three seasons ago as an indifferent player. One thing definite about Paultz is that his talents are now as well rounded as his midsection. Except for his fine outside shooting touch, he is not extraordinary in any phase of pivot play; rather he has become so thoroughly adequate at all that he now ranks no worse than third best among ABA centers.
All five Net starters were in double figures in their three games last week. After the win against Carolina, Erving broke loose for one of his increasingly rare big bursts (34 points) in a 109-92 home triumph over Denver. But the next night at Hampton, Va., New York showed why it still faces a stern test trying to overcome its two experienced rivals, Kentucky and Carolina (both the Cougars' starting forwards, ailing Billy Cunningham and Joe Caldwell, have played more pro seasons individually than the entire Net starting lineup). In losing to the Squires 112-109, the Nets were prone to two failings common to young teams. Unable to fast break, they had to rely on their set offense, an element of the game which demands more consistent teamwork than they have developed. And the defeat was their 13th in 24 road games—they are a sizzling 14-4 at home—which is just another example of a young club not traveling well. Still, New York's schedule from here in is heavily weighted in favor of home games, which could be just enough advantage for everything to work out very nicely-nicely for all the Nets.