It was an ordinary enough day for Julius Erving. There was no great intensity in his face or in his movements as he glided through practice at Cathedral College in Douglaston, Queens, and visitors who had watched him in the first three games against Denver could be excused for wondering why he looked so—so mortal.
Outside the gym he climbed into his dirty white Avanti II and tooled down Cathedral Boulevard, smiling, waving to men raking leaves and to schoolchildren playing on cement courts, even though they didn't all recognize him. His license plate JWE-32 (the W is for Winfield) created no stir as he moved into the traffic on busy Northern Boulevard. "I don't seem to have the same problem as Clyde Frazier," said The Doctor, and he seemed perfectly content.
At the Scobee Diner he stopped for a cheeseburger on his way to closing a deal on a $250,000 17-room house on 6 l/2 acres in stately Upper Brookville, Long Island for himself, his wife and two children. The cheeseburger looked tiny in his size-11 hands, and he put it down when a stringy teen-age girl stood giggling in front of him.
"Are you Dr. J?"
May 16, 1976
"Can I have your autograph?"
"Were you at the game last night?"
"Thanks for your support," he said, signing a packet of E-Z Wider rolling papers.
Between sips of a Coke he said, "Even if we win this championship, we really haven't proved anything except that we're champions of the ABA. We'd be the No. 1 contender waiting for a shot at the title. The NBA. That would be a great series. It would put basketball right where it's supposed to be. I'd love to play against Dave Cowens or Rick Barry, and, as players, I know they'd love to play us. But unfortunately that's out of our hands. Personally, I don't see how a merger could do anything but strengthen basketball."
Erving's commitment to the ABA is precious to the league owners and players alike. When franchises began dropping out like Democrats from the Presidential race, it was Erving, as vice-president of the ABA Players Association, who kept players from panicking and established a fund for those who had lost their jobs. And if the ABA has levers in its hope for a merger with the NBA, one of them must surely be the prospect of Dr. J (and a handful of other ABA superstars, like David Thompson) filling half-empty arenas in places like Atlanta and beefing up anemic television ratings.
"The NBA without Dr. J," wrote Dave Anderson in The New York Times, "is like boxing without Muhammad Ali...." ABA Commissioner Dave DeBusschere put it another way. "There are athletes who are known as 'the franchise,' " he said. "Well, Julius isn't the franchise. He's the league."
"I'm not concerned with publicity for myself," Erving was saying over lunch. "I get enough. And David Thompson gets it, and so does Artis Gilmore because he's a giant. But we have guys like Ron Boone, George Gervin, James Silas and Bobby Jones, who can play on any team, and how many fans have ever heard of them? People have heard of my moves and dunks but how many have ever seen one?"
There was very little that The Doctor had not done with a basketball in this championship series. Yet he managed to find new ways to astonish people. He was shooting baskets in Denver before Game 2, when ABA publicist Jim Bukata said someone had written that high school star Darrell Griffith and Thompson were the only two humans who could execute a midair 360-degree turn and slam dunk. The Doctor considered the question, checked the distance between himself and the basket, straightened his knee braces, took three steps, flew into the air, spun 360 degrees, dunked and turned to Bukata. "Make that three," he said.
Now The Doctor attacked a French fry. "I can get a rebound and go," he said. "I'll give it off or, if I want, I'll go all the way myself. Once I get into the lane it's history. I'm like a jazzman. When it's my turn to solo, I'm not about to play the same old riff.
"The ABA is like China in the '60s. We've got the bomb, and still the NBA is ignoring us. I think people want to see Julius Erving and David Thompson."
Finishing off the burger and dabbing at the ketchup on his bearded chin, Erving was still smiling, happy at the way the Nets were going, and defining his own success in odd-sounding terms. "I'm just the utility man," he said. "I do a little of everything. All right—sometimes I do a lot of everything."