For a moment he was like any other theater-in-the-round headlines standing there in a circle of light, turning to show himself to each section of the house. As the applause swelled, he raised one fist in the air, then the other. A man ran out from the darkness and gave him—what, a black satchel? Of course, a doctor's satchel. Again the crowd exploded. Finally, his passionate welcome to the NBA concluded, Julius Erving sat down and began this new episode of his remarkable career right where he didn't belong. In Philadelphia. And on the bench.
It was a peculiar and obviously awkward debut that Erving made last Friday night in the Spectrum when 17,196 fans (just short of capacity) greeted the newcomer, late of the New York Nets, as if he had just discovered the cause of and cure for Legionnaires' Disease. When Dr. J entered the game in the second quarter and threw away his first pass, there were scattered moans. When he missed his first four free throws and committed a couple of sloppy fouls, there were raised eyebrows. Even before Erving had finished leading his new team—this month's dynasty, the talent-rich Philadelphia 76ers—to a 121-118 defeat, much of the audience had headed for the exits, somehow believing that any man worth $6.5 million should be able to beat the San Antonio Spurs with two legs tied behind his neck.
Of course, this is the same town that has been known to boo the Easter Bunny. Dr. J should consider himself lucky that the sin of rustiness didn't get him hanged in effigy.
Still, despite trying to do too much on not enough preparation, forcing his wind and judgment out of synch, Erving managed to come up with 17 points and six rebounds in 16 minutes of playing time. For the record, his first NBA basket came at 2:38 of the third period on a driving, double-pump underhand scoop shot off the glass. His first dunk was a slam-hook from the standing position with a double-tuck, lift-and-jerk sway motion, with about 10 minutes to go in the contest. Judges awarded it a puny 6.5 on the Erving WOW scale. All told, he made six of nine field goals, missed eight of 13 free throws and committed five fouls in his first true competition in five months.
Undoubtedly waiting for the new man to do something more, like jam the Liberty Bell through Betsy Ross' roof, the other 76ers proceeded to lose concentration and aggressiveness. When they weren't standing around gaping, they were practicing give-and-go turnovers and forgetting how they compiled the league's best exhibition record of 7-1.
"I never found my second wind," Erving acknowledged after the defeat. "My mind felt I could do anything, but my body wasn't ready." He was not much readier the next night in Buffalo, where the 76ers lost again, 108-105. Erving played 15 minutes and had 13 points.
Following weeks of hype, including the most seductive dangling of financial inducements since Barbara Walters decided to change teams, it was not surprising that Erving contributed so little in his first appearances for Philadelphia. It was more surprising that the 76ers had floated back down from space in time to play at all. It had been only two days before that these same 76ers, already a solid favorite to win the Atlantic Division, found out that Erving was on the way. Upon hearing the news, Caldwell Jones got down on his knees and cried. Doug Collins lay in bed and laughed and laughed. George McGinnis, the 76ers' previous savior, blurted, "Me and the Doctor together? Oh my God!"
The reaction on the other side of the continent was not as joyous. Aboard a plane from New York to San Francisco, the Nets were still certain that their star and leader would join them for the opener with the Golden State Warriors. At the airport they learned that he was gone for good.
"Get me to the bar. I may have to become a drinkster," said Coach Kevin Loughery as he stared, glassy-eyed, at the luggage going round and round.
John Williamson and Rich Jones did not try to be funny. "How could anybody do this to us? Our season is over already," said Williamson.
"It's a damn beef market. No sense beating your brains out," said Jones. Still, even without Erving, the Nets beat Golden State 104-103 on Jones' running one-hander at the buzzer. That was the game CBS had scheduled in order to showcase Erving and then canceled when he was sold, belittling both teams and showing considerable contempt for the NBA.
Trainer Fritz Massmann had carried Dr. J's uniform and equipment all the way to the West Coast, hoping against hope. Of the people responsible for transferring Erving down the New Jersey Turnpike, he said simply, "They should all be shot."
As the pros caught up with the week's bizarre events—which are sure to unbalance the league—it was not difficult to figure out who "they" are:
1. Roy Boe, the button-down Yale man whose hockey team—the Islanders—has prospered while his Nets have turned into debts. Even with Dr. J and the ABA championship team, attendance last season at Nassau Coliseum went down by 1,500 per game from the year before. The Nets have never sold out a regular-season game. They averaged more people at the Coliseum five years ago with Rick Barry than in three years with Julius Erving. Nonetheless, the Doctor claims that Boe promised him a renegotiation of his seven-year, $1.9 million contract in the event of a merger. But Boe, borrowing from everybody in the Big Apple except King Kong, stood pat for a month against renegotiation in this, the fourth year of Erving's contract.
2. Irwin Weiner, Erving's Runyonesque agent who graduated from New York's garment district and sometimes seems to be talking out of the side of his red hair while flashing more jewelry than Sammy Davis Jr. Weiner admits that Erving "wanted to go back" to the Nets as late as a week before the season opened when the player met with Boe at the Nassau Country Club. "Julius was getting emotionally involved," says Weiner. "I told him to get a strong letter of intent, something tangible from Boe." Boe didn't put anything in writing, so Erving, who seemed to be committing an atrocity by getting "emotionally involved" with his own life, gave up.
3. F. Eugene Dixon, a Main Line Philadelphia blue blood rumored to be worth $150 million ("depending on what happens on Wall Street tomorrow," he says). "Fitz" Dixon owns horses and large chunks of real estate. An heir to the fortune of the Widener family, he purchased the 76ers in May. He purchased Julius Erving last week. Three million dollars went to Boe immediately, $3.5 million will go to Dr. J over the next six seasons.
Dixon understands horses best. In explaining to his boss what Erving would mean to the franchise, 76er General Manager Pat Williams said Dr. J was like "Man o' War." The owner himself referred to Erving's physical examination as a "veterinary certificate."
And one must not forget Erving. In the end, the messy episode could be blamed on conflicting personalities, unquenchable egos, cynical self-interest, insensitivity, greed. Through the siege Erving remained, as always, a nice, friendly fellow with loads of intelligence, grace and charisma. Also, he became a father for the second time—mother Turquoise and daughter Jazmin Antiqua are doing fine. But Dr. J hardly deserves a halo.
The entire NBA now recognizes—too late—that for the good of the league and the area, Erving should have stayed on Long Island no matter what the cost. The Doctor insisted that is what he wished for all along. Yet through the long weeks of non-renegotiation with Boe, Erving never once left his 17-room renovated Upper Brookville estate, leaving the Mercedes and Avanti parked in the garages, to come into camp and practice. This is the second contract he has broken (the first was with the Virginia Squires in 1972), the second group of teammates he has run out on. Erving said, "I feel sorry for the guys. They'll have to start from scratch." And, "I feel tarnished." Also, "John Q. Cash does it again." He is now the highest-paid performer in the game.
In the Spectrum locker room Friday night Erving did not seem self-conscious upon meeting his new teammates. Earlier, over the phone to McGinnis, he had said, "Big George, we gonna do a number." When McGinnis encountered Erving wearing 76er colors, he said, "You sure look funny," and the two laughed and performed the ritual set of approximately 450 soul handshakes.
To keep feathers unruffled, 76er Coach Gene Shue kept insisting that he would never have traded McGinnis for Erving, that McGinnis was his captain, that he was "the best forward in the game," and "No. 1 in Philadelphia."
For his part, McGinnis said he and Erving would not "hog" the play or need "30 basketballs" to play together. "Me and J will get along so well it will be unbelievable," McGinnis said a mite defensively. He also said, "I always felt I never got my due in the ABA. It was always Julius' league." So does this now become Julius' team? Naturally, McGinnis is already contemplating a renegotiation of his $3 million contract.
The effusive Williams, who manipulated last year's McGinnis deal and this year's Erving transaction with the craft of a Florentine sculptor, prefers not to think about that for the time being. Once Williams employed dancing bears and singing pigs to fill his arenas. Now he has these two magnificent athletes playing together on a team with the highest per capita payroll in the free world. "Would I be going too far to call this the most exciting, breathtaking team in the history of sports in this country?" asked Williams.
Probably. But go ahead and say it. It's only money.