After the Philadelphia 76ers blew a two-games-to-none lead to the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1977 National Basketball Association championship series, their promise to their fans the next season was, "We Owe You One."
The following season they owed two, then three, now four.
This could be the year the 76ers start paying that debt. They are the toast of the league. Only the Milwaukee Bucks can come close to them in overall talent, but the 76ers experience and depth put them a cut above.
The 76ers, even though they've lost starting guard Doug Collins for the season with a fractured foot, have the league's best record. They lost two of their first three games, but since have won an astounding 26 of 28.
The Washington Bullets, who have lost 12 of their last 14 games against Philadelphia, including two straight in the playoffs last season and two this year, will try to slow the 76er express tonight at the Spectrum (WDCA-TV-20 at 8).
After Wednesday's 101-99 loss to Boston, the Bullets also will be trying to snap a two-game losing streak.
The 76ers have a marvelous blend of youth and experience, size and quickness and just plain talent. They are so good, in fact, that three of their best players -- Bobby Jones, Lionel Hollins and Steve Mix -- are reserves.
The 76ers may be the only team in the NBA that gets stronger when it substitutes.
The No. 1 76er still is Julius Erving, Dr. J, or just plain Doc as his teammates call him. He is the best player on the league's best team. He leads the 76ers in scoring, minutes played, field goals attempted and field goals made, free throws attempted and free throws made, blocked shots and offensive rebounds. He is second in total rebounds and steals and third in assists.
His 24.9 scoring average is sixth best in the league.
"Just like Lola, what Doc wants, the Doc gets," said center Darryl Dawkins. "This is his team and we're just helping him win."
"We'd be good without Doc, but he's the leader of this team," said Coach Billy Cunningham. "He's the one who comes up with the big plays every night. Last year he had an unbelievable season. I didn't think there was any way he could duplicate it, but I was wrong."
"I've never been one to blow my own horn," Erving said, "but my feelings are right now that I'm the best player in basketball. I just try to do things to make my team win. That's where I am.
"I like it that people think I'm an exciting player and all of that, but I don't think about that when I'm on the floor. I'm result-oriented. I don't think about effect. My first objective is always to score and on defense it's to stop the other team from scoring any way I can."
The 76ers start two centers, the 6-foot-11 Dawkins and 7-1 Caldwell Jones. Jones plays at power forward with the 6-6 Erving at small forward. The guards are Maurice Cheeks and rookie Andrew Toney.
The 76er style is to run, turning every play into a fast break. On defense, they clog the middle with Jones and Dawkins while everyone else tries to steal the ball.
The 76ers also are quick, and most of them are such good ball handlers that pressing them is usually unwise.
Because they are quick, and because they run so much and so well, the 76ers lead the league in field goal percentage, making 51 percent of their shots. They also lead the NBA in steals, defensive rebounds, assists, blocked shots, slam dunks and point differential. They are outscoring opponents by nine points a game.
Cunningham gets so much from everyone on his roster that no one has to wear himself out. Erving is averaging 35 minutes a game, Caldwell Jones 32 and no one else plays 30 minutes.
"There's nothing cute about the way we're winning," Cunningham said. "We're just doing it.
"I think one of the biggest differences from last year is that everyone is just more comfortable than they were. Everyone is better adjusted. What I have to do as coach is be as consistent as possible. When Darryl got hurt a while back, I made Steve Mix a starter. It threw us out of our rhythm and we lost two games. So I started Earl Cureton and went back to my regular substitution pattern and we've been fine.
"I know we're a better team than we were last year, but we still have room for a lot of improvement. Our lack of concentration hurts us sometimes and we're often careless with the basketball."