As a basketball Hall of Famer, he relied on his signature move, the balletic slam dunk. On June 13 at an emotional press conference in Sanford, Fla., near Orlando, Julius Erving, 50, showed another kind of grace at a desperate moment. Calmly but with obvious feeling, he announced that his youngest son, Cory, 19, had been missing from home since May 28 and pleaded for help in finding him. "[Those] who have had a child or loved one unaccounted for even a matter of hours," said Erving, "know that's an individual's worst nightmare."

The sense of urgency was understandable. As his father forthrightly noted during the press conference, Cory has battled alcohol and drug problems in the past and has been through at least five stays in rehab since age 14. His mother, Turquoise, 49, told police that her son had disappeared in the past as the result of a crack-cocaine habit. In a PEOPLE interview, Julius said that while Cory, who lived with his parents in the exclusive gated community of Alaqua Lakes, Fla., was making a "pretty good effort" to kick his habit, he had reason to believe he wasn't "totally out of the woods." At first the family suspected "he had relapsed or was on a binge," Erving said.

Two years ago, in a case that may have been drug-related, Cory and his older brother Cheo, now 27, ran afoul of the law near the family home outside Orlando, where his father is executive vice president for the National Basketball Association's Magic. (Julius and his wife have two other children, Julius III, 26, who operates an entertainment management company in Philadelphia, and Jazmin, 23, studying for her M.B.A. at Georgia State.) According to police reports, the brothers were picked up around 3 a.m. on July 22, 1998, near a parked car not their own, in the suburb of Altamonte Springs. Cheo was arrested for allegedly possessing a crack pipe and Cory for allegedly burglarizing the vehicle. (Police offered few details on the case other than to say that it resulted in no criminal records.)

A year ago Julius Erving himself weathered the embarrassment of the disclosure that he had fathered an out-of-wedlock child, budding"tennis star Alexandra Stevenson, now 19. As for Cory, he seemed to be making progress in turning his life around. Despite suffering from attention deficit disorder and a mild form of, dyslexia, which had forced him to take special-education classes through eighth grade, he had enrolled in the G.E.D. program at g Seminole Community College and I was working part-time at Panera Bread, a local bakery. (In fact, he was last seen on May 28 buying bread at Panera's for a cookout that he never showed up for.) "We felt he was on course," Erving said at the press conference, "to have some success in a life that has been very trying, living in the shadow of a public figure like myself in a high-profile family." Now Erving fears the worst—"that we'll never see him again, alive or dead."

Bill Hewitt
Jeanne DeQuine in Miami

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  • Jeanne DeQuine.