Hall of Fame basketball player, George Gervin once said to me, “I can’t show you what he did but believe me, he did it.” He could do things that most players in today’s game can’t do. Oh, you could see glimpses of him by watching some of those who came after him: Clyde Drexler, Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan, David Thompson and a young Charles Barkley come to mind. This guy made you happy just to watch him and only one scout came to see him play in high school. College scout, Howard Garfinkel said, “As a senior, he was 6’3” tall, and no one thought he would be that good.”
This guy may have invented the word, “style.” His hands were large, strong and he could palm a bowling ball. His “afro” was even bigger. The man was like Woodstock, everyone wanted to be there when he played. He owned dignity, class, presentation and cared about language. He spoke clearly and concisely, he changed the way black basketball players were viewed. Watching this guy with a basketball was like seeing “Babe” Ruth hit for the Yankees. He was the ABA’s biggest star that no one had ever seen. Professional basketball games were not televised until the leagues merged in 1976. Unless you have a ticket stub to prove it, you probably never saw him either. This fellow grew into a cult figure and was the coolest guy in your time zone.
There was a time when history was passed on by word of mouth from one generation to the next. Some of the stories that got passed along became legendary. Sometimes legends are incredible, but sometimes the real story is even better.
Julius Winfield Erving, II, was born in East Meadow, New York, on February 22, 1950. As one of three children, their father was killed in a car crash when Julius was nine years old. His mother moved the family to Roosevelt, New York, when he was 13. Outside of the window of their house was a basketball court at Carmel Park, where Julius, his brother Marvin and a friend, Archie Rogers, spent countless hours. Julius and Archie would eventually join a local Salvation Army team. They were the only two African-American kids on a squad of 12 players. “I practiced trick shots left-handed and right-handed every day,” said Julius. Erving’s closest friend at Roosevelt High School was Leon Saunders. Julius called him
“Professor,” and Leon called Julius “Doctor.” By his senior year, Julius was 6’ 3” tall and wore # 42. During the summers, Julius Erving began playing at legendary Rucker Park, located in Harlem. It was here that his high school coach, Ray Wilson, witnessed Erving’s magic.
“One afternoon I was at Rucker Park, and Julius didn’t know I was watching. On a breakaway, his feet left the floor at the top of the circle. I closed my eyes because I didn’t think he would make it to the rim, much less make the shot. But he dunked the ball with one hand, and then he acted like it was no big deal. From that moment on, the secret was out,” said Wilson. For Julius Erving, gravity appeared to be overrated. Half man, half amazing, he jumped like he was 7’ tall. He was the coming of a new era in basketball.
Thanks to a phone call by Wilson, in 1968 Erving enrolled at the University of Massachusetts. The freshman who could fly would surprise a lot of folks. He grew to 6’ 7” by his junior year and averaged 27 points per game and 20 rebounds. His numbers would have been better if the NCAA rules had not limited his play. There was no dunking or three-point shot.
Meanwhile, back at home, his younger brother Marvin began to suffer from Lupus. After three months, Marvin was placed in the hospital, and a call was made for Julius to come home. Julius arrived in time to see his 16-year-old brother die. Erving, just 19 years old, began to withdraw from sadness, but took his brother’s spirit back to school with him. That summer, Erving returned to Rucker Park. He drew the largest crowd to ever see a game there. People sat on the apartment building rooftops, climbed trees and surrounded the court. He received nicknames like the “Black Moses,” “Houdini” and “The Hawk,” until he spoke up and said, “Call me Dr. J.”
In 1971, Dr. J. was offered a contract for $125,000 a year for four years, to play for the Virginia Squires of the American Basketball Association (ABA). He signed the contract and left UMASS one year early. It was with the Squires that I got to see Dr. J. play for the first time against the Carolina Cougars. In 1973, the Squires sold Dr. J’s rights to the New York Nets. There he would wear the #32 and would lead the Nets to two ABA Championships (1974 and 1976), while being selected the ABA Playoff MVP in the same two years. He was also selected the league MVP three years in a row (1974-1976), and he played in five ABA All-Star Games (1972-1976). During the 1976 ABA All-Star Game, a new event was added. They called it the Slam Dunk Contest. It was made for Julius Erving. Two of his opponents, David “Skywalker” Thompson and George “The Ice Man” Gervin, along with the rest of the world, still talk about it. Remember how this article started with a quotation by Gervin? Well, Dr. J. dunks the red, white and blue basketball from the foul line. When he leaves the floor, he is 15 feet away; the basket is ten feet high in the air, and the crowd goes crazy.
Julius Erving was in high demand. He joined the Philadelphia 76ers in 1976. They gave him uniform #6. After getting to the NBA Finals on several occasions, Dr. J, and the 76ers finally won an NBA Championship in 1983, sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers. Erving explained it this way: “It’s not how good you are, it’s how good your team is,” said Erving. In comes Moses Malone to the rescue. Dr. J. and Moses, was like having peas and carrots. Erving was selected the NBA MVP in 1981, and he played in 11 straight NBA All-Star Games (1977-1987). He was also a two-time NBA All-Star Game MVP (1977 and 1983).
Dr. J. retired at the end of the 1986 season. His #32 has been retired by UMASS and the Brooklyn Nets. His #6 has been retired by Philadelphia. He has also been selected to the NBA’s 35th and 50th Anniversary Teams. Dr. J. was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993 and the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006. Today the word “Legend” gets over-used, but not in the case of Julius Erving. They say the game can get along without you, but that may not apply to Erving. Dr. J. made it a point to dunk a basketball every year on his birthday, until he turned 60.