TRIBUTE upon tribute has been heaped upon Julius Erving of the Philadelphia 76ers as he played out the 16th and final season of his pro basketball career the other day. These public outpourings, held in all 23 National Basketball Association communities, were acknowledgments not only of his soaring trademark dunks, but also of his broad range of public interests. Beyond his electrifying athleticism, which enabled him to score more than 30,000 points and which was at maximum voltage when he won four Most Valuable Player Awards (including three in the old American Basketball Association), ``Dr. J'' can only be called well-rounded:
A community leader who was named Philadelphia's Man of the Year.
A loyal team player who turned down a lucrative offer from the Utah Jazz last summer to finish his career with the 76ers.
A realist who values education enough that he went back to the University of Massachusetts and got his bachelor of arts degree long after once dropping out.
A true sportsman who earned the respect of his opponents and who once, after an uncharacteristic fight, was good hearted enough to enter the Boston Celtics' locker room and initiate a reconciliation with fellow combatant Larry Bird when their teams next met.
Is it any wonder then that in his last hurrah, the fans in Milwaukee rose to give Dr. J. a standing ovation Sunday, even as the Bucks were eliminating Philadelphia from the playoffs?
In the past, many black players have been viewed narrowly - as great athletes, with little attention given to their accomplishments off the courts or the playing field. Dr. J., as much as anyone, has bolstered the image of the public-spirited black athlete to a point where his role in society at large can't be ignored. In doing so, he has given a lift to a sport that has not been without flaws, including drug use by some players.
Erving would no doubt concede that it can be uncomfortable for an athlete to be placed on any type of pedestal. Nor would we want to do that. That can be tough - and unfair.
Still, it seems only fitting to recognize that Erving helped to usher in a new wave of role models whose appeal goes far beyond their sports skills.