Sometime after Julius Erving became Dr. J and before he became Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable—probably just prior to those rebellious Dr. ChapStick years in the late '70s, when he became a lip balm spokesman—he went through a period during which his entire body seemed to be trying to loosen itself from the earth's gravitational pull. He wore his hair in an exotic split-level configuration and often seemed to hover just above the ground on the six-inch platform shoes he wore with an assortment of plaid jackets and brightly colored bow ties—gravity's own improbable rainbow.
What made Erving special, of course, was that he could defy gravity, carving beautiful figures in the air every time he took flight. There was a certain irony, then, that it would be in Los Angeles—a place known for a certain flightiness of its own—that Erving came closest to a fall from grace.
When the Sixers faced the Lakers in the NBA championship series in 1980, Erving was still looking for his first league title and a measure of redemption from the final series the 76ers had lost to Portland three years earlier. The Sixers made him the poster boy for their bizarre ad campaign following that season; "We Owe You One" was the theme. Said Erving in '80, "Winning a championship is the only thing that will erase that first year, when we were the guys on the black horses, wearing black hats and bandanas."
But the 76ers lost to the Lakers in six games that year, then lost to L.A. again in 1982. On the morning after this third defeat in the finals in six years, Erving was spotted in the lobby of the team's hotel at 5:30 singing Que Sera, Sera with friends.
That we measure great players by their won-lost records in big games is largely a myth: Wilt Chamberlain's teams went to the NBA finals six times, winning twice, and Chamberlain was branded a loser; Jerry West went nine times to the finals and won exactly one championship—and was generally considered to be a winner. Clearly, a player can avoid the loser's tag if he has indemnified himself with enough goodwill. And that Erving certainly had done.
By 1983, the Doctor's hair was flecked with gray and he motored about Philadelphia in a Mercedes station wagon. His entire presence had become so statesmanlike that he might just as well have been campaigning for an appointment to the Court of St. James's. Still, when the 76ers made it into the final round against the Lakers once again that year, Erving, who by then was surely conscious of his place in history, could not have much fancied the possibility of being remembered for losing the big ones.
The Sixers had acquired center Moses Malone that season, and he was the difference as they won the first three games of the final series. But with the lead down to a single point late in the fourth quarter of Game 4 and with the shot clock showing only six seconds, Erving looked over the Lakers' defense from the top of the free throw circle and saw no openings. "There wasn't time to drive, there wasn't time to swing the ball, so I let it fly," he said. "I didn't find that shot. It found me." Erving brought the ball up over his head for that awkward looking jumper of his, and then he fired. When it went through the net the Lakers were finished, and so was Erving's long wait for a championship ring.