There may be no more apt nickname in sport than "Dr. J." Combining the authority and competence inherent in a professional title with the easygoing familiarity of being called by the first letter of your Christian name, it perfectly identifies the essence of the man and the athlete. Dr. J—both moniker and player—conveys sophistication, elegance, style, control. On the other hand, Dr. J is also descriptive of slam-bam playground ball. It is the ultimate accolade of the streets.
In addition, Dr. J stands out because there are hardly any other good nicknames around these days. Where have the Brown Bombers and the Stan the Mans and the Yogis and the Big Daddys gone? Why, obviously, to the corn bins of our thoroughly free-agented, billions-oriented marketing heaps to be replaced by the likes of Reg-gie and O.J., which aren't nicknames at all but, simply, names.
Ah, but Dr. J. At the dawning of the 1970s that was an appellation flexible enough for all elements of a society to sink their teeth into. So different, so delicious. And, what's more, not that many people saw him then. Dr. J wasn't in Madison Square Garden or the Polo Lounge or at the White House or on Merv Griffin. A phantom. A myth. A mystery man, Dr. J. The name fostered a legend long before the masses even knew what he looked like, much less realized what he could do with a basketball.
No wonder that when Julius Erving finally reached the big time in 1976 with the Philadelphia 76ers after five years of spectacular toil in the ABA suburbs of Virginia and Long Island, so much was expected of him, too much demanded. Past is prologue. It's important to remember this. It's important because where the man came from and how he got to be Dr. J explains better than anything else where the man is now and why he is merely Julius Erving—a 29-year-old, 6'6", 205-pound, sore-kneed, struggling forward searching to find his place on a mediocre, second-place team.
March 26, 1979
"Julie used to take off and soar. I mean, really soar," says his former coach at Virginia, Al Bianchi. "And that's the sad part of seeing him now. The Doc can't fly no more."
"I can't play with a hatchet over my head every season," says Erving. "For no reason at all, sometimes I become a passive player. The total vibes aren't there anymore."
For the past several weeks the 76ers, playing mostly on the road, have sandwiched three- and five-game losing streaks around a few wins while careening toward the playoffs in a battle with Houston, Atlanta and New Jersey for the home-court advantage in the first-round mini-series. Atlanta? New Jersey? This is a far cry from the glories envisioned by 76ers owner Fitz Dixon and General Manager Pat Williams when they purchased Erving from the Nets so that he might join George McGinnis, Doug Collins, Lloyd Free and the other Sixer carnival acts and thereby ensure seven or eight NBA titles, not to mention guaranteed reservations in a palace on Darryl Dawkins' fantasy planet, Lovetron.
At the time of the merger Erving had led the then New York Nets to two ABA championships in three years and was considered the best and most exciting player in the game. Certainly his performance in the 1976 finals against the Denver Nuggets gave evidence of that. On defense, he helped contain the spectacular David Thompson, three times holding him below his season's average of 26.0. And he averaged 37.7 points in six games against the best defensive forward in either league, Bobby Jones. "Not for the points, but just for catching the ball that many times against Jones, Julius Erving should be in the Hall of Fame," Atlanta Coach Hubie Brown says.
Erving's dazzling talent—his game takeovers, his jukes and jams and especially his astonishing leaping, diving, midair stuff—was underscored by a rare ability to inspire his teammates to levels they couldn't achieve on their own. Bill Bradley had done this in college, Bill Russell in the pros, very few others anywhere. That was and is, says Bianchi, now an assistant coach at Phoenix, "the only mark of a superstar."
But in the NBA, Erving has never done this. In two years he has taken Philadelphia to the finals and semifinals. But this season, after a personnel shakeup in which McGinnis and Free were replaced by Jones and others, thus, in Pat Williams' words, "altering the texture, restructuring the team in Julius' image," the 76ers look as if they won't even make it to the semis.
Moreover, the team is depleted by injuries, confused on the court, floundering at the gate and grumbling again. Collins, the star guard, missed nearly eight weeks because of a bone-spur operation, all the while clashing with management over the seriousness of his injury. Both Williams and Coach Billy Cunningham are reported to be on the way out, either by decree of the impatient Dixon or of their own volition. The 76ers aren't getting the production they would like out of the third forward spot; until Collins' return last week, they had no capable big guard; and there is no immediate prospect of installing a matching gold earring in the 6'11½", 480-pound Dawkins' other lobe, or whatever has to be done to make him into something other than a vast, laughable sideshow.
To expect Erving to rectify such a situation by himself would be about as preposterous as asking him to go one-on-one with the Ayatollah Khomeini.
For one, Erving is just not the same player he was in the ABA. A comparison of his last two years with the Nets and his first two years in Philadelphia shows that Dr. J had 1,507 more points, 663 more rebounds, 310 more free throws, 300 more assists, 107 more blocked shots and 99 more steals for the Nets. His five-year ABA scoring average of 28.5 is almost eight full points above his NBA average. Erving's 49% field-goal and 75% free-throw figures this season are nearly the lowest of his career.
These differences can be attributed to several factors other than the lingering fable of NBA superiority—an argument you might take up with Moses Malone, George Gervin, Maurice Lucas, McGinnis, Thompson, Jones or any of the other NBA all-stars Erving played with and against in the ABA.
First and foremost, at its best, Dr. J's game has always been one of refined speed, finesse and creativity and lightning movement in the open court when he elected to come down from the rafters and engage in man-to-man confrontations. What the pros call "breaking down" an opponent is something Erving could and still can do better than anyone. In the NBA, however, everybody doubles up on him, which is natural, but teams also pack defenders down low, clog the lanes and (sh, keep this a secret now) zone the bejeezus out of the Doctor. This makes it practically impossible for Erving to consistently drive to the hole for the swoop baskets by means of which he developed his Dr. J reputation. In addition, the NBA push-and-shove oxcart defensive philosophy severely cramps Erving's lateral style, turning him into just another jump shooter. And he's not a very good jump shooter.
Then, too, Erving has exhibited other glaring flaws, at least for a certifiable, all-universe player. In Philly he has been only an adequate rebounder. Although he is a good passer, he tends to dribble into traffic too much, breaking the team pattern or not concluding the play, and he sometimes winds up committing himself in the air and throwing the ball away. This has resulted in several eight- and nine-turnover horror shows.
It is on defense, however, that Dr. J is most vulnerable. His proclivity for becoming trapped in switches and for losing his own man while helping out others has caused him to be embarrassed by some very strange customers. Chicago's Ollie Johnson and Denver's Bob Wilkerson had big nights against Dr. J. Boston's Curtis Rowe, at the time averaging all of three points, rejuvenated his career with a midseason 17-point miracle, many of the points coming against Erving. And in a game in the Spectrum, Kansas City's Bob Nash came off the bench to score 18 of his 24 points against Erving, after which the Philadelphia press took off the gloves.
"Erving's defense seemed to consist of rushing frantically at Nash's waistband," wrote the Inquirer's Bill Livingston, "while the King [Nash] leaped on the baseline for unencumbered jumpers after which the Doctor would shout, in an excited gabble, 'Hey!' "
Erving admits to diminished capabilities in some areas. "I don't think I'm as good a rebounder as I was—but that comes from playing with two huge centers and being our shortest forward," he says. "I'm guilty of thinking they're going to get the board, then somebody on the other team gets it. I also don't gamble as much on the D. I don't have the steals and blocks I once did. But we have other people doing those jobs. Bobby Jones led Denver in steals and blocks, but now look. He can't do that here.
"On defense, let me point out that a player's weakness shows up mostly when there is no team defensive concept. Again, Bobby guards the people I guarded last year. When they got 25 off me, it was a headline. When it happens to Jones, he's had a 'bad night.'
"I think I'm weaker in the effectiveness of my total game. When I was with the Nets, my teammates got out of the way and I used things. It seems now if I go to use things, because I haven't used them enough, I get hurt. The wear and tear has taken its toll. It's a mental thing, too."
Despite this infrequent negativism, starting in late January Erving put together a marvelous string of eight games in which he averaged 29 points and shot more than 60%. He said it was "my best basketball in the NBA" and that he had "visions of our future potential." Unfortunately, he sprained his ankle on Feb. 9 against San Diego and hasn't really been the same since.
However, the fact that Erving has not taken it upon himself to lead, to direct, to do something about rescuing his team from its stagnant wasteland—be it by simply demanding the ball and scoring a bundle or by threatening to withdraw his magnetic presence from the scene—has been his most obvious failure.
Says one of Erving's staunchest fans, who also happens to be an NBA coach, "I don't know if it's the big contract, plain disgust, concern about his longevity or just that he's burnt out and can't do it nightly anymore, but Dr. J is not the player we once knew. The electricity isn't there. The truth is that—except for a few playoff games in '77 and the all-star games—the guy has been on vacation for three years. Somebody else has been masquerading as No. 6. On a consistent basis Julius has played to about 40%, tops, of the ability he showed in the ABA."
That may be a bit harsh since in any discussion of Erving's effect on a won-lost record, the variable of team cooperation cannot be emphasized enough. Dr. J's flash and overwhelming game domination in the golden days was made possible by his cohorts' intelligence, their willingness to respond and work hard, a learned ability to play off Erving's skills. There is considerable doubt that the 76ers of "Dunk you very much" Dawkins, "Jellybean" Bryant, Eric Money and their ilk—"those bubbleheads," one rival coach calls them—can ever exorcise their individual furies long enough to concentrate on the above.
The Doctor himself seems resigned to his fate. "What people don't understand is the apples to oranges context of this change I made," he says. "The situation was created on day one in Philly that I would not play my game. I mean here I was that very first week playing tough and going all out, playing my game, when Fred Carter said, 'Hey, easy man, you're working too hard.' Then I found out what he meant. In Philly when a man got hot and, you know, made three or four in a row, the defense didn't have to adjust to stop him because our own offense made an adjustment to stop him. By not giving him the ball. The first two years it was a ball-distribution thing—when it was your time, you had to do it even if you were swarmed under. You did it then because you knew you wouldn't see the ball again for a long time.
"I got into terrible habits. Caldwell Jones said one day, 'Man, why you shooting with three men on you? I never saw you do that before.' I said, 'Did I do that?' For Caldwell to say that to me, I must have done it. But that's not the way I learned how to play. That's not my game. Now we've got another offense in here, but there's no direction, and the same things happen. I don't think it's conscious. People have just been conditioned. I'll get turned on, you know, really want it, then I suddenly stop. Guys start looking at you funny, like you're hogging the ball. So we do something else.
"The problem is we have no offensive identity. Seattle walks it up, so we walk it up. L.A. wants to run it and push it, so we do the same and get blown out. There is no time when we stop and say, O.K., this is Philadelphia's game, and we're going to play it. We always play the other people's game.
"Look, yes, I think about what might have been had I stayed with the Nets," Erving says. "But that's counterproductive. I was the primary guy there. I think we could have been contenders for years because what we lacked in talent we would have made up for with Kevin Loughery's innovativeness. It was fun in the huddles when all else failed and Kevin would say to me, 'It's time to do something.' And, you know, I would. But I refuse to be pressured into forcing myself to take over here. I'm a follower."
Erving says he has geared his investment portfolio and life-style so that in 1982, at the end of his current contract, he will be able to walk away from basketball. "The situation—my health, team personnel and morale, the state of the organization—would have to be very, very good for me to stay," he says. "I'll be 32, which might seem too young to retire. But I don't think so.
"I know the city is hungry for a championship. But I don't want anyone telling me I should be scoring 50 points a game unless we talk about that in the Philadelphia locker room. We don't."
And if the 76ers did?
"If we did," says Erving, "I'd go out and do it."
Well, Dr. J. Guess what? It's time to do something. Again.