Dr. J has the right stuff.
He soars where others tread. He is weightless where others throw their weight around.He is an astronaut in a basketball suit.
For him, gravity is merely a tone of voice.
"The right stuff?" he asked yesterday, icing his knees in the locker room after the 76ers had defeated the Bullets, 95-92, "It's a matter of having the fundamentals down pat and then being able to extend them into a different tangent.
"It's being able to express yourself that way. Then if you run afoul, you can always come back to the fundamentals. That's what separates you from the guy who's always on a tangent and can't do the fundamentals, or the guy who's got the fundamentals and doesn't have a different tangent."
Yesterday, the Doctor had only average stuff. The 18,184 people who came to see him pay a house call on the Bullets, as CBS put it, saw a lot of the Doctor's bedside manner. He scored 17 points in the first three quarters, and watched the rest from the bench.
But this year, for the first time since he joined the 76ers in 1976, no one was asking whether there is a doctor in the house. Erving has put out a shingle: he is back in practice.
In the last eight games prior to yesterday, Erving averaged 20 points a game. He has scored 30 or more points in four of his last 10 games.
Which is much closer to his 28.7 ABA scoring average than the 21.8 he has averaged in three seasons with the 76ers.
In those years, Erving sublimated his talent "for the good of the team (he played his role?)" But it did not do the team any good. The 76ers lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals last year to San Antonio, and in the finals to Portland the previous year.
This year, Erving says Coach Billy Cunningham "gave me the green light, to do the things I wanted to do, as long as it was in the context of the offense. He wanted me to do more, and I wanted to do more."
Are the 76ers the Doctor's team?
Cunningham said, "There's no question. We rely on him quite a bit, especially with (Doug) Collins out. He's just put everything together."
Erving finds the hoopla about the seeming reappearance of his game "real confusing and strange." "It's a real turnaround from a couple of years ago. Everyone called the 76ers a traveling circus with a lot of one-on-one individuals. We were vastly criticized by the announcers and the press. . .
"A lot of people call my style hotdogging it. I don't call it that. A lot of people call me spectacular. I'm not striving for that."
All he wants, he says, is to be consistent. Which is like Pavarotti saying all he wants is to sing on pitch.
Greg Ballard, who knew he would find Erving to guard under his Christmas tree with Bobby Dandridge injured, said, "What do you do? You don't do anything. You can't stop Julius one-on-one.
"As long as you can get him thinking about defense and put a question in his mind. You try to discourage him that way. He's not too great defensively. He's adequate."
Ballard scored seven points in the first quarter before sitting down with three fouls.
Dandridge said he would play him the same as Ballard, but more "discreetly."
"I'd keep my body on him, not let him have complete freedom. Most players want the freedom to float through the game unhassled. My theory is to make him try to work on defense."
Dandridge says he is "not in awe of Erving.
"If you were," he said, "you wouldn't be able to play him."
"Players get keyed up for him, CBS pumps him, and the local media pumps him. I think it's an advantage for the home team. Other small forwards are not as spectacular, but they get the job done."
Still Dandridge says he finds it "more difficult to handle Erving this year than in the past because Philadelphia has oriented its game around him to allow him to get free."
Of his six field goals against the Bullets, only two were layups. Has Erving changed his style? "I've always had an outside shot. I'm mixing up my game more inside and out. I'm still dominant on the inside," he said.
Sometimes, he said, "when a player is exceptional at going to the basket, he gets a reputation for dunking. If I score 35, people say I don't play defense, and I do play defense. There is a rush to stereotype or label a player as being one-dimensional. People are looking for the flaws rather than looking at the facts."
Some teams, like Houston (he scored 39 points against the Rockets last week) that play a wide-open game "have left the middle open quite a bit" for him, Erving said. "When we play a team like Seattle that packs it in, I might score 20 or 25.
"I've always tried to be an all-around player, especially at Philadelphia. But I was criticized for not being dominant."
He said he is now "more aggressive." This year, he is playing without knee braces (he worked out with a physical therapist during the off-season using light weights and without restraint).