Two players probably best define pro basketball at this moment and show the current limits of the art: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the most graceful of giants, and Julius Erving, the most blessed of all mid-air princes.
Today, these legends in their prime brought their fine supporting casts to the NBA final. All the roots of Los Angeles, 109-102 victory over Philadelphia could be found in how these teams reacted to those two central stars.
"These seven-game series are like a long chess game where you have to change strategy several times," said Laker Coach Paul Westhead. "This was just the first move -- the opening."
Each team concocted a dramatic, and dangerous, opening gambit -- ones which were absolutely opposite.
The 76ers decided to try to play Abdul-Jabbar honestly with just one man and the merest hint of sagging help from a guard.
The Lakers, by contrast, decided to gamble and totally commit themselves to double-teaming Erving the instant he touched the ball.
The Lakers clearly won both tactical battles and took the opening game of this glamor showdown.
The man entrusted with Abdul-Jabbar was 6-foot-11 260-pound Darryl Dawkins -- the gentlemen who was introduced as "the center from the planet of Lovetron."
May the Fourth must be a holiday on Lovetron, because big Chocolate Thunder took the day off. Abdul-Jabbar was the only man here playing like a visitor from another planet. The six-time NBA MVP had 33 points, 14 rebounds, six blocks and five assists, while Dawkins, who fouled out in just 18 minutes, had only 12 points and three rebounds while picking up a technical foul.
Dawkins, after getting a dunk off the opening tip, did not score again until two minutes remained in the third quarter.
By then, Los Angeles had broken a halftime tie (53-53) with the first dozen points of the third period, and had built a 16-point margin (80-64) that never fell below four (92-88).
"Today everybody saw The Man," said Westhead of Abdul-Jabbar. "Clearly, he's the greatest in the game. I'm no historian, but 50 years from now, I think he'll be thought of as the greatest that every played."
"I seldom see anything approaching man-to-man defense," said Abdul-Jabbar with a wolfish grin. "It presents me with interesting possibilities. For a while today, I had some fun."
What he did -- whether checked by Dawkins or 7-1 Caldwell Jones -- was spin, fake, face the basket, put the ball on the floor and make a collection of shots (14 or 21) that a guard might envy. He made just one sky hook all day.
"I want this championship as badly as I can want anything," said the often laconic Adbul-Jabbar, who also was a defensive mountain.
While Philly's strategy merely succeeded in getting Dawkins in instant foul trouble after four minutes while arousing Jabbar, the Lakers' tactics bothered the Sixers more and more.
"Our primary goal was to limit Julius' offensive movement," said Westhead, who has taught a course in Shakespeare at two universities. "Eventually, the Doctor will play around or above any defense you dream up for him. But for one day, we wanted to gamble and see if they could adjust."
They couldn't. The Sixers went without a point for the first 4:21 of the third period and without a field goal for the first 5:51. In their first 22 possessions of the period, they made just two baskets from the field.
"I've been double-teamed, one way or another, for nine years," said Erving, who had 20 points, 10 in the last period, the same total as one of the men who covered him -- Jamaal (Silk) Wilkes. Mike Cooper covered Erving when he spelled Wilkes, and the guards sagged off when possible.
"But this was a little different. Very few did it so quickly after I got the ball, and none have done it with a double-teaming guard as big as (6-8) Magic Johnson.
"You know, gambling is a vice, so we have to make 'em pay for it," said the eminently dignified Dr. J, who looks like an elegant ebony Jay Gatsby in his cream color slacks and shoes, double-breasted blue blazer and tinted glasses. "We have to put in a few wrinkles at practice tomorrow, then we gotta burn 'em."
If Erving was largely absent from the mood and flow of this game, then Abdul-Jabbar was at every crucial juncture.
When the Sixers made their best run (15-2) to turn a 26-20 deficit in to a 35-28 lead, Jabbar was either quiescent or taking a short rest. As the Lakers rushed back into the lead (47-45), it was Abdul-Jabbar scoring 11 of 13 Lost Angeles points.
As Los Angeles started its 25-9 blitz to open the second half (a typical Laker trend in these playoffs), Jabbar blocked five shots, effected a fourth foul on Dawkins in just two minutes and ignited the hosts' best stretch of running, scrambling ball.
Abdul-Jabbar, of course, had splendid support. Never has he had a team with more talent, or with a better knack of casting a good light on him. Johnson, still bothered by flu and a sore arm, had 16 points, 10 assists, nine rebounds and three steals. Nifty trigger-man Norm Nixon had 23 points, while holding Maurice Cheeks to a dozen in their small- guard war.
Even the Lakers' mystery man, 6-8 Mark Lansberger -- the NBA's best rebounding forward per minutes played -- had 10 points in 14 minutes.
"Because (Abdul) Jabbar and Julius are so great, the players on both teams have a habit of becoming awed by their own teammate and just gazing up at the sky to see what they'll do next," said Westhead.
"Landsberger knows he's a farmer. While they're looking at the sky, he's just plowing his field, getting those grubby offensive rebounds and finding garbage baskets."
Ironically, both teams took the same message from this game -- that nothing has been decided and no blood drawn.
"We're in for a long, very, very difficult series," said Westhead. "The Sixers are much better than two months ago when we last saw them before Lionel Hollins (16 points, eight assists) arrived.
"Two things impressed me. Any lapse on our part, and they ripped off a quick six points in a row. And a half-dozen times we had almost uncontested layups and they came out of nowhere not only to contest it but to block it," said Westhead of Philadelphia's 13 rejections.
"Against Phoenix and Seattle (in previous series), we knew what the first game meant. We were far along in making adjustments against each other because we're like next-door neighbors.
"Now, both teams are just at the beginning of a very long learning process. It'll be the third, or maybe the fourth game before we really have a line on each other."
Only one man refused to see in this game an omen that the NBA, after years of championship series that the country found forgettable, had a confrontation worthy of sustained attention. That was Dawkins.
"The officials were lousy," grumbled Dr. Funkenstein. "Kareem's 7-foot-7 and you can't touch him."
Told of Dawkins' dark mutterings, Abdul-Jabbar gave his usual enigmatic smile and said: "Tell Darryl that if frogs had wings, they'd be swallows."