Right now, Doug Collins is laughing, Julius Erving is grinning, Bobby Jones is dreaming, Steve Mix is orating, Darryl Dawkins is flying and the 76ers are running their poor NBA brethren into ragged exhaustion.
Philadelphia continued to destroy the Eastern Conference last week, picking off Indiana, New York and Cleveland. But while an 8-0 start with an average winning margin of nearly 12 points would make the turnstiles spin in most other towns, fans in the city that calls itself the Big Pretzel are not to be so moved so soon. Recent history has taught them that no matter how the Sixers start out, they end up with big pretzels stuck in their throats. Two seasons have come and gone since the 76ers lost the 1977 championship finals to Portland and Erving made his ill-advised "we owe you one" promise. And even though the 76ers' 152-94 regular-season record over the past three years has been equaled only by the Trail Blazers, Philadelphia is still most famous for cream cheese.
So, you may ask, what's new? Well, how about everything. Collins is his indefatigable self again after foot injuries caused him to miss 35 games last year. Maurice Cheeks is no longer a rookie; instead, he's the league leader in assists. Erving has revitalized knees. Bobby Jones has a new role (sixth man), Caldwell Jones has a new position (power forward), and Dawkins has a new job (starting center), a new attitude ("my play years are over"), not to mention a new home planet (Chocolate Paradise), Lovetron obviously having disintegrated after the 76ers squabbled their way out of last year's playoffs.
And then there is Mix. The muscular 31-year-old forward has a new piece of real estate, the right side of the offensive court, from which he seems incapable of missing. Mixville. And he is the mayor, city council and electorate. In their last four games the 76ers got single-quarter bursts of 14, 16, 18 and 12 points out of Mixville, the last three being fourth quarters that flat out won games. Over this period Mix scored 81 points in 81 minutes and hit 36 of 47 shots, which works out to a fairly hot percentage of 76.5.
And there's more. The mumblers and grumblers of the old soap-opera Sixers are gone, Joe (Jelly Bean) Bryant and Eric Money being the latest to go the way of Lloyd Free and George McGinnis. As General Manager Pat Williams likes to say, "The team has been cleansed." What Coach Billy Cunningham is left with is a team of eight regular role-players. Reserve Guard Henry Bibby, for example, turned in a heroic 46-minute performance when Cheeks missed the Cleveland game and then Collins missed the second half. The 76ers also have three rookies who, get this, don't complain. Why, the 76ers, just yesterday the NBA's own Tower of Babel, are suddenly rock-solid and singing songs of brotherly love to the accompaniment of Kool and the Gang ("Every damn game," says a smiling Collins, sitting in front of Dawkins' pulsating, refrigerator-sized tape deck on the bus to the Richfield Coliseum). And one more thing—because 74% of the Sixers' schedule will be played against the somewhat weaker Eastern Conference clubs, Philadelphia is the closest thing to a cinch for the NBA's best record and, thus, the home-court advantage through the playoffs.
Now Erving can say, "Mentally there's a much better feeling here than ever before," and not be picking your pocket at the same time. "Darryl and Caldwell are controlling the boards so consistently that when one gets beat the other is right there. Our backup forwards were both former All-Stars. Maurice runs the offense, so Doug and I just fly out on the break. Me? I haven't felt so good physically or mentally since my rookie year."
The Erving knees, heavily braced against chronic weakness for six seasons, are no longer under wraps after Doc spent the summer undertaking a concentrated leg-strengthening program supervised by Joseph Zohar, a Long Island physical therapist. Erving opened the season with a 27-point night in Washington and followed it with an NBA career-high 44 points in the second game, against Houston. He had a 27-point average, six over his three-year NBA scoring rate, through last week.
"Julius is getting points more quietly than he did in the ABA," says Bobby Jones. "You used to stop and just watch him. Now he just goes and goes and you hardly notice him. When he scored 44 I thought it was more like 20." Which is not to say that he has given up flying like the Dr. J of yore. For the New York television audience on Friday night he did a couple of incredible scooping lay-in drives and one classic behind-the-head breakaway jam on his way to 27 points in a 127-116 win over the Knicks.
Erving's and Collins' (33 points against New York) license to run free is the result of the punishing inside work of 14 feet and 475 pounds worth of power, in the persons of Dawkins and Caldwell Jones. Cunningham threw the two together in a training-camp experiment and ended up creating a monster—behold, the Gruesome Twosome. Together they average 24 rebounds and 22 points. When Dawkins runs into foul trouble, as is his wont, Jones takes up the slack, as he did Friday, getting 17 rebounds and holding the Knicks' powerful rookie center, Bill Cartwright, to four second-half points, after Cartwright had drawn four early fouls by Dawkins. The next night in Cleveland, Dawkins covered for a tired Jones, ripping down 17 rebounds of his own. He thought he had 18, but one of them was actually Dave Robisch's head, which Dawkins tried to pass to Bibby.
"We're really an awesome rebounding team," says Collins. "When I'm on the floor and the ball is in the air, I can just see fear on the other guys' faces."
Cunningham feels that Caldwell Jones might be the 76ers' most important player. "Nobody notices him because he's quiet," says Cunningham. "But he amazes me. He plays forward, he plays center. As long as I'm coaching and he's healthy, I want him with me."
And Dawkins, draped with ever more gold chains, and wearing a huge cowboy hat as he laughs his way through life, would be a mere 22-year-old rookie had he gone to college. Instead, he is a four-year veteran and one of the Sixers' old hands. "I've seen things that some 30-year-old men haven't," he says. "And done them, too." Starting regularly for the first time since Cunningham took over the team in 1977, Dawkins is ripping rebounds out of the air one-handed. His fouling is a liability, but at least part of the reason he frequently gets called for personals is that he looks so mean. In a game against New Jersey, for instance, he set a perfectly legal pick on Winfred Boynes. But Boynes bounced right off him, and the official predictably whistled Dawkins for a blocking foul. Says Cunningham, "I've been telling him, 'Darryl, when a man bounces off of you like that, fall back a little bit in the other direction.' "
At least the once impetuous Dawkins is thinking about his future. He says he's considering boxing former Dallas Cowboy Ed (Too Tall) Jones, but he won't take him on "until they build a stronger ring." Meanwhile he is looking to build his own media empire, beginning with a radio station he would call WLOVE, featuring himself as "Chocolate Thunder, the Dunkin' Deejay."
Dawkins' muscle aside, perhaps the Sixers' greatest strength is their bench. "We feel if we play the other team even with our starters, we will gain with our subs," says Erving. Bobby Jones is in the John Havlicek mold as a sixth man and, having been a starter for all of his five-year career, relishes the role. "I get fewer minutes but they are more intense minutes," he says. When B. Jones comes in, C. Jones usually moves to center to kick the break into a higher gear. Then comes Mix, into Erving's spot, and so far there has been no offensive sacrifice. Mix has been on one long, hot dice roll.
"I came into camp wanting to prove a point," he says. "The point is that 31 is not too old for some players. I didn't want to be the fourth forward or even the third." Just being in the NBA should be enough for this guy. Eight years ago he was waived out of the league by Detroit. He unsuccessfully tried out for Boston, Denver, the Nets and 76ers and ended up in Grand Rapids going to school, working midnight-to-8 shifts filling orders for a wine distributor and playing for the Grand Rapids Tackers—the owner was in the carpet business—of the old Continental League. "We got $85 for a loss and $105 for a win," Mix says. Two years later, after finally sticking with the 76ers, he was an NBA All-Star.
In last week's 132-110 defeat of Indiana, Mix went 8 for 8 in the fourth quarter, then belittled the performance saying, "I'm like a '57 Pontiac. I'm going in and bumping until everything falls apart." Two nights later he took over again when the Sixers trailed the Knicks 88-87 at the start of the final period. He threw up a lefthanded 12-footer from the right corner, a brick that looked like it would shatter glass, only it somehow fell in. Then he hit another from the right of the foul circle. Then a cross-lane hook. Then another shot from the right...and another, until he had 18 points and had turned a close game into a blowout.
In the locker room, 76er Assistant Coach Jack McMahon said, "You know what I expected, Steve?" McMahon pantomimed a football dropkick. "The ultimate three-point field goal."
Mix presided over his own press conference as Mayor of Mixville, explaining that he does almost all his shooting from the right side of the court "because that was the side of my driveway that didn't have a garage. We held a city council meeting after the Indiana game to see if we could incorporate a little of the left side of the floor, but that was voted down. Now we're trying to get a piece near the top of the key. Property values are starting to go up."
The game in Cleveland on Saturday should have been a disaster for the Sixers. Cheeks was out with an ankle sprain, Collins took a knee in the thigh early, and the Cavaliers, not one of your power teams, cruised to a 20-6 lead. Erving shot 1 for 10, and the Gruesome Twosome & Co. were outrebounded by the likes of John Lambert, Robisch and Mike Mitchell 31-20 in the first half. In the third quarter the Sixers were down by 15. Clearly it was time for some urban renewal. The Mayor of Mixville hit 12 points in the final seven minutes, and Philadelphia won going away 112-106.
Cunningham studied the stat sheet and saw that Mix was 6 for 7. "Hey, Steve," he yelled. "You missed a shot tonight."
"Sabotage," yelled Mix.
It was a particularly proud game for the 76ers—a generally miserable performance that nonetheless resulted in a win. That represented a marked contrast to other years when they often played quite well and managed to lose.
"Maybe next summer," said Collins, "I'll be able to say thank you to people. That will be better than trying to tell them what happened again."