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Today's stars should look up to the Doctor

When Michael Jordan was being cut from his high school team, Julius Erving was already a basketball icon. Before Earvin Johnson became "Magic Johnson," he was learning his moves from Erving, better known as "Dr. J."

Ask Larry Bird about his memorable one-on-one forays with Erving for the right of way to the NBA Finals _ they deserve a special wing in the Hall of Fame.

There has been a lot of talk, most of it coming from Johnson, about the impact of Magic and Larry and Michael on pro basketball, how they single-handedly changed the league's image, brought in the big TV money, and therefore made a lot of players very rich.

That's fine, and some of it is even true. But does anyone remember a guy named Erving?

About 6 feet 6, maybe a quarter of an inch bigger. Surreal leaping ability, oversized hands able to do anything with a basketball, charm, stage presence, not to mention a wonderful talent.

It was Erving, not Larry or Magic or Michael, who brought the true meaning of "superstar" _ on and off the court.

He was almost totally responsible for the NBA-ABA merger. He legitimized George Gervin, David Thompson, Dan Issel, Bobby Jones, Artis Gilmore, made it okay that Rick Barry jumped ship a few years earlier.

The Doctor won championships in the ABA, played in four NBA Finals, including the Philadelphia 76ers' championship team of 1983, beating Johnson's Lakers, and nobody, not even Air Jordan, had more impact on the nation's playground youth.

Heck, where do you think Jordan learned his moves? The legend of Doctor J had been established long before Michael Jeffrey Jordan entered the league with a sonic boom.

Granted, the NBA hasn't seen anything quite as special as Magic vs. Bird, largely because of their college connection. But we'll take Erving vs. Bird _ they played the same position, small forward _ or Erving vs. Magic, any time.

Erving always will be remembered fondly, even if today's generation of players appears to have forgotten.

It's about time, Part I: Sacramento center Ralph Sampson has consented to take a salary cut if he is traded to the Lakers, Celtics or Charlotte Hornets.

Sampson, who is scheduled to make $2.8-million per year for the next two seasons (ouch), told Kings management he would like to play for a contender and finish his career with a shot at obtaining a championship ring.

"I know that I can play this game, and I can produce in the right situation," Sampson said. "I still believe in myself and will prove what I can do if given the opportunity."

Now all the Kings have to do is find a sucker, uh, taker, for Sampson.

It's about time, Part II: The Phoenix Suns, who have had their playoff chances hindered the last two years by hamstring injuries to guard Kevin Johnson, intend to hire a strength and conditioning coach for next season.

Time for a change: After posting the league's best regular-season record (63-19), the Portland Trail Blazers could be contemplating personnel moves after their Western Conference finals exit.

Remember, the Blazers still own the rights to Arvidas Sabonis, who was considered to be the best amateur basketball player in the world a couple of years ago while playing for the gold-medal winning Soviet Olympic team.

Sabonis is a bigger (7-2, 260 pounds) and better version of the Lakers' Vlade Divac, according to NBA superscout Marty Blake. He's also better than current Portland center Kevin Duckworth.

Coaching soapbox: Here's hoping NBC commentator Mike Fratello isn't using his position as lead analyst to secure a coaching job.

Some former coaches who have landed TV jobs _ such as Pat Riley, who is leaving NBC to coach the Knicks _ will go soft on coaches and players and management, so as not to alienate potential employers.

Fratello, the former Atlanta coach, has a future in broadcasting and works well with play-by-play announcer Marv Albert. And he is not afraid to express an opinion.

One thing, though. What really happened in Atlanta between Fratello and star player Dominique Wilkins?

Fratello will never tell.

Bird on a wire: Bird underwent surgery Friday to repair his bad back. Bird expects full recovery, but he will be 35 in December and his performance could be limited even more than it was this season.

Bird still plays better than most forwards in the league. But his health is now a question. The Celtics faltered in the playoffs when Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish all had injuries.

Bird's injury, in particular, takes on more significance as the Celtics are still reeling from the loss of 1986 No. 1 draft pick Len Bias, who died of a cocaine overdose.

Bias never played for the Celtics, but he was a certain All-Star who would have permitted Bird to prolong his career by playing fewer minutes.

Bird, however, was forced to play nearly 40 minutes a game in the 1991 playoffs, and his playing status was uncertain from one game to the next.

Five years later, the Celtics are still experiencing the ill effects of Bias' tragic loss.