Los Angeles — Some guys play pro basketball, but forward Julius Erving of the Philadelphia 76ers (also known as the fabulous DR. J.) gives recitals. Occasionally he performs as though he had an extra hand and a Buck Rogers powered flight belt attached to his back.
The Los Angeles Lakers, who saw the Doctor only twice during the regular season, are now engaged with him and his 76er teammates in a best-of-seven series for the National Basketball Association championship.
Regardless of who wins, the instant television replays of Erving going to the hoop, firing out of a crowd, skywalking to the basket, etc., could easily be made into a documentary. Cecil B. de Mille, if he were still around and casting spectaculars, would probably invent an excuse to have Julius jumping over the pyramids.
The thing is, the defense never really stops anyone with the Doctor's talents. It can only make things harder for him physically by employing a lot of hand body contact. But even this is debatable strategy, since often he winds up with a three-point play -- the result of getting the hoop plus the foul shot he drew en route to the basket.
Erving scored 20 points in Game 1 but was not really a dominating force, and the Lakers won, 109-102. The Doctor heated up a bit the next time out, however, scoring 23 points, pulling down 10 rebounds, and handing out seven assists as the Sixers rebounded for a 107-104 decision to send the series back to Philadelphia tied at one game apiece.
Basically Eriving's specialty is discouraging the people who play against him. He doesn't run down the court as much as he flows; he doesn't jump as much as he soars; and he doesn't shoot as much as he programs the basketball to its ultimate destination.
The Doctor can put the ball on the floor and drive the lane; or he can dunk; or he can shoot from outside; or he can improvise in clutch situations. Anyone trying to stay with him on his jump shot had better be able to hang in the air for what seems like an eternity.
"Most of what I do offensively I do instinctively," Erving told me during the current playoffs. "It's not like it's planned at all. You see daylight, you go to the basket. You get boxed in, you shoot the jumper.
"Anytime you have to think about what you should do -- well, that's the time you get into trouble," Julius continued. "I like to penetrate, because the closer you get to the basket the more the percentage comes over to your side. But mostly I do everything off a reaction, and usually when you do that you catch the defense off balance."
The Lakers' coaching staff respects Erving so much that all through this series it has paid him the supreme compliment of double coverage. Naturally that leaves one of the Doctor's teammates open somewhere else on the court. But it's a risk that L.A. Coach Paul Westhead seems willing to take.
It is obvious that Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham has instructed Erving to try to get the ball to an uncovered teammate whenever he can on such occasions. Dr. J., however, isn't so sure that passing up shots every time he has two men on him is the best way to handle the situation.
"What I'd really prefer is to take my chances and shoot anyway," Julius explained. "I feel sure I can make the basket, and I also feel sure I would draw a lot of fouls. Shooting is my strength, and to give up that strength is something I'd rather not do."
At 6 ft. 6 in. and 205 pounds, the Doctor is no more than an average-size forward, by NBA standards. But you should see his hands and the length of his arms.
His arms allow him to play like a man 6-9 and his hands reportedly have permitted him to palm a basketball since he was in the seventh grade. He wears a size 11 glove, a size 13 1/2 ring, and occasionally has been seen one-handing rebounds.
Through Philadelphia's first three playoff series, against Washington, Atlanta, and Boston, Erving averaged 23.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.
For a while the Bullets and the Hawks thought they were guarding a shadow, and the Celtics, after what Julius did to them (37 points in one game), were sure of it.
What Erving can do (or is allowed to do offensively) in what remains of this Los Angeles-Philadelphia series is probably going to decide whether it goes six or seven games.