As the inimitable Philadelphia 76ers dunk their hearts out on the way to immortality or, at the very least, the NBA playoffs, strange noises emanate from the Spectrum. Is this the euphony of togetherness? No way. It is the dissonance of a band of spoiled rich kids pointing fingers at one another and carping over such matters as playing time.
Following last month's All-Star Game, in which Julius Erving proved he can still be the Dr. J of legend as he scored 30 points and was MVP—it seemed possible that the 76ers had finally pulled their own all-star act together and would now proceed to run away from the rest of the league. Instead, hampered by six stitches in his shooting hand, Erving has remained inconsistent; the formidable George McGinnis and the freewheeling Doug Collins, the 76ers' other two All-Stars, seem weighted down by their own bruises and bumps and considerable reputations; first-line reserves Lloyd Free and Darryl Dawkins have grumbled about taking their sweet words of youth elsewhere. Since the All-Star break the team has been stumbling along at a .500 pace, comfortably leading the weak Atlantic Division but hardly living up to preseason expectations. One 76er, who shall stay anonymous lest he be docked his weekly million or, even worse, traded to the Nets, says, "What we got here is a bunch of babies who don't look where the real trouble is—in the mirror."
None of this would deserve much attention were it not for the fact that the 76ers figured to be so sensational. When Dr. J brought his moves to town, having personally slam-dunked the NBA into merger during the summer, the prospects seemed dazzling: Erving (29.3 points a game last season) up front with McGinnis (23) and Caldwell Jones (13), and Collins (20.8) in the backcourt. The payroll was now almost beyond belief but maybe the price was right nevertheless; as General Manager Pat Williams crowed, Philadelphia would have a hard time losing a game. And despite all their problems, the 76ers may still be the most physically talented, highest paid, most closely scrutinized, most entertaining team going, as well as the biggest draw in the history of the pros. Plus, they dance on people's heads a whole lot (see box).
Coach Gene Shue has attempted to explain away the post All-Star record with such churlish responses to the questioning media as, "Bleeping people. Why don't they get the bleep out? Bleeping vultures." Which he did after a particularly tough last-second defeat at Atlanta last week.
Of course this was only Shue's most recent insult to the press. The coach has been laboring long and hard to get somebody to swallow the story that most of the 76ers' troubles stem from a dislocated elbow that sent a skinny center named Harvey Catchings to the sidelines in January. "An important ingredient," says Shue of Catchings.
Since defensive specialist Catchings was the team's fifth-leading rebounder, its 11th-leading scorer and had trouble stopping any opponent weighing more than 175 pounds, this excuse has not made it up the flagpole. Last week in a game against Denver, boos split the air and a sign popped up that read "Give Shue the Boot." The source of the definitive line about life on the 76ers—or anywhere else in the NBA—is Sixer Trainer Al Domenico. "Nobody on this team is happy," he says, "but we aren't unique. Everybody hates everybody else on every team in the league."
Philadelphia won the Denver game, by the way, a 129-125 double-overtime thriller in which Erving (with a season-high 38 points) and David Thompson (with 40) engaged in one of their duels-in-the-rafters. After that the 76ers split two other home games last week, defeating Seattle 126-122 and losing to Chicago 106-102 to make their record 39-27, fifth best in the whole NBA, but still a sure ticket to the playoffs. "We haven't lost the championship yet," points out Assistant Coach Jack McMahon.
Still, as one of the newer literary classics asks, Why Not the Best? What is wrong? Collins, ever candid, says he'd hate to start the playoffs today. "We talk of sacrifice and common goals, but when it comes time to do it, we stand around. When we need a big basket or key play, we fall apart. This team can't just push a talent button and get away with it. We're always going to be semi-disorganized. Yeah, I'm skeptical of how good we really are."
There is no question how deep the young Philadelphians are. The other hero in the Denver victory was sub backcourt-man Mike Dunleavy, a rookie who hadn't played in 15 games but who has acquired a 76er sense of the absurd. After contributing two important assists and two clinching free throws, Dunleavy emerged with a wicked cut under his eye, explaining matter-of-factly that someone had put an elbow in it.
In a sense, the 76ers' present difficulties were guaranteed the day before the season opened, when Philadelphia Owner Fitz Dixon added Erving to the payroll. The team promptly dispelled notions of invincibility by losing its first two games. Even when the 76ers won seven in a row in January, wild rumors swept the premises:
Erving and McGinnis went together like cream cheese and scrapple; they could not get along, much less play alongside each other. Neither man could coexist with Free, who monopolized the ball and was known to start shooting before the concluding notes of the national anthem. Third Forward Steve Mix was stabbing Shue in the back over playing time, while Dawkins, the infant bull moose (6'11", 251 pounds), who may be the strongest 20-year-old since Vasily Alexeyev, was interested not in stabbing the coach's back, just breaking it.
In all fairness to Shue, his team is not the most coachable unit on earth. If Collins isn't upset because Mix temporarily replaced him as the team's technical foul shooter, Free is mad because Collins has taken his starting job. If Caldwell Jones isn't disturbed that Erving and McGinnis get all the shots on the front line, McGinnis is pouting when Mix starts the second half of a TV game.
Guard Henry Bibby is confused because he is asked to fill more roles than Elliot Richardson. Reserve Joe (Jelly Bean) Bryant, a major league free-lancer, thinks he could be a star somewhere else—and maybe he could.
To consolidate this multitude of egos, Shue has seen fit to insert his own into the fray. A proud, haughty man who stays aloof from his players, Shue says, "I've never had a job where my team stayed mediocre. They get good. Players being unhappy doesn't make me unhappy. A player can say what he wants. I don't give a damn."
In the locker room Shue keeps telling his team, "You don't want to be coached. You just don't want that." Last week he added, "Why don't you utilize my talents so together we can utilize yours?"
The 76er talents include an ability to run off great raging streaks of points with a helter-skelter fast break generally ending in a dunk. But the team constantly seems to get off slow and falls far behind before catching up, or else jumps out to huge leads and then falls into catastrophic declines.
In their quintessential comeback against Cleveland a month ago, the 76ers made up 24 points in the fourth quarter to win. On their West Coast tour, they made up deficits of 11 at Los Angeles, 18 at Portland and 11 at Golden State before losing each game at the buzzer. Last Friday the 76ers led Seattle by 25 and then proceeded to give a clinic on how to look foolish on the defensive board as the Sonics scrambled to within four points at the end.
Asked to recall the last time the 76ers played a whole game, McGinnis grinned. "The All-Star Game," he said.
Concentration is a major Sixer weakness, but the team also has some technical limitations that its "money" players may not be able to overcome by playoff time.
Erving, McGinnis and Free all are improvisers who want to make their own plays. Only Collins moves well without the ball so that when teams zone—hush this up, now—and trap Dr. J and Big George, the team's leading scorers, in the corners, the Philadelphia offense comes to a standstill. As one observer caustically puts it: "The team looks like a Rodin museum."
In the 76ers' game plan the center never shoots—they don't have a center who can shoot—hence they are easy fish for double-teams. When defenders are not trapping Erving and McGinnis, they are sloughing off them, because neither is an exceptional outside shooter.
Free, who refers to himself as "All-World," is a sometimes brilliant shooter and a spectacular leaper for 6'2"—another nickname he favors is "The Prince of Mid-Air." But more often than not, All-World is in another world. "I'm as good as any guard in the league," the prince asserts. "I can score big or get 15 assists anytime I want. That's if our guys making the top bread are hitting, of course."
Defense is where most of the 76ers go limp. The backcourt relies on quickness rather than intensity, although neither Erving nor McGinnis is in the habit of hurrying back in the transition game. Catchings was valuable here because he did hustle back. Still, with all their high-priced inside men, the 76ers are among the top three in giving up offensive rebounds.
Says Mix, "I know if I played against this club, I could get seven offensive boards a game."
At the very root of the Philadelphia problem, though, is Erving, whose drive-for-the-hole style of play has been taken away by the NBA's clogging defenses down the middle. Otherwise, Dr. J remains an inconsistent jump shooter, an erratic passer and the kind of finesse-conscious defensive player who last week, for instance, was victimized by both Thompson and John Drew of Atlanta.
Erving was expected to shine and carry the Sixers, and his early decision to restrict his creativity to a periodic swirling whammer—he preferred, he said, to "involve others in the flow"—caused some instant disenchantment among the locals. More recently, however, his All-Star Game show and his dazzling play in the Cleveland comeback, wherein he absolutely took charge of the game, may have pointed to a new day. "A guy can't minimize his talents in order to maximize others'," says Collins. "We must have Doc to lead. Then we must learn to follow."
"We don't need Julius being nice and giving it up to everybody and overcompensating and all that," says McGinnis. "What we need is for him to just go play and be Dr. J."
It hasn't been that easy. Erving says he is more comfortable when there are close relationships among coach and players. Shue, he says, is "non-participatory" and the 76ers, apart from McGinnis and rookie Terry Furlow, "are not an easy group of guys to talk with.
"We still have no identity," says Erving. "The game is not a science here. We aren't ready to make the physical, mental and spiritual sacrifices for each other. Collectively, we are too often inept and confused."
So, whither Julius Erving and the team on which he was supposed to confer greatness? "To be a great team we need to stomp on people and keep them down," says Dr. J. "We need leadership from the backcourt. We need our centers more involved in the offense. We need me and George to hoss and hoss and hoss. To be great we need to win games we aren't supposed to win."
What the game's most exciting player didn't say was that to be great, he and the 76ers may need to get happy.
If they are to win the NBA title, the Sixers agree that the Doctor must be his old flamboyant self, as he was against Denver.
The Prince of Mid-Air in his ascending mode.