Mention Julius Erving and basketball in the same breath and you know the rest of the story: the NBA's greatest showman, the man with the thousand moves, the doctor of delightful dunks.
But for all his gifts, Erving's most significant accomplishment may not involve physical skill.
He has emerged as perhaps the only superstar in sports who has managed to avoid the lingering stigma of controversy, despite flirting with it almost all his entire career.
Even Roger Staubach, who says nary a anughtly word, is rapped for being too pure. But Erving's image remains unblemished, although he has lived in a glaring spotlight that few athletes in any sport have known.
In Philadelphia, where Santa Claus is a villain and missed shots in warmup drills are booed, Erving is on a pedestal that has not been damaged by two straight playoff defeats or his failure to handle Washington's Bobby Dandridge last May. Not the doctor's fault, it is said; that's why George McGinnis and Lloyd Free were discarded.
Erving is too good to be true, except his friends swear there is no exaggeration involved when they say he signs all autograph requests, speaks nicely to old ladies, is a dedicated family man and does more charity work and honored deeds than he cares to reveal.
"Julius Erving is a nice person, a good person,' is the way Philadelphia General Manager Pat Williams put it. 'I don't know who doesn't like him."
Erving, who calmly says, "I'm not dumb," has smartly protected his image. Being Dr. J is a fulltime job; one harsh word in public, one mistake discourtesy to a young fan and kyears of careful grooming could be damaged.
Frobably it is too late for Erving to lose his halo under any circumstances. Any other player who had been involved in the small crises that highlighted his early career would be as revered now as Swen Nater. Somehow, Erving escaped unscathed. Consider:
He left college a year early, lured by a $500,000 four-year contract. "I couldn't learn anything more in college," he said then. "I wasn't a hardship case or anything."
He jumped from his first pro team, Virginia of the ABA to Atlanta of the NBA, was hauled into court by Milwaukee of the NBA and wound up playing for a fourth club, the New York Nets, at a cost of about $1 million to his new employers.
"Virginia made promises to me they didnk't keep," he said, explaining away his franchies jumping.
He demanded to be traded from the Nets after requesting renegotiation of his contract and ultimately nlanded in Philadelphia with a $600,000 annual pact. The Nets were forced to move to New Jersey because of negative fan reaction and owner Roy Boe eventually sold out, ruined by sizable debts.
Erving was the one player out of the rag-tag ABA the NBA owners and their season ticket holders wanted to see perform. Without him, there probably would not have been a merger. With him in the NBA, Philadelphia became the league's biggue's biggest road draw and now three years later, his name tops the arena marquees and promoters worry about his injury status.
The demands on his time are enormous. He endorses few items, being careful to avoid association with anything controversial, and he fits charity work into his basketball schedule.
"I know right from wrong," he said. 'It's cut and dried. A lot of people have to stand around and guess. I just go and do it."
The good deeds range from publicized events such as a $10,000 gift to his old public school district in Roosevelt, N.Y., in order to keep its athletic programs alive, and his bankrolling of his old Long Island Salvation Army team, to the more private moments on short notice, he called a small girl suffering from bone cancer and wished her well.
"It was the first time she smiled in a month," said her father.
His fans recognize this trend of kindness; they also see Erving, the consummate showman, trying to meld his talents with those of his teammates instead of dominakting games as he easily could do.Erving has an ego, but he has managed to control it and prevent others from being jealous of his abilities.
"I strive to be consistent," he once explained. "Both on and off the court. On the court, I'm in control of my body and my emotions and that's very consistent with the way I am off the court.
"The ffect of what I do when I'm playing may translate for some as flamboyant but that's the way I learned to do it, that's the way I chose to do it and my motivation is always the same.
"I strive for the same result off the court and I draw a direct parallel to the two situations. It's hard to see if you don't know me, and there are very few people who know me away from the court. I don't want to take people on a roller coaster, to be up one week and down the next. I find nothing wrong with that if you're being honest with yourself."
Dr. J dos not blow even in the heat of battle. He does not scream at reporters who dare write a discouraging word about him or the team. He doesn't knock opponents or teammates, fans or critics, Republicans or Democrats.
His byward is cool. The fire in his family is his wife, Turquoise, who once boldly treaded in public where her husband dained to wander. Two years ago, she openly berated Coach Gene Shue and the team's attitude, practically predicting the club's imminent demise.
"Turk doesn't believe in mincing words," said a family friend. "If she was Julius, he'd kprobably be in controversy all the time. He keeps his feelings to himself."
Yet there hs enough flamboyancy mixed with Erving's consistency to make him believable. The his and hers mink coats and fashionable house on Long Island are signs that, in some ways, he is a cut above the rest of the field.
He is so insistent that his three children grow up in a stable environment that he maintains a permanent residence on Long Island and an other home in Philadelphia. The young Ervings go to school in New York; their father visits them on weekends or whenever possible during the season. His wife splits her time between the two cities.
Living away from the City of Brotherly Love also removes the children from the cauldron of pressure that surrounds Erving once the season begins.
For 82 games, Erving is constantly trying to live up to the most difficult of goals: matching his reputation every night.
Although defensive deficiencies belie claims that he is a challenger for the title of the sport's best-ever player, he no doubt is its nifties showman. When Free goes into his one-on-one act, it is characterized as selfishness; when Erving goes solo, it is accepted as part of his style and brings fans to their feet.
His is a playground style with suburban smoothness. He can pass instead of dunk, dribble instead of drive, use a screen as well as score on a breakaway. Unlike teammate Darryl Dawkins, who must give names to his stuff shots and deliver them only occasionally, Erving comes through with the splash as regularly as he pulls off more routine acts.
During those times he is ignored by teammates or roughed up by opponents or looked upon as merely another player by the officials, he is persuaded to explode. But he loses hils temper only if he feels he has been endangered physically, through a unsportsmanlike tactic such as low bridging. And then the pent-up fury is unleashed in a series of spectacular plays.
But those times now are rare. Erving could have changed earlier in his career, when he came into a league that had been questioning his reputation five years in advance. Rivals were waiting for him in every city, gunslingers at the O.K. Corral, hoping to shoot down the ABA import. He pased those tests with ease.Anything that has followed has. been tame in comparison.
In his eighth pro season, he has settled comfortably into his role as new team captain and unchallenged leader. If anyone in Philadelphia wonders about his position, they need only to look at a billboard outside the city. It once had pictures of Erving and McGinnis hawking a snack foo 1. Now Erving stands alone.
In the eyes of many, he holds the same position throughout the league.