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The Master of Midair

It was the Summer of '76. The dawning of the NBA-ABA merger, when a Mr. J. Smiley of Detroit appeared at the Cobo Hall ticket window, whipped out his $200 Ford Motor Company payroll check and mumbled something to the effect of: "Gimme all you got for the Doctah!"

That's just about all anyone needs to know to understand the effect Erving had upon pro basketball. The uniform, the team, the city didn't matter. Come to think of it, the game wasn't much of a factor either: Erving was sold by the Nets to the 76ers the day before that '76-77 season opened and, knowing the Doctor would not appear, CBS canceled a national telecast of a Nets-Warriors game, in one fell swoop attesting to this still-mysterious athlete's drawing power while holding the entire sport up to miserable contempt. Paradoxically, because of Dr. J. pro basketball would never be treated so shabbily again.

To say that Erving rescued the NBA from a precipitous and possibly terminal decline may be underestimating the eventual impact of Abdul-Jabbar. Bird, Jordan, et al. And yet, when Dr. J entered the NBA, fully two-thirds of the franchises were either in dire financial straits or on the fiscal brink. The league's TV contract was silly, the salary wars bloody, the game's grip on its fans was slipping. So here came a guy not only with all the on-court stuff (and stuffs) borne of physical gifts, style, creativity—"The Doc changed ball." Magic Johnson once said. "The Doc went past jumps, hooks, sets, went past everything and made the playground official"—but also with a certain grace and attitude, a basic, off-the-ball humanity that somehow made the game a better place.

Here, finally, was a basketball player, nonfreak of nature and heroic role model who cared about family, society, morals, issues. He would narrate Peter and the Wolf al the Philadelphia Zoo, read the Declaration of Independence at the city's Fourth of July celebration, light up the Christmas tree at City Hall. He could market products as well as himself. Not to mention that he could jump through the roof and Ferris-wheel an absolutely indescribable slam every minute or so.

The thing was, nobody really knew about Dr. J—possibly not even Dr. J knew—until that merger season; until he was formed as a player and gentleman and celebrity and ambassador and everthing else in the global village of sport. Until, indeed, his very nickname became synonymous with the diverse concepts of art and class and funk to the point where it transcended even basketball.

To top it all off, of course, Dr. J lost. (More humanity.) In 1977 his new team, the 76ers, lost the last four games of the NBA championship series to Portland in eight days. But the thing was, nobody really figured Julius Erving had lost. The Sixers were a cartoon strip that year: the cigarette-smoking George McGinnis; the rainbow-hurling Lloyd (pre-World B.) Free; the malcontent bench of Darryl (Chocolate Thunder) Dawkins, Joe (Jelly Bean) Bryant and Steve ("Can you believe the head cases on this team?") Mix; the churlish coach, Gene Shue, who, when asked during the playoffs if he closed practice out of a need for secrecy, replied, "No, embarrassment." Cartoon? Why, Philly center Caldwell Jones actually said his biggest thrill was "when The Flintstones went to an hour, a full 60 of Fred and Barney."

To shine as a beacon of dignity amid this crew was not exactly a climb up Kilimanjaro...and yet Erving did more than that. Personally, he suffered through his move to Philly in a transaction that he described as "tarnishing me." Domestically, his young family balked; his wife, Turqoise, accused 76er management of coldness and the city of a kind of boondoxiousness—"one doesn't wear mink in Philadelphia," huffed the elegant Turk. Professionally, Erving subjugated himself during the regular season, struggling through clogging defenses, eschewing his patented frequent-flyer raids, averaging 21.6 points, about seven fewer than he had with the Nets. "The ABA was a minor league; over here Erving is just another small forward," said the brilliant cigar, Red Auerbach.

And then it was time. Dr. J scored 30 points and won MVP in the 1977 All-Star Game. He scored 182 points in the six-game final set against Bill Walton's Trail Blazers, nailed 40 in the last game, but missed a straight-on shot for a tie with :08 on the clock and afterward paid tribute to Walton as "an inspiration," Erving also acknowledged, vis-à-vis individual-to-team, that he "always had a level of consciousness of what has to be done."

So Dr. J simply did it. Now it's a decade later and the man is a crystal chandelier above our national consciousness. When you're Julius Erving, you can wear mink or anything else in Philadelphia.