In 1976, Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls' all-star guard, was a mere child of 13 in Wilmington, N.C. Being a professional basketball player was one of the farthest things from his mind.

"I always thought I would be a baseball player. I never even watched the NBA," he says.

The 1976-77 season would have been a good time for Jordan to start watching, for that was the year of the merger between the National Basketball Association and the American Basketball Association. Suddenly, the folk in Kansas City could marvel at the acrobatics of Doctor J, Julius Erving; the hippest of the hip in Los Angeles were wiped out by the exploits of the coolest of the cool, the Iceman, George Gervin. Four of the 10 starters in that season's NBA all-star game and 10 of the 24 total players were refugees from the ABA.

Nine years later, those stars are on the verge of being eclipsed by a set of exciting new talents, the likes of which haven't been seen since 1976. This new guard is typified by Jordan, Ralph Sampson of the Houston Rockets, Charles Barkley of the Philadelphia 76ers and Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks, who makes his debut in the league today against the 76ers (WDVM-TV-9, 1 p.m.).

"Today the league has the greatest collection of young talent ever assembled," says Pat Williams, general manager of the 76ers. "You could go a lifetime and not find such a group of magnificent, crowd-riveting players."

Therein marks one of the big differences between the old guard and the new. Barkley's fist waving, Jordan's sly winks and even Ewing's flying elbows are very noticeable to a crowd.

Almost elaborating a trend started by Earvin (Magic) Johnson and continued by his good friend, Isiah Thomas, these guys exuberate, unlike Erving and Gervin and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who mainly went about their business and left onlookers wondering why they never could be as cool as these superstars. Anyone who has seen 25-year-old forward Cliff Robinson of the Washington Bullets play knows who influenced his laid-back style.

Williams has the best of both breeds on his team, Erving and Barkley, and the Philadelphia story could serve as a parable for the league.

Although he started and played in his ninth consecutive all-star game, the 35-year-old Erving's play was more workmanlike than wondrous last season as he struggled to a 20-points-per-game average. In the playoffs, that tailed off to 17 points per game, the lowest of his career.

Part of the reason for what some would regard as rather paltry numbers was, of course, Barkley, 22, a rookie who shook the foundations of the team with his monstrous slam dunks. Between those and his almost as prodigious eating habits, Barkley was in, Erving almost old hat.

Playing in all 82 games, Barkley averaged 14 points in the regular season and 14.9 in the playoffs. Many of those came at the expense of Erving, no longer the focal point of the 76ers' offense. This year, the swing away from Ewing's one-on-one specialty will be continuing.

"You have to face the prospect of people like Julius not being here at some point," said Williams. "Does he have to be an all-pro or most valuable player? I don't think so. As long as he makes a contribution to a winning team, that's what he considers important."

And that sounds like -- perish the thought -- a role player. Yet Erving wasn't the only stalwart player to face increasing age and declining production. Gervin, 33, rallied to finish the season with a 21-point scoring average, the lowest of his NBA career, and was traded this week from San Antonio to Chicago. Bobby Jones, Don Buse, Billy Knight and David Thompson -- all participants in the 1977 all-star game -- had their roles reduced, with Thompson being entirely out of the league.

"When I see Doc and Kareem play, I know it makes me feel like a young man," says Larry Bird, 28, of the Boston Celtics.

Bird, a two-time MVP, is fast becoming middle-aged himself, as an aching back and sore elbows are starting to get more attention than his rainbow jump shot. Perhaps that's also why he isn't as willing as some to concede the dawning of a new era.

"People like Kareem and Doc are still the men and after they leave they'll become even greater. It'll be like they were Babe Ruth or something," Bird says. "The thing today is that there's so much hype. The league is doing so well now that a guy is almost a superstar before he comes out on the court. Ten years ago that didn't happen."

NBA Commissioner David Stern agrees, saying today's talent pool isn't necessarily better. "What about people like Gus Williams and Norm Nixon, who never got their due? Are you going to tell me that Moses Malone is a second-level player?" he asks. "What's happening now is that people are able to focus on the product, before it was always this drug scandal or that potential strike. They were only wondering where the next problem was going to come from."

Tom Newell, the director of player personnel for the Indiana Pacers, argues that there are some things that just can't be topped.

"There's a new wave, that's for sure, but people like Kareem set the foundation," Newell says. "They were the pinnacle. No one will ever accomplish the things Doc did for basketball. He was the single reason why the ABA and NBA merged."

Ultimately, the new guard must face one challenge the old already has met: the test of time. It takes more than a single year (albeit in Jordan's case, an utterly spectacular one) to supplant a Julius Erving.

"That's what it'll take for me," says wispy-haired San Antonio Spurs Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. "When this puffy stuff on my head is all white or totally gone and I can sit back in my rocker and say, 'You know, that Michael Jordan was a helluva player for those last 15 years,' then you can talk to me about comparing those guys."

Erving believes that day may never come.

"Who's to say that someone will be able to have a 15-year career, a 17-year career?" he asks. "They may not be able to handle the constant strains and pressures. People like Magic and Bird have been in the league six, seven years and they're already saying they can see the end of the road.

"When they came into the NBA, they were the new breed. Then it was people like Isiah Thomas and Dominique Wilkins. Now it's Jordan and Ewing. I don't know if there's some torch being passed or if it's just phases that people go through."