By Joe Torosian
“I’m sorry, son, next time.”—Julius Erving to Joe T., 8/30/1976
I was a huge Los Angeles Lakers fan growing up. Going to The Forum in those days and seeing that single “1971-1972” banner was like being in church.
After missing the playoffs in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s first season with the Lakers, all the energy in the summer of 1976 was about the NBA-ABA merger. This was exciting because, in Los Angeles, we always heard about the ABA but never saw it. There was no national television contract, there was no ESPN, and the late-night newscasts showed no highlights.
But we kept hearing about “Dr. J.” who was supposed to be unlike anything on the planet. I think I saw one highlight of him dunking the ball in the slam-dunk contest that spring, but that was it.
We got tickets for “The Big Shootout” on August 30, 1976, at The Forum in Inglewood. A charity game made up of all-stars from both the NBA and ABA. Headlining the list is “Dr. J.” Julius Erving.
Tim Powers (my brother), Rob Sorge, and I got to the Forum early. Nowadays it wouldn’t happen, but we came in, and the arena was empty. One player is shooting baskets.
Boom! It’s Alvan Adams, the 75-76 rookie of the year. A key player in the Phoenix Suns run to the finals against the Boston Celtics.
Freshley turned 12, and in complete ignorance, I walk onto the floor and say: “Hey Alvan, can I have your autograph?”
Up to that point, at 6-9, he’s the tallest man I’ve ever seen in my life. Putting the ball under his arm, he comes towards me and signs my program. I cannot begin to describe how gracious he was. Wrote my name, wrote best wishes, I shook his hand, and thanked him.
“Good luck against the East,” I said because he played for the Phoenix Suns and I wanted him to know that I knew my stuff. I knew he was representing the West.
“Hey, I’m playing for the East!” He said, smiling.
Twenty minutes later, Kansas City Kings forward Scott Wedman came out. I went to him on the floor, and he was as gracious and kind as Adams was.
Other fans started coming in. Washington Bullets shooting guard, Phil Chenier was tying his shoes by the bench, and five us went to him.
“You know, we’re not supposed to sign before a game,” he said. “But okay.” And he signed for all of us.
Then Golden State’s Phil Smith came out…and he signed.
We seemed to have free reign in the arena, but security eventually stopped anyone from going onto the court. Heading towards the locker room, a rope was set up, and if we went that direction, we had to stay behind it.
I got Chicago Bulls forward, Bob Love’s signature there.
Talk was centered around Dr. J. coming that direction. Everyone wanted Dr. J.’s signature, but instead of waiting, I went back into the arena because players were coming in from that direction.
Boom! I got former USC standout and then Golden State guard, Gus Williams’ autograph.
Then I ran into the tallest man I’d ever seen in my life, 6-11, former UCLA forward Richard Washington who was in street clothes. Phoenix Suns forward Curtis Perry came in wearing a three-piece suit and sat down in the stands to sign autographs.
Then I ran into the tallest man I’d ever met in my life, but I didn’t know who he was. He was in a long coat and formally dressed, but I knew he had to be a player.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said, “but who are you?”
“Swen Nater,” he said, graciously, and then he took my program and signed it.
I went back into the locker area and got behind the rope. Everyone was still talking about Dr. J. and showing each other where we were going to have him sign. It was like waiting for Santa Claus.
Otto Moore (New Orleans Jazz) and Connie Hawkins (then with the Atlanta Hawks) came in. Moore signed but Hawkins—one of my all-time favorite players—was distracted and didn’t.
Golden State center, Clifford Ray came and signed. Someone said Dr. J. was close. The roped area was getting crowded, and there was jostling for position. Cazzie Russell, still with the Lakers, came in and there was a surge that pushed me toward the rope and into him.
He was frustrated. “Relax, son, I’ll sign yours just like everyone else. Wait your turn.”
He was right, but it ticked me off because I didn’t do anything wrong, but he graciously signed my program. I hope to meet Cazzie Russell someday and share with him that it wasn’t my fault that night.
Boom! Dr. J. came in…A couple of other players were with him, but I have no clue who they were. Everyone is howling for his autograph. Because of the surge when Cazzie Russell came in, I was right against the rope.
While being bombarded, Dr. J., Julius Erving, placed his hand gently on the back of my neck and said in as kind a voice as I’ve ever heard:
“I’m sorry, son, next time.”
That was better than an autograph.
We went to our seats behind the basket, and the game was a lot of fun. Except when Dr. J. touched the ball. When he touched the ball, everyone collectively held their breath because we were about to see something we’d never seen before.
There were no highlight shows, no sports television, no VHS recordings available to the public.
Erving would go up, and everyone else would come down. It’s a cliche now, but he seemed to stop in mid-air, and go under or around for a slam dunk. There was nothing comparable. A few old-timers talked about Elgin Baylor, but most of us never saw Elgin Baylor.
Here was Dr. J. with a colossal fro doing his thing, in living color, before our eyes. It was magic before Magic…but happening three-feet above the floor.
My most distinct memory from that night while watching in the stands is of an African-American man. He was in a suit, with a huge salt and pepper beard, and tall salt and pepper hair. He never stopped laughing, he never stopped cheering, and his tongue seemed like it was hanging out of his mouth for 48-minutes. I’ve never seen anyone, since, have so much joy at a basketball game.
That was 43 years ago, and I don’t know if there’s a great lesson here—except for graciousness and gratitude.
We all don’t play ball professionally, but we can all live in graciousness and gratitude. And we should because it can span a lifetime for those we demonstrate it to.
The Dude abides…
Joe T. is the author of “Tangent Dreams: A High School Football Novel” … “Temple City & The Company of The Ages” … “The Dead Bug Tales” … “The Dark Norm” & “FaithViews for Storm Riders”…all five available through Amazon.com.
Follow Joe on Twitter @joet13b