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Thursday, September 27, 2012

One on One

This is the third of three poems about Julius Erving that I wrote on May 14, 1987, 11 days after Erving's 16 year professional basketball career ended when his Philadelphia 76ers lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs. The first poem--"Doc on the Break: Early 1970s"--describes a young Erving snaring a one handed defensive rebound, dribbling downcourt and emphatically dunking the basketball. The second poem--"The Dunk"--is about the 1976 ABA Slam Dunk Contest, when Erving delivered his iconic free throw line dunk. This poem is about a one on one duel between Julius Erving and Larry Bird; contrary to popular belief and revisionist history, the best rivalry in the NBA in the early to mid 1980s was Erving versus Bird, a matchup that decided the Eastern Conference champion four times in the six year period from 1980-85, including two epic seven game series in 1981 and 1982.

Do not bother looking through old videos or newspaper clippings for details about this particular showdown; I exercised poetic license in this free verse poem and I described the spirit of the rivalry as I experienced it as a child as opposed to giving a literal play by play account from a specific game, though I certainly could have chosen from any number of times that Erving dunked on Bird and/or hit a game-winning shot: Erving's game-winning three pointer off of a last second free throw line jump ball in the Spectrum is a fond memory, as is the story of a young Bird sitting in the corner of the locker room saying "Help!" and then explaining to an observer that he was practicing how he would guard Erving that night.

One on One

Doc.
Bird.
Eight other men;
20,000 voices:
They all weave in and out amongst each other,
Grouping and then dispersing,
Intensity rising and then dropping.
Then Doc gets the ball
And intensity peaks.

Doc eyes Bird
And Bird eyes Doc.
Eight men watch,
While 20,000 anonymous voices wait.
Then Doc makes his move
And the rest is a blur of white and green.
Doc kicks it into gear,
Two steps and a leap;
Bird goes for the ball--
But he fails and watches the man he could not contain.
Green shirts rush to aid Bird
But Doc glides past the flailing hands
And eyes the hoop.
20,000 voices erupt
When Doc double pumps--
A final, finishing stroke on a work of art--
And slams home the winning bucket,
While Bird watches and wonders where he went wrong.

Although this poem is not directly based on an actual dunk, one Erving play inspired this poem to some extent: Erving's dunk attempt late in game seven of the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals; Erving soared high above Bird, who could only stop the Doctor by fouling him. Erving hit both free throws to put the 76ers up 104-89 and they eventually won 120-106. Poetic license transformed Erving's late game free throws after being fouled on a dunk attempt into a game-winning dunk.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:59 AM

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