Maybe hockey requires a more precise teamwork and maybe soccer asks more from an athlete's body, but no game, absolutely none, causes the old heart to go pitter-patter quite so crazily as professional basketball at playoff time. With apologies to Irvin Cobb and the Kentucky Derby, you ain't never been nowhere or seen nothin' until you've seen Dr. J. livitate for big bucks.
Dr. J. is Julius Erving. Here he is on the television screen the other night. His team, the Philadelphia 76ers, is "slumping" against the lamentable New York Knicks. The Sixers throw up three or four shots, the ball refusing to go in. When what happens but The Doctor decides to operate.
Get this, Dr. J. is maybe four feet from the basket, standing in the right half of the lane. Here comes the ball, bouncing high and Doc goes up to meet it just under the ionisphere . He comes down with his back to the basket. What now? Does he pass the ball to someone facing the hoop? Does he turn around and shoot it himself?
Get this. He leaps with his back to the basket. All right, so you've seen him stuff it backwards over his head a hundred times. Well, don't ever take your eyes off The Doctor because you are subject to missing a miracle.
This time, Doc doesn't stuff if backwards. He does something more difficult. Backwards, over his head, using both hands, he throws the ball ever so gently against the backboard and it falls through the hoop. Try it some time.
As Erving's creative genius took wing that night, so have the Bullets become a team worth notice at playoff time.
In the second game of their playoff series against San Antonio, they change the character of their season-long performance by running a fast break often and efficiently. As a result, they improve their shooting percentage 20 points from the first game. Save for the magic of George Gervin, who had 46 points for the Spurs, the Bullets might have won by 20, instead of four, on a court on which they hadn't won all season.
Should the Bullets do the unexpected and win this Eastern Conference best-of-seven semifinal series, such a victory would be one more piece of evidence that all of pro basketball is divided into three parts: the exhibitions, the regular season, the playoffs.
And only the playoffs count.
While the Spurs seemed the Bullets' clear superiors during the regular season, that means nothing in the playoffs. For now, with a cnampionship at stake, Dr. J. goes into suborbital heroics and the Bullets, transformed by playoff electricity, are no longer the hulking behemoths of the beltway, but gazelles bounding in the sun.
So often a disappointment in the playoffs because his performances unlike a Havlicek's, do not surpass his regular-season work, Elvin Hayes scored 54 points the first two games against San Antonio. No one could ask more, but Hayes delivered more, anyway, both taking rebounds and playing good defense. With Hayes at his best, with Kevin Grevey shooting well from outside, with Bob Dandridge running on the break, the Bullets can beat most anybody. Hearts skip beats.
Would that it were always so. At its dullest, pro basketball is as appealing a spectator sport as fingernail clipping. These guys are asked to play 100 basketball games between September and April, and somewhere around January, the games become a ritual so formalized as to be a sweaty minuet.
For the first quarter of a game the guys loosen up. The second period is given over to the substitutes, just to keep them awake. The starters trade talk about the wife and kids and good restaurants in the third quarter. The fourth quarter, they play some basketball. Harldy a man alive ever saw a pro game that was decided with more than four minutes to play, but those four minutes are wonderful theater.
Not to say you should work a crossword puzzle the first 44 minutes. Things happen. They just don't have much to do with basketball. Like the time Wendell Ladner broke the water cooler.
Ladner played for the Kentucky Colonels of the dear, departed American Basketball Association. A big kid from Mississippi, he had a lot of Li'l Abner in him. Uncommonly handsome, he looked a lot like a young Omar Sharif, only better. He played basketball with wild abandon, hurling his body everywhere. Even into the glass water cooler next to the Colonels' bench one night.
The cooler shattered. Water was everywhere. They later would need 48 stitches to sew his back together, but Ladner's first words to rescuers who found him in the wreckage were, "Is mah hair mess up?
You see things happen. The old Cincinnati Royals of the NBA had Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas playing together. At least, Robertson was playing. Lucas was counting. We now know he's a demon with numbers, able to memorize entire telephone books at a single sitting. But no one knew that the day Jerry did this thing.
The Royals tipped in a shot. "Field goal by Dierking," the public address announcer said.
Well, heavenly calculator, Lucas flipped out.
"Me, me," he said, pounding a forefinger against his chest as he ran to the other end of the court.
"Ten points for Dierking," the p.a. man said.
"No," Lucas said and now he ran off the court to the official scorer's table, shouting, "That was my rebound and my basket." Meanwhile, play went on behind him, the game moving up and down the floor. Lucas consented to play only after the scorer gave him the bucket.
This did not happen in a playoff game.