The day Dr. J hung in the air and gave us the baseline reverse scoop
Magic Johnson: ‘I thought, what should we do? Should we take the ball out, or should we ask him to do it again?’
Bobby Jones waited patiently as Julius “Dr. J” Erving separated from his defender and sprinted from the right block to the right elbow. With 7:35 left in Game 4 of the 1980 NBA Finals between the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers, Dr. J was about to add another signature play to basketball history.
Jones’ overhead pass soared over a Lakers guard standing in the middle of the free throw line and into Erving’s hands. Even as Erving’s defender, Mark Landsberger, got into his defensive stance, Dr. J was already blowing by him and driving to the basket.
Using one dribble to beat Landsberger to the baseline, Erving took flight for what initially appeared to be an easy dunk or layup. Then Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar slid over in help defense, preparing to either block or foul the 76ers small forward.
“I put the ball down behind Landsberger,” Erving told the Los Angeles Times. “The best move from there is straight to the hoop and dunk it, but I saw Kareem coming over. I tried looking for Darryl [Dawkins]. I figured Darryl might be rolling to the hoop since Kareem was guarding him. But I couldn’t find him.
“So I held the ball out of the traffic while I looked [in midair.] Then I saw a chance to reach in. Kareem wasn’t jumping. I put it on the board. It just went in.”
With Erving stuck behind the basket, it didn’t look like there was a play to be made — until Erving decided his best option was to contort his body like a character in The Matrix. Hanging in the air for what seemed like an eternity, he was able to shimmy past the 7-foot-2 Abdul-Jabbar and extend his long right arm under the left part of the basket just enough to put up a perfect scoop, reverse shot.
That basket put Philadelphia ahead 91-84 and gave Erving two of the 10 points he scored in the final 7:42 of the contest. He finished with 23 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists.
“It was just the time and the fact this is the championship playoffs,” Erving said. “The fact that made it a seven-point cushion and the place went bananas. I’ve made more difficult moves.”
The 76ers fans went wild, realizing that May 11, 1980, would go down as the date of one of the greatest plays in NBA Finals history.
Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s regular-season MVP, was in disbelief. All he could do was turn around and get back on offense. Dr. J wasn’t new to revolutionizing basketball or defying the laws of gravity. So the future Hall of Famer treated it like business as usual, gathering himself off the hard court and sprinting back too.
“Here I was, trying to win a championship, and my mouth just dropped open,” said Lakers guard Magic Johnson, then a rookie. “He actually did that! I thought, ‘What should we do? Should we take the ball out, or should we ask him to do it again?’ It’s still the greatest move I’ve ever seen in a basketball game, the all-time greatest.”
The Sixers won 105-102 that night to tie the series at 2-2. Los Angeles would go on to win the series 4-2.