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A Graceful Descent

Two years ago this Spring, I thought we had seen the last of Dr. J. The Sixers had just dropped their third straight game to the Celtics in the 1984-85 Eastern Conference finals, which they would eventually lose in five games, and Erving had played miserably.

It wasn't that the Doctor failed to finish off any ABA-vintage swoops and scoops on this Saturday afternoon in May at the Spectrum. We had long ago stopped expecting that. Here in Game 3, he just failed. He shot 1 for 10 in the 105-94 loss, sending layups skidding off the glass, losing the ball on his way to the hoop, fumbling lob passes he normally would convert easily. In a moment of cruelty, moved by disappointment, I wrote that this was not Dr. J, but Julius (Clifford) Erving.

Recalling that sad day, I think of the flawed Doctor. He was a man who deferred too much to his wife and his agent, and too easily credited providence for accomplishments that were at least as much the result of hard work and keen intelligence. He was also almost cynically aware of his status as a racial crossover figure. A Philadelphia sportswriter tells of once asking Erving to name the white players on the team—this at a time when the Sixers carried only two, Bobby Jones and Steve Mix. The Doc played along. "Let's see," he said. "There's Steve. There's Bobby. And there's me."

This isn't to say that he wasn't conscious of his racial identity. He once found himself talking about books with The Philidelphia Inquirers George Shirk, who mentioned his favorite. The Great Gatsby, and its memorable ending—"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." The Doc wanted to know what it meant, and Shirk explained how, as we go through life, we're all trying to regain a lost innocence. Erving thought for a few beats, then said, "Black people don't think that way."

Yet Erving's refusal to get involved in the divisive Philadelphia mayoral primary of 1983, the one in which Wilson Goode, a black man, defeated Frank Rizzo, a white former mayor, had reflected his utter devotion to his profession and his teammates. That, after all, was the year of the Sixers, their first season with Moses Malone, and the Doctor didn't want to be party to anything that might threaten team unity.

Still, he had an abiding sense of justice. He could feel the venom of residential segregation during visits to cities like Chicago and Boston. While withholding his public support for Goode, he privately rejoiced when Harold Washington became the first black mayor of Chicago, and enjoyed strolling through blighted parts of Boston on game days, accepting with grace the adulation of his fans.

Of course, he did most everything gracefully, including putting the bitter end to that 1984-85 season behind him. For a variety of reasons, he moved to the backcourt the following fall. It was perfect: As a big guard, the Doc found his way easily into the open floor and discovered that he had never shot the jumper better. He was in the backcourt now, but still out front, leading.

If the Sixers had used the aging Doctor as a DH, they would have humiliated him. If they had left him in the outfield, he might have humiliated himself. But because the two parties settled on first base, we and he enjoyed two more years of absolute dignity.