Julius Erving showed today he might have a promising future as an NBA guard. But while he was demonstrating still another facet of his versatility, the West was running away with the league's 29th annual All-Star Game, 134-129.
Erving scored 29 points and was charged with only one turnover in 39 minutes for the East, almost all of which he spent as a back court operative. He looked so good that East Coach Dick Motta wondered aloud why Philadelphia doesn't use him more at guard.
Yet the fact that Motta had to move Erving to the back court gave the West, which didn't need to shuffle any players to new positions, an overwhelming advantage.
David Thompson, attaining selection as the game's most valuable player, scored 25 points to lead the victors before 31,745, the largest crowd ever to see a basketball game in Michigan.
"We wanted to push the ball up the court and move as quickly as possible on them," West Coach Lenny Wilkens of Seattle said. "Certainly the fact they had some guard problems hurt them."
Washington's Motta began the game with three legitimate guards: Pete Maravich, Calvin Murphy and George Gervin. Neither Maravich nor Murphy played well in the first half, forcing Motta to search for alternatives. He settled for Erving and another forward, Campy Russell, but said he would have preferred a different answer.
"I'm going to recommend that we (coaches) vote for five substitutes by position," Motta said. "Now we just vote for the five best players (after fan voting for the starting units) and things like what happened today can result."
The East got into the back-court predicament through a combination of an injury to Doug Collins and hometown sentiment for Piston Bob Lanier. When Collins was forced to withdraw from the game, the NBA chose center Lanier -- the only Detroit player on the squad -- instead of another guard.
The Silverdome crowd loved being able to cheer Lanier, but Motta could only shake his head and put out a lineup comprising Erving and Russell in the back court with Lanier, Elvin Hayes and Rudy Tomjanovich in the front line.
That unit brought the East back from an 80-58 halftime deficit to within five in the fourth quarter, which at least made the second half interesting. But the West had played too well in the opening 24 minutes to be beaten by any rally.
Those opening two quarters demonstrated clearly why forwards don't usually succeed at a new position, especially on this kind of game.
While Erving and company were dashing to the basket, the West was sneaking guards out to half court while dominating the boards, thus ripping off enough uncontested fast breaks to silence the crowd almost completely.
Thompson had 14 of his points before intermission on an assortment of jumpers and stuffs. Paul Westphal added 13 from the other starting guard spot and reserves Dennis Johnson and Otis Birdsong combined for 14.
"I started getting a little desperate after six minutes," said Motta, who was wired for television sound during the game. "You get a handicap like that and the best you can do is make the best of it.
"I thought Julius did extremely well. He's a competitor and he's willing to do a lot of things to win.Funny, I found out a lot of things about these players that I didn't know before, just by coaching this one game."
Motta got decent games from his two Bullet performers. Hayes led everyone with 13 rebounds and scored 13 points; Bob Dandridge, playing 18 minutes, contributed eight points.
But the West had too much depth and quickness. No matter which player Wilkens turned to, he extracted a significant contribution. He needed Westphal for only seven minutes in the second half despite the Phoenix veteran's stellar pre-intermission showing.
Until the East threatened in the fourth period, the major highlight of the game might have been the performance of the Super Chicken mascot of the San Diego pro sports teams. His timeout antics kept many of the fans alert and loose until the athletes reached a higher caliber of play.
Erving took the spotlight from the Chicken early in the third period when he suddenly came alive. The East ran off a 24-7 spurt in which Erving had eight points and three assists to narrow a 23-point deficit to six.
But Motta, trying to divide playing time as equally as possible, rested Erving movements later.
While the 76er star was on the bench, the West again built a comfortable margin, mostly on the strength of an 8-0 spurt at the start of the last quarter.
Erving was rushed back in, but now his club had to fight both the clock and a 13-point disadvantage. The East slowly ate into that and got it to 129-123 on the last two of Gervin's 26 points with 1:19 to go.
Murphy then replaced Tomjanovich to give the East more quickness in the back court. But that substitution backfired immediately.
After Kareem Abdul-Jabbar missed a hook, Murphy hurried the ball up the court and lost control. George McGinnis picked it up and was fouled by the Houston guard in the back court.
McGinnis, Thompson's Denver teammate, made one free throw and that ended any doubt.
"If we had moved the ball better in the first half, like we did in the second, I think we would have won," said Erving, credited with five assists. "I had only one turnover so I guess I did a decent job of handling the ball. But this is a big adjustment to make in a game like this."
Russell agreed. "If we had a week or so of practice, it would have been okay," he said. "But you just don't come in here and play guard against these people. These are some of the best guards around. I'm a forward."