PHILADELPHIA — There is no joy in watching great athletes grow old, but some people seem to look forward to it anyhow. Their words hover like vultures. “This team’s not what it used to be. . . . This one’s over the hill. . . . That one ought to retire. . . . “
Sooner or later, time makes prophets out of all of them.
“Everyone wants to be the first to break the news,” says Julius Erving, a veteran target on the chronological rifle range. “They want to say, this is the year he can’t do it anymore. Even if they’re wrong, it doesn’t bother them. They say, ‘Well, OK, I was wrong. But I wasn’t wrong by much.’ “
He rubs his hair, now flecked with gray, and laughs, which tells you the bullets haven’t quite found their mark on him yet. But oh, they’ve been fired. The “How high can Doctor J. still fly?” question is as regular a fixture of autumn as yellow leaves. If we hear it more about Erving than others, perhaps it’s because he’s been so dazzling in his basketball ballet — the soaring dunks, the airborne bank shots, the delicate finger rolls — that the only logical assumption is that he must fizzle sometime, right?
Only this season, the question has company. The whole 76ers team is under fire. The organization with the second-best record in basketball over the last five years (the Celtics are first) . . . the team that coasted to the 1983 NBA championship, losing only one playoff game, has tripped. Without injured guard Andrew Toney, the Sixers are barely playing .500 ball, with a 9-8 record going into tonight’s game with the Pistons at the Silverdome.
“We couldn’t win the NBA championship with our current setup,” says Erving, 35. “But it’s not because of age. Only myself and Bobby Jones are in our mid-30s.
“And frankly, this team does not sink or swim on how Julius Erving or Bobby Jones plays. Not anymore.” Erving’s role has changed
Inside the locker room after practice, Erving watches his teammates leave. Soon he is the last one left. He sits on his stool, covers his knees with plastic bags of ice, and rolls tape around each one, until they stick in place. Then he leans back against the locker and lets the frozen relief take effect.
Once he was the electrifying solo star of this organization. That was his role. Slam Dunkin’ with the Doctor. No player was more dazzling. Then under coach Billy Cunningham, the emphasis shifted to team defense and feeding the ball into Moses Malone. New role for Doctor J. He did it, even when he felt like doing otherwise.
But light no candles for the Good Doctor. For the Sixers have always thrived in the past precisely because Erving — whose talent gives him more right than almost anyone to behave like a prima donna — never went that route. He adjusted to what was necessary. The others could do no less.
“And that’s what’s happening right now,” he said. “My role is not to dominate this team anymore.
“I could still drive, lead the fast break, go for dunks every time down the court. But that’s not the best way for me to contribute. Then the other guys would be standing around. Why should a guy like Moses have to stand around? He can take his own shot, get his own rebound and shoot it again.”
Erving blames the Sixers’ slow start on a combination of Toney’s injury, the adjustment to a new coach (Matt Guokas replaced Cunningham in the off-season) and what he calls a “waste of time” pre-season. And he figures things will improve soon. A three-game winning streak has already stifled a bit of the criticism.
And while Erving admits this might be his last season, he makes no apologies for his age, nor any concessions to his flying powers. He notes, matter-of-factly, that in the pre- season, the trainers tested the whole team in vertical leaping.
He finished No. 1. As usual. As he learns, he changes
The thought of an Erving-less 76ers is sad. He is that rarest of attractions — applauded by the spray-paint crowd and the Yuppies alike. He has never been less than a gentleman, even amongst the likes of such bigmouths as George McGinnis, Lloyd Free and Darryl Dawkins.
But when he goes, rest assured he won’t be gasping at his old moves. Erving has done what too few players these days attempt. He’s learned as he’s gone along. And he’s changed.
“In this game it’s not how high you jump, or how fast you run, or even how straight you shoot,” he said. “It’s knowing what you’re doing. I’ve seen young guys play spectacular and win and not even know why they won. I know why we’ve won, and when we lose, I know why, too. So I know what to do about it.”
A jazz trumpeter named Dizzy Gillespie once said: “It took me my whole life to learn what notes not to play.” The genius of self-editing. One figures Erving has reached that point in his career.
The tape is unraveled, the ice bags removed. An hour after the other 76ers
have gone home, Julius Erving is ready for his shower. Even the doomsayers should find little satisfaction when he makes it his last.