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GOOD, BUT WHY NOT THE BEST?
Curry Kirkpatrick
March 21, 1977
With all its high-priced talent, Philadelphia was supposed to be awesome. Instead, it is an enigma—and sometimes awful
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March 21, 1977

Good, But Why Not The Best?

With all its high-priced talent, Philadelphia was supposed to be awesome. Instead, it is an enigma—and sometimes awful

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THE PHILADELPHIA DUNK-O-METER
The 76ers are the only team in the NBA that keeps up-to-date dunk totals. Categories were supplied by a professional dunk watcher who interrupted 28 consecutive skin-slapping handshake rituals to be interviewed. Julius Erving, the Grand Dragon of Dunk, was asked how accurate he thought this chart was. "Way short," he said.

 

Erving

McGinnis

Free

Jones

Dawkins

Basic In-Your-Face Flying Slammer

15

38

33

29

26

Incredible Screaming Reverse Twist Arm Job

36

0

0

0

0

Backward Pumping, Deliver Us From Evil Scare Jam

48

0

0

0

0

Unbelievably Terrifying De Laurentiis Memorial Gorilla Stuff

0

0

0

0

1

Outrageous Whirlybird Windmill Swoop Hooker From Pike Position, i.e., "Yo' Mama" Dunk

1

0

0

0

0

Total

100

38

33

29

27

As the inimitable Philadelphia 76ers dunk their hearts out on the way to immortality or, at the very least, the NBA playoffs, strange noises emanate from the Spectrum. Is this the euphony of togetherness? No way. It is the dissonance of a band of spoiled rich kids pointing fingers at one another and carping over such matters as playing time.

Following last month's All-Star Game, in which Julius Erving proved he can still be the Dr. J of legend as he scored 30 points and was MVP—it seemed possible that the 76ers had finally pulled their own all-star act together and would now proceed to run away from the rest of the league. Instead, hampered by six stitches in his shooting hand, Erving has remained inconsistent; the formidable George McGinnis and the freewheeling Doug Collins, the 76ers' other two All-Stars, seem weighted down by their own bruises and bumps and considerable reputations; first-line reserves Lloyd Free and Darryl Dawkins have grumbled about taking their sweet words of youth elsewhere. Since the All-Star break the team has been stumbling along at a .500 pace, comfortably leading the weak Atlantic Division but hardly living up to preseason expectations. One 76er, who shall stay anonymous lest he be docked his weekly million or, even worse, traded to the Nets, says, "What we got here is a bunch of babies who don't look where the real trouble is—in the mirror."

None of this would deserve much attention were it not for the fact that the 76ers figured to be so sensational. When Dr. J brought his moves to town, having personally slam-dunked the NBA into merger during the summer, the prospects seemed dazzling: Erving (29.3 points a game last season) up front with McGinnis (23) and Caldwell Jones (13), and Collins (20.8) in the backcourt. The payroll was now almost beyond belief but maybe the price was right nevertheless; as General Manager Pat Williams crowed, Philadelphia would have a hard time losing a game. And despite all their problems, the 76ers may still be the most physically talented, highest paid, most closely scrutinized, most entertaining team going, as well as the biggest draw in the history of the pros. Plus, they dance on people's heads a whole lot (see box).

Coach Gene Shue has attempted to explain away the post All-Star record with such churlish responses to the questioning media as, "Bleeping people. Why don't they get the bleep out? Bleeping vultures." Which he did after a particularly tough last-second defeat at Atlanta last week.

Of course this was only Shue's most recent insult to the press. The coach has been laboring long and hard to get somebody to swallow the story that most of the 76ers' troubles stem from a dislocated elbow that sent a skinny center named Harvey Catchings to the sidelines in January. "An important ingredient," says Shue of Catchings.

Since defensive specialist Catchings was the team's fifth-leading rebounder, its 11th-leading scorer and had trouble stopping any opponent weighing more than 175 pounds, this excuse has not made it up the flagpole. Last week in a game against Denver, boos split the air and a sign popped up that read "Give Shue the Boot." The source of the definitive line about life on the 76ers—or anywhere else in the NBA—is Sixer Trainer Al Domenico. "Nobody on this team is happy," he says, "but we aren't unique. Everybody hates everybody else on every team in the league."

Philadelphia won the Denver game, by the way, a 129-125 double-overtime thriller in which Erving (with a season-high 38 points) and David Thompson (with 40) engaged in one of their duels-in-the-rafters. After that the 76ers split two other home games last week, defeating Seattle 126-122 and losing to Chicago 106-102 to make their record 39-27, fifth best in the whole NBA, but still a sure ticket to the playoffs. "We haven't lost the championship yet," points out Assistant Coach Jack McMahon.

Still, as one of the newer literary classics asks, Why Not the Best? What is wrong? Collins, ever candid, says he'd hate to start the playoffs today. "We talk of sacrifice and common goals, but when it comes time to do it, we stand around. When we need a big basket or key play, we fall apart. This team can't just push a talent button and get away with it. We're always going to be semi-disorganized. Yeah, I'm skeptical of how good we really are."

There is no question how deep the young Philadelphians are. The other hero in the Denver victory was sub backcourt-man Mike Dunleavy, a rookie who hadn't played in 15 games but who has acquired a 76er sense of the absurd. After contributing two important assists and two clinching free throws, Dunleavy emerged with a wicked cut under his eye, explaining matter-of-factly that someone had put an elbow in it.

In a sense, the 76ers' present difficulties were guaranteed the day before the season opened, when Philadelphia Owner Fitz Dixon added Erving to the payroll. The team promptly dispelled notions of invincibility by losing its first two games. Even when the 76ers won seven in a row in January, wild rumors swept the premises:

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