Right now, Doug Collins is laughing, Julius Erving is grinning, Bobby Jones is dreaming, Steve Mix is orating, Darryl Dawkins is flying and the 76ers are running their poor NBA brethren into ragged exhaustion.
Philadelphia continued to destroy the Eastern Conference last week, picking off Indiana, New York and Cleveland. But while an 8-0 start with an average winning margin of nearly 12 points would make the turnstiles spin in most other towns, fans in the city that calls itself the Big Pretzel are not to be so moved so soon. Recent history has taught them that no matter how the Sixers start out, they end up with big pretzels stuck in their throats. Two seasons have come and gone since the 76ers lost the 1977 championship finals to Portland and Erving made his ill-advised "we owe you one" promise. And even though the 76ers' 152-94 regular-season record over the past three years has been equaled only by the Trail Blazers, Philadelphia is still most famous for cream cheese.
So, you may ask, what's new? Well, how about everything. Collins is his indefatigable self again after foot injuries caused him to miss 35 games last year. Maurice Cheeks is no longer a rookie; instead, he's the league leader in assists. Erving has revitalized knees. Bobby Jones has a new role (sixth man), Caldwell Jones has a new position (power forward), and Dawkins has a new job (starting center), a new attitude ("my play years are over"), not to mention a new home planet (Chocolate Paradise), Lovetron obviously having disintegrated after the 76ers squabbled their way out of last year's playoffs.
And then there is Mix. The muscular 31-year-old forward has a new piece of real estate, the right side of the offensive court, from which he seems incapable of missing. Mixville. And he is the mayor, city council and electorate. In their last four games the 76ers got single-quarter bursts of 14, 16, 18 and 12 points out of Mixville, the last three being fourth quarters that flat out won games. Over this period Mix scored 81 points in 81 minutes and hit 36 of 47 shots, which works out to a fairly hot percentage of 76.5.
And there's more. The mumblers and grumblers of the old soap-opera Sixers are gone, Joe (Jelly Bean) Bryant and Eric Money being the latest to go the way of Lloyd Free and George McGinnis. As General Manager Pat Williams likes to say, "The team has been cleansed." What Coach Billy Cunningham is left with is a team of eight regular role-players. Reserve Guard Henry Bibby, for example, turned in a heroic 46-minute performance when Cheeks missed the Cleveland game and then Collins missed the second half. The 76ers also have three rookies who, get this, don't complain. Why, the 76ers, just yesterday the NBA's own Tower of Babel, are suddenly rock-solid and singing songs of brotherly love to the accompaniment of Kool and the Gang ("Every damn game," says a smiling Collins, sitting in front of Dawkins' pulsating, refrigerator-sized tape deck on the bus to the Richfield Coliseum). And one more thing—because 74% of the Sixers' schedule will be played against the somewhat weaker Eastern Conference clubs, Philadelphia is the closest thing to a cinch for the NBA's best record and, thus, the home-court advantage through the playoffs.
Now Erving can say, "Mentally there's a much better feeling here than ever before," and not be picking your pocket at the same time. "Darryl and Caldwell are controlling the boards so consistently that when one gets beat the other is right there. Our backup forwards were both former All-Stars. Maurice runs the offense, so Doug and I just fly out on the break. Me? I haven't felt so good physically or mentally since my rookie year."
The Erving knees, heavily braced against chronic weakness for six seasons, are no longer under wraps after Doc spent the summer undertaking a concentrated leg-strengthening program supervised by Joseph Zohar, a Long Island physical therapist. Erving opened the season with a 27-point night in Washington and followed it with an NBA career-high 44 points in the second game, against Houston. He had a 27-point average, six over his three-year NBA scoring rate, through last week.
"Julius is getting points more quietly than he did in the ABA," says Bobby Jones. "You used to stop and just watch him. Now he just goes and goes and you hardly notice him. When he scored 44 I thought it was more like 20." Which is not to say that he has given up flying like the Dr. J of yore. For the New York television audience on Friday night he did a couple of incredible scooping lay-in drives and one classic behind-the-head breakaway jam on his way to 27 points in a 127-116 win over the Knicks.
Erving's and Collins' (33 points against New York) license to run free is the result of the punishing inside work of 14 feet and 475 pounds worth of power, in the persons of Dawkins and Caldwell Jones. Cunningham threw the two together in a training-camp experiment and ended up creating a monster—behold, the Gruesome Twosome. Together they average 24 rebounds and 22 points. When Dawkins runs into foul trouble, as is his wont, Jones takes up the slack, as he did Friday, getting 17 rebounds and holding the Knicks' powerful rookie center, Bill Cartwright, to four second-half points, after Cartwright had drawn four early fouls by Dawkins. The next night in Cleveland, Dawkins covered for a tired Jones, ripping down 17 rebounds of his own. He thought he had 18, but one of them was actually Dave Robisch's head, which Dawkins tried to pass to Bibby.
"We're really an awesome rebounding team," says Collins. "When I'm on the floor and the ball is in the air, I can just see fear on the other guys' faces."