In his book The Joy of Sports, Michael Novak wrote, "Basketball is jazz: improvisatory, free, individualistic, corporate, sweaty, fast, exulting, screeching, torrid, explosive...." This is especially true in Philadelphia. While nothing excites a Spectrum crowd as much as a Julius Erving dunk, Grover Washington Jr.'s tenor sax riffs come close. "Grover! Aw-riiiight!" a fan shrieked as Washington began playing the national anthem before Game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals between the 76ers and the Milwaukee Bucks in May. "Now the Sixers can't lose."
They didn't. Philly won 115-103 to clinch the conference title. Washington also performed before the first two games of the championship series with the Los Angeles Lakers, both of which the Sixers won in the Spectrum en route to a four-game sweep to the crown.
No one can measure exactly what Washington contributes to the Sixers, but no one denies that he gives them something special. He has provided an artistic prelude to some of the most artful basketball ever played, and anyone who has heard his various renditions of The Star-Spangled Banner knows what it's like to feel tuned, like a guitar, for the basketball jam that's about to begin on the court.
Last season Washington, or the Master Blaster as Spectrum announcer Dave Zinkoff calls him, was perfect from the floor. Ten times he was at midcourt for the anthem and all 10 times the Sixers won. "We only bring Grover out for the biggies," says Assistant General Manager John Nash, "games against teams like Boston or L.A. or in the playoffs. When he walks out, people know it's a special game."
Washington isn't a performer to take his applause and run. From his regular seat in Section F, Row 12 he watches the 76ers whether he has played the anthem or not. "It's getting to the point that he schedules his concert tours around that team," says his wife, Christine. In fact, it was Washington's idea to play the anthem. "I just approached the team three years ago and told them I'd be interested," he says. "Why not? I was at the games anyway."
Washington's love affair with the Sixers, which started when he moved to Philadelphia in 1967, went public in 1980 with the release of his album Winelight, which earned him a platinum record by selling one million copies and is now on its way to two million. Song two on side one is entitled Let It Flow ("For Dr. J").
"When I wrote it," says Washington, "I was trying to portray The Shot in the musical sense." The Shot was a vintage Erving job that occurred in the fourth game of the 1980 championship series between Philly and L.A. Erving was driving down the right side to the basket. L.A.'s Mark Landsberger picked up Erving and forced him to the baseline. Erving drove around Landsberger and jumped for the basket but in midair found his flight path blocked by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Still in the air and now completely behind the backboard. Dr. J then reached out from behind the basket and flicked the ball off the backboard through the hoop on his way down.
"The foundation of the Spectrum was in trouble that night," Washington says. "The fans just went wild. Later I told [Erving], 'You have one coming for that.' " In the song, a bass drum sets the tempo of a basketball being dribbled. "The concept of the song is how the Doc floats through the air, over everybody else," he says. Washington sets this up by having the sax melody float over the notes being played on the bass and over the tempo set by the bass drum.
Washington believes that every athlete is a frustrated musician and every musician is a frustrated athlete. The theory holds in Washington's case: He grew up playing basketball in the schoolyards of Buffalo. Washington was a ferocious competitor but a bit on the short side, so he developed a hook to shoot over his taller friends.
When he was nine Washington got his first sax, from his father, a steelworker who played in a band at night. But basketball remained his passion, which posed problems when it came time to practice the horn instead of the hook. "But when I stopped growing at 5'8 ", I knew I could never be a player," he says. "That ended that controversy."
His passion is now centered on the Sixers. Last year Washington kept a Boston concert promoter on tenterhooks all through the 76ers-Celtics conference finals. "I told him if Philly wins, I'll be there," he says. "But if your team wins, you've got a problem." Philly won and Washington, an ebullient fellow by nature, played with unusual gusto at Berklee Performance Center.
"Grover's become identified with the team," says Nash. Thus it was no surprise that Washington played the anthem for the championship victory celebration at Veterans Stadium after the parade down Broad Street. "Somehow it seemed fitting," Nash adds.
Just as the Sixers have influenced his music, Washington's music has also influenced the Sixers, Dr. J in particular. "Grover's an inspiration to me," says Erving, "but it's more than just his music. It's his presence here night in and night out. That and his friendship."