It has been said that unless one saw him play in the ABA, one never saw the real Dr. J. And it's true. In May 1976, he was still a curiosity to most of America, just like the ABA's red-white-and-blue circus ball and the three-point field goal. That spring, nobody outside of New York or Denver (except subscribers to a fledgling cable-TV service called Home Box Office) saw, during one ABA championship series, the greatest individual performance by a basketball player at any level anywhere—ABA, NBA, BAA or UCLA.
What the Doctor did for the New York Nets against the Denver Nuggets in that playoff series was score 226 points, grab 85 rebounds and block 13 shots. But the numbers don't tell the story. You had to see the man and hear the music.
All Denver needed in the series was for Bobby Jones, the indefatigable 6'9" rubber-man called by coach Larry Brown "the best defensive player in the world," to hold Erving close to his league-leading average of 29.3 points per game. If Jones could, the glamorous Nuggets, as the team with the best regular-season record in either league (60-24), would be able to join the NBA in '76-'77 as not just the ABA champions but arguably the champions of all of basketball.
But neither Jones nor anyone else could have been prepared for the medicine the Doctor was about to dispense. Some combination of rocket-powered takeoffs, airborne course corrections, swooping finger-rolls and one-handed rebounds always showed up in an Erving game. Over these six championship games, though, something mind-boggling seemed to occur about every other minute.
May 3, 1987
GAME 1: Jones and his clone, Gus Gerard, picked up 11 fouls trying to keep up with Erving, who soared for 45 points and 12 rebounds and dished out four assists in the Nets' 120-118 victory at Denver's McNichols Arena. During the game's final 7:43, Erving scored 18 of the Nets' 22 points, 8 on flying, spinning power dunks. With the score tied at 118 and :01 on the clock, Julius hit a game-winning 18-footer from the corner with Jones all over him. Jones's hard, if fruitless, work had raised a blister on his right heel, and as Erving popped, so did the blister. Jones said he was instantly distracted by pain. That would be his last excuse.
GAME 2: The Nuggets won 127-121, but not because the Doctor was double-teamed every time he got the ball. No, Erving had a better game than in the opener, amassing 48 points and 14 rebounds, with 8 assists and 3 steals. His most memorable basket came in the second quarter. Catching the ball 16 feet from the hoop, the Doctor threw three separate fakes at his defender, leaving poor Jones looking like a kid groping for fireflies, and then sank a wide-open jumper. Erving scored 25 points in the fourth quarter. His last five buckets were four devastating dunks and a three-pointer. Said Jones, "It's tough to defend him, knowing he's always going to the hoop and never knowing how."
GAME 3: News of Erving's first two games had little effect on New Yorkers; only 12,243 fans, 3,700 short of capacity, found their way to the Nassau Coliseum for the Nets' 117-111 win. If 31 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and 4 blocked shots make it sound like the Doc took a breather, well, he did get in foul trouble. When the fourth quarter began with the score tied 79-79, he was on the bench with five. He came back, though, to give the Nets a 111-108 lead, with 1:37 left in the game, by canning a jumper after double-pumping David Thompson off his feet. Seconds later, Erving was caught as the defender on a two-on-one break. Ralph Simpson faked the Doctor into the air, then passed to Chuck Williams, whereupon Erving spun around without touching down and knocked Williams's shot away. Later, Erving stated the obvious. "I feel like I can do just about anything I want to do," he said.
GAME 4: The Nets took a 3-1 lead in the series, battering the Nuggets 121-112. The need for Erving to shatter the 40-point barrier had clearly abated, but his 34 points, 15 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and a blocked shot provided plenty of show for the Wide World of Sports cameras and Howard Cosell, who were on hand to finally bring the Doctor into America's living rooms. How about this for footage: Erving ramming home a backhanded dunk after taking a pass from Jumbo Jim Eakins; the Doc leaping high for an offensive rebound and tipping it in with a single long finger: Dr. J slamming a couple of running hook-dunks: dunking an offensive rebound behind his head: slamming one that looked like it would raise a blister on Jones's face. The daily Jones report: "He destroys that adage that I've always been taught—that one man can't do it alone. To be honest, I enjoy watching him. I know he's doing things I'll never see again."
GAME 5: The Nuggets avoided further humiliation by winning 118-110, in Denver. Erving got 37 points, 15 rebounds, 9 assists, 5 steals and 2 blocks.
GAME 6: Back in New York, before a sellout crowd this time, the Nuggets still felt they could salvage their marvelous season. With Dan Issel on his way to 30 points and 20 rebounds and Thompson scoring 42, Denver held an 80-58 lead with 5:07 left in the third quarter. It was time for the Doctor to operate. One of the shots he took was a classic, a shot that would become his trademark the way the skyhook became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's. Driving baseline from the left, his path to the basket cut off. Erving went behind the glass, switched the ball from his left hand to his right, took off, reversed direction and scooped his long right arm under the backboard and rolled the ball into the basket off the glass. Later he rose over Jones for a layup, and late in the period he threw down two shattering dunks. In three quarters Erving had scored 29 points, but the Nets still trailed by 14.
Erving hit just two more free throws to finish with 31 points, but in this game his fury was felt on the boards, where he swiped 19 rebounds, many plucked with four fingers of a single hand. He also passed for 5 assists and made 5 steals and 4 blocks. Most of the late rebounds and assists wound up in the hands of John Williamson, the Nets' muscular streak shooter, who scored 13 points in the last 8:45 as the Nets furiously caught up, finally went ahead and won the clincher 112-106.
Within months, the Nets and Nuggets, along with the Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs, would join the NBA. The rumors about Dr. J that had been heard in Boston and Los Angeles and Philadelphia would be confirmed. But though he was only 26, his best games were behind him.