Too bad, America, but you missed one of the greatest basketball shows on Earth. Or, rather, one just a few feet off the Earth. That was Julius Erving last week, launching himself from various points on courts in Denver and New York, soaring and scoring, passing, rebounding, blocking and stealing—all in the undeserved obscurity of the ABA championship finals. By Saturday night Erving and his underdog New York Nets had Denver down three games to one, which is what can happen when humans go five-on-one with a helicopter.
The games were not nationally televised, but they should have been. Dr. J's heroics merited more than just local exposure. In the first four games he scored 158 points, pulled down 51 rebounds, had 22 assists, blocked seven shots and had eight steals. Most of them came with the Identified Flying Object's feet well off the ground, his body twisting and turning. Even the Nuggets felt like applauding.
Denver had assigned the task of stopping Erving—or, rather, slowing him down—to Bobby Jones, the 6'9" second-year man out of North Carolina who may be the best defensive forward in basketball. But by the end of last week the most Jones could do was smile and shake his head.
"The thing about him is that you know he is going to get to the basket, you just never know how," he said. "In the first game I tried to make him go baseline, and he went right by me. After that I tried to make him pull up in the lane. So he made his jumpers. Or he went right by me. But I really enjoy watching him because every time he does one of those moves I know it's something I may never see again."
May 16, 1976
The Doctor's best games have a certain rhythm. It is his habit to save his incredible moves until after the first quarter. "I don't like to get into the offense too quickly," he explains. "I prefer for the guards to get into it first. That way I can determine the flow and my best course of action. Then I can let the game flow toward me. By the second quarter I'm ready to start swooping. But it's important for me to go with the flow, and not force it."
True to his pattern, Dr. J idled along early in the first game in Denver. The Nets took a one-point lead into the second quarter. He scored just four points as he studied the situation.
For both clubs this was more than a championship series. Merger with the NBA might be around the corner, and so 1976 could be the last year for the ABA. Both Denver and New York want to be remembered as the league's last champion. To the Nets' disadvantage they were playing a club that had dominated them (15-7) during the last two regular seasons. Worse yet, over an 11-game stretch going back to the beginning of the 1974-75 season, the Nets had been unable to win in Denver. That can lead to a ton of soul searching.
"I had done a lot of thinking about that," Erving said. "Denver is the only team that dominated us in the regular season. What were we doing wrong? Obviously we had been playing right into their hands. Jones is a tremendous defensive player. His technique is to overplay me on the wings, near the basket, deny me the ball, and when I get it, to make me go to my left. I decided if I came out farther, I could get the ball and have more room to operate."
In the second quarter Erving, with ample room, began to operate. He scored 13 points, two of them on a swooshing two-hand switch stuff. What the blistering serve was to Pancho Gonzales, the stunning stuff is to Erving.
"Why not?" he asks. "What people call the-show, well, that's the best way I can see to get the bucket. I've been doing it all my life, and I say when something works, don't change it. Some guys, like Rick Mount, practice all their lives on one jump shot, one they'll never miss. When they get in a tight spot, that's the shot they take. I dunk. That's my shot. I'm not going to miss. And if I do, well, nobody's going to holler."
With four seconds still to play, Erving had scored 43 points and the Nets led 118-116. It was at this point that Marvin Webster, the 7'1" Denver rookie who was out most of the season with hepatitis, slammed home an offensive rebound to tie the score and apparently send the game into overtime. The Nets called time to set up a play for Erving.
Denver Coach Larry Brown ordered Jones to play Erving tight. Denver decided against double-teaming him, afraid he would find the open man. The ball came in to Erving on the right baseline 18 feet out. With one second left The Doctor shot, scored, and New York won the opener 120-118.
"I wanted to drive," Erving said. "I wanted to try for a dunk or at least to get some contact, draw a foul. But Bobby cut me off, and I didn't feel I had time to spin back. Also, you don't have power right away after a spin. So I shot it."
Jones said later that he had played the entire game with a huge blister on his right foot. "And when I went up to block his last shot," he said, "the blister popped. For a split second, I thought about that blister. Maybe if it hadn't popped, I would have stopped the shot."
Said Larry Brown, "Can you imagine knowing for the rest of your life you lost a championship because of a blister?"
Led by rookie sensation David Thompson, who had scored 30 points in the opening loss, the Nuggets came back to win Game 2 at home 127-121. This time Thompson scored 24. But Erving's night was even better than his first. He scored 11 of New York's last 13 points, eight of them on stuffs, and finished with 48 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists. Said Denver Scout Frank Hamblen, "Our fans will love this one. They root for us to win and for Dr. J to score 50."
"Julius is the greatest," said Thompson. "He used to be my idol. But no more. It's pretty hard to idolize a guy you're playing against. I have to keep reminding myself not to stop and watch him."
Back in New York, Erving got in deep foul trouble early in the third game, and spent a lot of time on the bench. Still, when he returned for the last time with 1:50 to play, the Nets were up 109-108.
"With our main man out we proved we could hang with those guys," said Nets Coach Kevin Loughery, who has become weary of hearing that he runs a one-man operation. "When Julius is in trouble, it's a difficult position for our team to be in. The Doctor was harnessed, but we were still able to stay in the game."
With Erving in temporary exile, John Williamson, who was having an excellent series, popped in 28 points and Rich Jones added 22. "They're playing good defense," said the cocky Williamson, "but not even good D can stop me. This year the bad situation in the ABA has motivated everybody. If this is the last year, New York be champion."
Thirteen seconds after his return Erving hit with a driving double-pump jumper, which put New York ahead 111-108. Thompson promptly wiped that out with a three-point play. With 39 seconds left, the Nets called time to set up a play for—yes, The Doctor. After a quick head-fake, he drove by Jones on the right baseline and spun in a reverse left-handed layup. Nets 113-111. Before that he had blocked one shot by Jones and another by Chuck Williams. "You don't even see him," Jones said. "He comes out of nowhere."
Thompson's charging foul with 23 seconds to play cost Denver an opportunity to tie the game. But before it ended, Erving fattened his own point total (31) and the score (117-111) with two foul shots and a slashing yo-yo dunk.
Brown was bitter about the call on Thompson who, he said, was in tears. "The game was stolen from us," the coach said. "You don't have to be a genius to know that. You think Thompson gets breaks? The question is, was it a foul or not a foul? Thompson goes to the basket more and faster than anybody, and he never goes to the line. Julius goes to the basket, and you know he's got a bucket, and if he falls down they're going to call a foul. For David, never."
Erving was surprised to hear that Thompson was in tears. "He's crying because he missed a shot?" Julius said incredulously. "I missed a lot of shots my rookie year, but I didn't cry. I just went in, took the rebound and then made the shot."
Two nights later Erving resumed his usual first-quarter role (six points) and Denver got off to a 34-29 advantage, three times leading by 11. But The Doctor began his shake-and-fake routine, which seemed to mesmerize the Nuggets, and by halftime the Nets led 61-57. Then Erving really got going, scoring 12 in the third quarter and nine in the fourth. He wound up with 34 points (14 of them on dunks), 15 rebounds and six assists. The final score was 121-112, but the game was not that close.
Afterwards Erving allowed that it would be nice to win the championship at home in front of the Nets fans, as they had two seasons earlier—but if they could end it in the fifth game in Denver, the Nets would just as soon not wait. "We're going there and let it all hang out," he said, staring into a camera from ABC, which was filming a segment on him for Wide World of Sports.
He spoke easily, laughed often. The Nets were in a powerful position, and their star was enjoying it. He brushed aside a remark about the Nets being underdogs, 'We've always had a quiet confidence," he said. "We never go out and say we are a better team." He laughed. "We may think it, but we never say it. And we did wonder some in the beginning. Now we know what we can do against them. Offensively, we know we can go by them. We can get layups. The stuffs. In the regular season it was as though we just had to take the first jumper we could. But no more."
As usual when people talk to Erving, his stuff shot quickly becomes the subject. A radio broadcaster wanted to know if he always felt confident about making it.
"No. Sometimes when I start a play I never know if I will be able to do what I would like. But I always go ahead and try. I guess it's sort of like daring to be great. And if it works, fine." He shrugged. "And if it doesn't, well, the team is always behind me. The coach is behind me. Next time, I just try something else."
Another broadcaster asked if, when a play works as he planned it and he later watches his magic on film, doesn't that give him a great feeling?
The question brought a quick smile. "Well, there are better feelings to be had," Julius Erving said. "But I'm only human."
You'll have to pardon the Denver Nuggets if they disagree.