Julius “Dr. J” Erving was an urban legend before becoming a superstar. His is a grande story of someone who enjoyed the beginning of modern basketball and paved the way for those who took the game to the air.
The legend of the man who saved basketball does not begin where many would think. Neither the famed Rucker Park in New York City nor the playgrounds of Philadelphia can take credit for the start of the revolution that brought basketball to a new age. No, that honor goes to a small city called Hempstead in Long Island.
The story begins like so many good basketball legends do: a small boy, a basket, a ball and a dream.
It’s the story of America in the early 1960s and the boy’s name is Julius Winfield Erving. The youngster who would of course become known as “Dr. J” could see the courts of Campbell Park in Hempstead from his bedroom window along Beech Avenue in the housing projects.
It was there that young Julius became addicted to the game and crafted it, always willing to listen to and learn from older players. Park director Andy Haggerty noticed the 12-year-old Erving and his long legs and introduced him to his friend Don Ryan, who ran the youth program of the local Salvation Army and coached the basketball team.
The team’s away games were Erving’s first opportunity to leave his neighborhood, and it opened his eyes to middle-class areas – and he wanted that as well.
Erving learned that an education was how he could achieve that so he worked hard in school and the court. His dedication to the latter saw him work on his own in realizing the moves he had only thought up in his mind. It was during this time that his legendary nickname was bestowed upon him. A friend of his, whose own moniker was “Professor” called Erving “Doctor” because he always wanted to discuss everything.
Julius was not really able to express his creativity though as high schools and colleges banned the dunk, which was even frowned upon in the NBA. Erving was the best player on his high school team but he came from the bench as a junior and led the team in scoring and rebounding. His game only got better as a senior, but few scouts would venture out to Long Island and Erving landed at the University of Massachusetts in 1969.
Freshmen were not allowed to play varsity at college at that time and Erving had to wait a year before really showing the NCAA what he could do. And oh how did he, collecting 27 points and 28 rebounds in his first college game. In 52 games over two seasons at UMass, Erving averaged 26.3 points and 20.2 rebounds. He also created a real hysteria at the Rucker Park courts in the summer where he could show off the real Julius Erving.
While Erving was building his name, the American Basketball Association (ABA) was trying to establish itself as an alternative to the NBA – albeit with little success. But league officials tried to attract fans with gimmicks at the time such as the three-point shot, the dunk and more individualism.
In 1971, Erving earned the right to enter professional basketball and landed with the Virginia Squires. And Dr. J was an immediate sensation, averaging 27.3 points and 15.7 rebounds. After the season, Erving wanted to go to the NBA and signed a contract with the Atlanta Hawks. But the Squires filed a lawsuit and won, meaning Erving would have to stay with Virginia. In 1972-73, Dr. J was unstoppable as he averaged 31.9 points for the first of three scoring crowns. He moved to the New York Nets in 1973 and won the ABA title in 1974 and 1976 – not to mention the increased media attention from being in New York.
Lawsuits and contract disputes between the leagues created chaos and on-court fights and drugs seeped into both the ABA and NBA. The ABA did have an advantage though: Dr. J, who was not only the most innovative and best player of the league but also a model athlete.
The ABA was beginning to collapse and it was clear in 1975 that the up-coming season would be the last of the league. Erving, of course, stood in the spotlight as the ABA All-Star Game featured the first slam dunk contest and Dr. J supplied the dunk that went around the world. He raced down the court and jumped from about six centimeters from behind the free throw line and hammered it in.
Erving and the Nets would finish the season with a six-game battle with the Denver Nuggets in the finals and he would collect 37.7 points, 14.2 rebounds and 6.0 assists in helping the Nets upset favored Denver 4-2 for the final ABA crown.
The end of the ABA saw Dr. J join the NBA along with the Nets, Nuggets, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs. And it saw Erving’s popularity go from mainly on the East Coast to across the entire United States.
Before that though, the New York Knicks demanded the Nets pay them for invading their NBA territory – a move that left Nets management without the money to keep Erving, who ended up going to the Philadelphia 76ers with their already impressive offensive arsenal of George McGinnis, Lloyd B. Free, Darryl Dawkins, Joe Bryant and Doug Collins. Dr. J’s first season saw the 76ers reach the NBA Finals, where they lost to Bill Walton and the Portland Trail Blazers 4-2 after having won the first two games.
Philadelphia would add the likes of Bobby Jones, Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney over the years but they lost to the LA Lakers in the 1980 and 1982 NBA Finals and twice were bounced in the Eastern Conference Finals (1978 and 1981). All that left people wondering if Erving could actually lead a team to an NBA crown.
That finally came to Erving and the City of Brotherly Love in 1983 as Philadelphia added reigning league MVP Moses Malone before the season, and the dynamic duo of Doctor and Moses was able to overcome Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the LA Lakers in a 4-0 sweep.
The NBA title lifted a major burden off Erving’s shoulders as he knew his championship window was closing more and more. Starting around 1985 his body started to slow him down and eventually he handed the NBA’s torch to Magic and Larry Bird.
But Julius Erving will forever be remembered as Dr. J – as the man who revolutionized basketball with his creativity and athleticism. And one who in the end could say he was an NBA champion besides being a legend of the game.
by FIVE Magazine #168 – Julius Erving – Text: André Voigt