For a moment he was like any other theater-in-the-round headlines standing there in a circle of light, turning to show himself to each section of the house. As the applause swelled, he raised one fist in the air, then the other. A man ran out from the darkness and gave him—what, a black satchel? Of course, a doctor's satchel. Again the crowd exploded. Finally, his passionate welcome to the NBA concluded, Julius Erving sat down and began this new episode of his remarkable career right where he didn't belong. In Philadelphia. And on the bench.
It was a peculiar and obviously awkward debut that Erving made last Friday night in the Spectrum when 17,196 fans (just short of capacity) greeted the newcomer, late of the New York Nets, as if he had just discovered the cause of and cure for Legionnaires' Disease. When Dr. J entered the game in the second quarter and threw away his first pass, there were scattered moans. When he missed his first four free throws and committed a couple of sloppy fouls, there were raised eyebrows. Even before Erving had finished leading his new team—this month's dynasty, the talent-rich Philadelphia 76ers—to a 121-118 defeat, much of the audience had headed for the exits, somehow believing that any man worth $6.5 million should be able to beat the San Antonio Spurs with two legs tied behind his neck.
Of course, this is the same town that has been known to boo the Easter Bunny. Dr. J should consider himself lucky that the sin of rustiness didn't get him hanged in effigy.
Still, despite trying to do too much on not enough preparation, forcing his wind and judgment out of synch, Erving managed to come up with 17 points and six rebounds in 16 minutes of playing time. For the record, his first NBA basket came at 2:38 of the third period on a driving, double-pump underhand scoop shot off the glass. His first dunk was a slam-hook from the standing position with a double-tuck, lift-and-jerk sway motion, with about 10 minutes to go in the contest. Judges awarded it a puny 6.5 on the Erving WOW scale. All told, he made six of nine field goals, missed eight of 13 free throws and committed five fouls in his first true competition in five months.
Undoubtedly waiting for the new man to do something more, like jam the Liberty Bell through Betsy Ross' roof, the other 76ers proceeded to lose concentration and aggressiveness. When they weren't standing around gaping, they were practicing give-and-go turnovers and forgetting how they compiled the league's best exhibition record of 7-1.
"I never found my second wind," Erving acknowledged after the defeat. "My mind felt I could do anything, but my body wasn't ready." He was not much readier the next night in Buffalo, where the 76ers lost again, 108-105. Erving played 15 minutes and had 13 points.
Following weeks of hype, including the most seductive dangling of financial inducements since Barbara Walters decided to change teams, it was not surprising that Erving contributed so little in his first appearances for Philadelphia. It was more surprising that the 76ers had floated back down from space in time to play at all. It had been only two days before that these same 76ers, already a solid favorite to win the Atlantic Division, found out that Erving was on the way. Upon hearing the news, Caldwell Jones got down on his knees and cried. Doug Collins lay in bed and laughed and laughed. George McGinnis, the 76ers' previous savior, blurted, "Me and the Doctor together? Oh my God!"
The reaction on the other side of the continent was not as joyous. Aboard a plane from New York to San Francisco, the Nets were still certain that their star and leader would join them for the opener with the Golden State Warriors. At the airport they learned that he was gone for good.
"Get me to the bar. I may have to become a drinkster," said Coach Kevin Loughery as he stared, glassy-eyed, at the luggage going round and round.
John Williamson and Rich Jones did not try to be funny. "How could anybody do this to us? Our season is over already," said Williamson.