Too bad, America, but you missed one of the greatest basketball shows on Earth. Or, rather, one just a few feet off the Earth. That was Julius Erving last week, launching himself from various points on courts in Denver and New York, soaring and scoring, passing, rebounding, blocking and stealing—all in the undeserved obscurity of the ABA championship finals. By Saturday night Erving and his underdog New York Nets had Denver down three games to one, which is what can happen when humans go five-on-one with a helicopter.
The games were not nationally televised, but they should have been. Dr. J's heroics merited more than just local exposure. In the first four games he scored 158 points, pulled down 51 rebounds, had 22 assists, blocked seven shots and had eight steals. Most of them came with the Identified Flying Object's feet well off the ground, his body twisting and turning. Even the Nuggets felt like applauding.
Denver had assigned the task of stopping Erving—or, rather, slowing him down—to Bobby Jones, the 6'9" second-year man out of North Carolina who may be the best defensive forward in basketball. But by the end of last week the most Jones could do was smile and shake his head.
"The thing about him is that you know he is going to get to the basket, you just never know how," he said. "In the first game I tried to make him go baseline, and he went right by me. After that I tried to make him pull up in the lane. So he made his jumpers. Or he went right by me. But I really enjoy watching him because every time he does one of those moves I know it's something I may never see again."
The Doctor's best games have a certain rhythm. It is his habit to save his incredible moves until after the first quarter. "I don't like to get into the offense too quickly," he explains. "I prefer for the guards to get into it first. That way I can determine the flow and my best course of action. Then I can let the game flow toward me. By the second quarter I'm ready to start swooping. But it's important for me to go with the flow, and not force it."
True to his pattern, Dr. J idled along early in the first game in Denver. The Nets took a one-point lead into the second quarter. He scored just four points as he studied the situation.
For both clubs this was more than a championship series. Merger with the NBA might be around the corner, and so 1976 could be the last year for the ABA. Both Denver and New York want to be remembered as the league's last champion. To the Nets' disadvantage they were playing a club that had dominated them (15-7) during the last two regular seasons. Worse yet, over an 11-game stretch going back to the beginning of the 1974-75 season, the Nets had been unable to win in Denver. That can lead to a ton of soul searching.
"I had done a lot of thinking about that," Erving said. " Denver is the only team that dominated us in the regular season. What were we doing wrong? Obviously we had been playing right into their hands. Jones is a tremendous defensive player. His technique is to overplay me on the wings, near the basket, deny me the ball, and when I get it, to make me go to my left. I decided if I came out farther, I could get the ball and have more room to operate."
In the second quarter Erving, with ample room, began to operate. He scored 13 points, two of them on a swooshing two-hand switch stuff. What the blistering serve was to Pancho Gonzales, the stunning stuff is to Erving.
"Why not?" he asks. "What people call the-show, well, that's the best way I can see to get the bucket. I've been doing it all my life, and I say when something works, don't change it. Some guys, like Rick Mount, practice all their lives on one jump shot, one they'll never miss. When they get in a tight spot, that's the shot they take. I dunk. That's my shot. I'm not going to miss. And if I do, well, nobody's going to holler."