There may be no more apt nickname in sport than "Dr. J." Combining the authority and competence inherent in a professional title with the easygoing familiarity of being called by the first letter of your Christian name, it perfectly identifies the essence of the man and the athlete. Dr. J—both moniker and player—conveys sophistication, elegance, style, control. On the other hand, Dr. J is also descriptive of slam-bam playground ball. It is the ultimate accolade of the streets.
In addition, Dr. J stands out because there are hardly any other good nicknames around these days. Where have the Brown Bombers and the Stan the Mans and the Yogis and the Big Daddys gone? Why, obviously, to the corn bins of our thoroughly free-agented, billions-oriented marketing heaps to be replaced by the likes of Reg-gie and O.J., which aren't nicknames at all but, simply, names.
Ah, but Dr. J. At the dawning of the 1970s that was an appellation flexible enough for all elements of a society to sink their teeth into. So different, so delicious. And, what's more, not that many people saw him then. Dr. J wasn't in Madison Square Garden or the Polo Lounge or at the White House or on Merv Griffin. A phantom. A myth. A mystery man, Dr. J. The name fostered a legend long before the masses even knew what he looked like, much less realized what he could do with a basketball.
No wonder that when Julius Erving finally reached the big time in 1976 with the Philadelphia 76ers after five years of spectacular toil in the ABA suburbs of Virginia and Long Island, so much was expected of him, too much demanded. Past is prologue. It's important to remember this. It's important because where the man came from and how he got to be Dr. J explains better than anything else where the man is now and why he is merely Julius Erving—a 29-year-old, 6'6", 205-pound, sore-kneed, struggling forward searching to find his place on a mediocre, second-place team.
"Julie used to take off and soar. I mean, really soar," says his former coach at Virginia, Al Bianchi. "And that's the sad part of seeing him now. The Doc can't fly no more."
"I can't play with a hatchet over my head every season," says Erving. "For no reason at all, sometimes I become a passive player. The total vibes aren't there anymore."
For the past several weeks the 76ers, playing mostly on the road, have sandwiched three- and five-game losing streaks around a few wins while careening toward the playoffs in a battle with Houston, Atlanta and New Jersey for the home-court advantage in the first-round mini-series. Atlanta?
New Jersey? This is a far cry from the glories envisioned by 76ers owner Fitz Dixon and General Manager Pat Williams when they purchased Erving from the Nets so that he might join George McGinnis, Doug Collins, Lloyd Free and the other Sixer carnival acts and thereby ensure seven or eight NBA titles, not to mention guaranteed reservations in a palace on Darryl Dawkins' fantasy planet, Lovetron.
At the time of the merger Erving had led the then New York Nets to two ABA championships in three years and was considered the best and most exciting player in the game. Certainly his performance in the 1976 finals against the Denver Nuggets gave evidence of that. On defense, he helped contain the spectacular David Thompson, three times holding him below his season's average of 26.0. And he averaged 37.7 points in six games against the best defensive forward in either league, Bobby Jones. "Not for the points, but just for catching the ball that many times against Jones, Julius Erving should be in the Hall of Fame," Atlanta Coach Hubie Brown says.
Erving's dazzling talent—his game takeovers, his jukes and jams and especially his astonishing leaping, diving, midair stuff—was underscored by a rare ability to inspire his teammates to levels they couldn't achieve on their own. Bill Bradley had done this in college, Bill Russell in the pros, very few others anywhere. That was and is, says Bianchi, now an assistant coach at Phoenix, "the only mark of a superstar."
But in the NBA, Erving has never done this. In two years he has taken Philadelphia to the finals and semifinals. But this season, after a personnel shakeup in which McGinnis and Free were replaced by Jones and others, thus, in Pat Williams' words, "altering the texture, restructuring the team in Julius' image," the 76ers look as if they won't even make it to the semis.