Out here in la-la land where the really crucial points come from the gross, not the offensive boards, it's sometimes hard to tell where the NBA stands in the competition for the sports entertainment dollar. Is it ahead of the Major Indoor Tofu League? Or, behind the American Hot Tub Association? But as long as you're going to play the NBA All-Star Game in such a glitter-and-gloss setting, you might as well play it as it lays. In the fast lane.
Which is what the East team did today.
Which is why it won, 132-123.
You've heard of run and gun? This was sprint and squint. The East players were moving up and down the Forum court in nearby Inglewood so fast at times that the most valuable player award that went to Julius Erving might just as easily have gone to the equipment man who supplied Dr. J and company with their dual-ply, radial-base sneakers. When the East had its 4 x 100 relay team in the game--Erving, Larry Bird, Sidney Moncrief and Isiah Thomas--they didn't so much create a stir as they did a blur.
How quick were they, Johnny?
They were so fast that they could have run their fast break through a car wash without getting wet.
Being that all-star games are sometimes played by skywalkers who become sleepwalkers, the most relevant question at the start of the game was whether the game itself would be worthy of Marvin Gaye's rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. Gaye, backed up by a driving beat reminiscent of his classic "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," did what seemed to be an album version of the anthem, did it for more than three minutes, and did it so spectacularly that it brought squeals from the audience. If he released it as a single tomorrow, it would be No. 1 by Friday.
But the game more than met the challenge, thanks mainly to the stimulating play of Erving (25 points), Bird (14 points, 13 rebounds), Thomas (19 points, seven assists), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (20 points in a terrific overall game) and Earvin Johnson. Even in defeat, Johnson was positively magic. Besides scoring 17 points, he set an all-star game record with 16 assists, completing passes that would have made Dan Fouts jealous.
During a six-minute stretch overlapping the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth quarters, Johnson either scored or assisted on eight straight West baskets. Billy Cunningham, coaching the East and watching from the bench, called Magic something special. Cunningham said, "As a player I can appreciate what he's doing out there, but as an opposing coach he gives me fits."
As good as Magic was, however, the Doctor was even better. He led a contingent of four Philadelphia 76ers to the All-Star Game, a contingent more numerous than the total paid attendance at the last Indiana-Cleveland game, and he scored his 25 points in 28 minutes. More impressive than his point total, though, was his ability to so thoroughly inspire the game that whenever he was on the court he seemed to elevate the entire level of play. He was the key factor in four separate East bursts: the 12-4 lead at the beginning of the game; a 9-4 run at the close of the first half; a 16-4 run at the beginning of the third period and a 12-5 clinching run at the end of the game.
Magic called him unbelieveable.
Abdul-Jabbar called him virtually unstoppable.
Pat Riley, the West coach, called him the best.
Based on this game you could have called him anything you want, but for the West's sake, someone should have called him a cab.
Interestingly, of the three most memorable Erving plays, only one resulted in the Doctor scoring a basket. That came late in the second period and broke a 60-60 tie, the only time the game was tied after 2-2. On that play Erving drove from the right side and was at least three feet past the hoop, going on a crossing pattern toward the corner, when he put the ball against the glass with a reverse spin that caused it to fall neatly through the net. The best way to describe the move was to imagine what it looks like when a cab driver makes a hard right from the extreme left lane on K Street, laughing all the way.
The second play was a defensive solo. With 11 minutes left in the third period Gus Williams appeared to have a clean breakaway to the basket, but Erving, running full speed, bore down on him like a bullet, and as Williams was about to slam the ball on what they like to call a high percentage shot, Erving swatted it away from behind. Williams must still be wondering what the license plate was of the truck that hit him.
But the single most captivating play of the game--the one you tuck neatly into the scrapbook to take out and savor on long, lonely nights--came early in the game, midway through the first period, and it was a play in which Erving, the soaring hawk, was brought down to earth by Abdul-Jabbar, the virtuous hunter. Erving came flying through the paint, holding the ball in his right hand like a walnut. Cocking his arm, he pumped once, twice, even three times, hanging in the air like a curtain before finally lauching his shot. Refusing to be suckered, Abdul-Jabbar held his ground until Erving committed, then went into the air and gunned the ball, its essence disappearing into his palm.
Film at 11.
Talking about it after the game, Erving allowed that "a good defensive play is as exciting as a good offensive play. The crowd really got into that one. Kareem is the hometown hero here, and that play really got him into the game." He laughed and continued, "You know, these Sunday morning games, well, Kareem hasn't been known to get into them that often."
And as another NBA all-star game melted into the Hollywood sun, as the celebrities piled into their limos and the rest of the poor slobs lurched towards their Porsches and Mercedes, the L.A. basketball fan returned to the issue at hand. Which is, who do you have to know around here to get your parking validated?