Posted Feb 24 2010 12:48PM
Close your eyes tight and try to think back to the first time you saw him play.
Was he wearing the uniform of the Virginia Squires and carrying the red-white-and-blue beach ball of the old American Basketball Association? Or had he brought his wildly growing Afro and free-form game to the three-ring circus that was then the Philadelphia 76ers?
For me, it was in 1970 at the Palestra on the University of Pennsylvania campus in West Philly. He played for the University of Massachussetts then. A different game for a different time. Slower. Whiter. Earthbound.
Finesse was a pair of hulking forwards making two straight trips down the floor without one hitting the other in the chops with an elbow. Grace was something you said before dinner. Artistry something you saw at ice shows.
Who won? Who knows? Who cares?
It was on that night that I got a glimpse of the future, my first peek at the man who would do for basketball what Orville and Wilbur Wright did for passenger travel. He took it airborne.
He could wrap his long fingers around a basketball and brandish it like a tomahawk as he floated along the baseline for a rim-rattling, mind-jarring dunk.
He could make the backboard shake on its moorings from the explosive power of an all-out assault on the hoop, or barely move the net with a delicate finger-roll at the end of a tip-toe drive on cat's feet.
He could launch himself into the air like one of NASA's rockets and remain suspended in orbit for what seemed like minutes, just beyond the long arm of the law of gravity.
It wasn't what he did, but the way he did it. He didn't invent the dunk. But he brought it to the masses.
He was Dr. J and he could fly.
Now, after passing the threshold of his 60th birthday earlier this week, the images and the memories still soar.
"Julius Erving did more to popularize basketball than anybody else who's ever played the game," Magic Johnson once said. "I remember going to the schoolyard as a kid, the day after one of his games would be on TV.
"Everybody there would be saying, 'Did you see The Doctor?' And we'd all start trying to do those moves. There were other big players, talented players before him. But it was Dr. J who put the 'Wow!' into the game."
He came quietly to the professional ranks in 1971, yet quickly became the feature attraction with the Squires and New York Nets of the ABA, where he was named MVP three times and twice won league championships. Yet in the upstart league, Erving remained mostly a cult figure without a spotlight.
When four ABA teams joined the NBA in 1976, Erving was traded for financial reasons from the Nets to the 76ers. That's when Dr. J began to operate as a national phenomenon and, for the next decade as the sport's greatest ambassador. He was Luke Skywalker in high tops, using the ball as his light saber, driven by The Force within. He was a 6-foot-7 Spiderman who could climb to great heights and hang around without the aid of webs. He was Astaire and Nureyev, Michael Jackson and Baryshnikov, a pied piper with a flamboyant streak and hypnotizing tune who took basketball on an enchanted journey, changing the perception of how the game could be played.
"I had my own style," Erving said. "Call it playground, call it street ball or whatever. It was about pushing at the limits, testing my own imagination."
The freeze-frames of those moments in time are so numerous.
There was the 1976 ABA All-Star Game in Denver, when he ran the length of the floor and used the foul line as his launching pad for a flight of fancy that concluded with a lightning-bolt dunk from the heavens. It was a dunk he repeated eight years later -- less than one month shy of his 34th birthday -- on the same floor, hitting his head on the backboard and eventually prompting the NBA to trim four inches off the bottom of the plexiglass.
There was the 1980 playoff series against Boston when, angered by an undercut move by M.L. Carr that sent him sprawling over the press table, he responded by climbing an invisible ladder along the baseline and dropping a thunderclap slam from the top step onto the heads of Carr and Dave Cowens.
And, of course, there was the No-Way-Even-For-Dr. J move in the 1980 NBA Finals against the Lakers. He sailed on the right baseline, found his path blocked by Mark Landsberger and 7-foot-2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, adjusted his course in mid-air, ducked under and behind the backboard, came out on the other side and gently banked the ball in off the glass.
Erving himself ranks another move ahead of all those. It was in the early days of the ABA in an exhibition game in Petersburg, Va., between the Squires and the Kentucky Colonels when he drove the baseline on 6-foot-9 Dan Issel and 7-foot-2 Artis Gilmore.
"I'm cutting between them and we're all above the floor," Erving recalls. "We're there for a very long time -- or so it seemed -- and I still had no opening. I saw the white hand (Issel's) go down, but the black hand (Gilmore's) stayed there. Then the black one went down and I dunked the ball just as I started to go down. When I looked around, people were staring at me. I think I was established at that point."
He was an All-Star in each of his 16 pro seasons and the only player to win MVP awards and team championships in both the ABA and NBA. He led the Sixers to the NBA Finals four times, winning the title in 1983. Combining his totals from both leagues, he scored the fifth-most points in pro basketball history, behind only Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain.
Yet the record book barely hints at the brilliance of Dr. J.
Elgin Baylor had the agility, Connie Hawkins the flash and David Thompson the leaping ability. But Erving was the embodiment of all those attributes and, in addition to an artist's palette of colors, gave the game a touch of class. At a time when Chamberlain and Bill Russell had recently retired and when the likes of Magic and Larry Bird and Michael Jordan were still in gym class, Erving was a galvanizing force in the NBA's dramatic rise in popularity.
At a time when the public saw the league as a bunch of renegades, he was an articulate, accommodating gentleman, a touch of class.
Erving's willingness to sit with melting bags of ice on his aching knees, long after his teammates had showered and gone home, to patiently answer every last question made him a source of amazement for players as well as the media.
"I don't know how he does," Abdul-Jabbar said back then.
Graciously, was the answer.
The idea was that you could wake Ted Williams up in the middle of the night and he'd hit a line-drive single to center. Well, those who traveled with the Sixers know that you could rouse Doc from a sound slumber and get a polysyllabic discourse on the subject of your choice.
As a Roman senator, he'd have been Julius Vocabularius.
He had time for the biggest corporate obligations and the smallest of individuals. He remembered the names of ball boys and ball girls in arenas throughout the league. I saw him stand patiently for half an hour signing autographs for hordes of kids but stop in the middle to warmly explain the significance of good manners to a child who was shoving. Then give the kid a high-five.
"He touches people," Charles Barkley said.
He blazed the flight path for Air Jordan to follow and is an unseen co-pilot in virtually every hang-time glider who fills up HDTV screens and video streams of the 21st century.
"I've seen a lot of great players, people who can do some amazing things on the court," said Magic. "But I've never seen anyone who looks like another Julius. He was better. He was different. He was special."
He was Dr. J. And he could fly.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here.
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