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Fran Blinebury

Julius Erving was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.
NBAE via Getty Images

From above the rim, Dr. J transformed the game

Posted Sep 5 2011 10:46AM

Legends profile: Julius Erving

Think back and try to remember the first time you heard the name or saw him play, in person, on TV, maybe just a snippet on YouTube.

For the true basketball aficionado, the memories go back to 1971, to the late and generally unlamented Virginia Squires of the American Basketball Association. A very different game in a very different time. Slower. Whiter. Grace was a 6-foot-7 player who could dribble the ball and think at the same time. The dunk was a simple, high-percentage shot in which the player gently deposited the ball into the bucket.

Then the kid from New York came along, and no one had ever laid eyes on anything quite like him.

Seeing was not believing. Julius Erving made sure of that. Astronomers and physicists had to rethink their theories because of him. Basketball players no longer needed to search for a star in the skies, someone by which to chart their game or their lifestyle.

Dr. J was a singular phenomenon hurtling across the sky.

He could swoop in across half-court like a hungry raptor attacking its prey and practically devour the basket with a mind-bending slam dunk. He could climb an invisible ladder along the baseline, twist and coil like a snake and make the ball spin off the backboard glass like magic. He could float in the air as though sprung from a trampoline, hanging above defenders long after the law of gravity had been imposed on the mere mortals around him.

It wasn't just what he did, although that was spectacular enough in itself. It was, instead, the way he did it -- a way no one had ever done it before.

"Me, Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins -- as kids, we all tried to imitate him," said Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, who knew a thing or two about being airborne. "Julius Erving invented that style of play. He changed the game completely. He was the pioneer -- the pioneer of excitement in the game."

Just as Babe Ruth changed baseball, Dr. J changed basketball. He didn't invent the dunk, but he popularized it, utilized it, stylized it, elevated it and brought it off the carnival sideshow into the center ring under the Big Top.

"Doc was the first guy to fly, he did things with a basketball nobody else had ever done," said Kevin Loughery, who coached Erving in the ABA with the New York Nets. "I honestly believe that Doc did more for basketball than anybody, on and off the court."

Erving was league MVP in 1981 and won the title with the 76ers in 1983.
NBAE via Getty Images

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird get a great deal of credit for "saving" basketball from its 1970s depression and moving it into the '80s boom. Jordan is credited for grabbing onto that popularity and taking hoops soaring into the economic stratosphere of the '90s. But those roads were paved by The Doctor's on-court funk and off-court dignity.

There were the two ABA championships (1974 and 1976) with the Nets, the NBA championship with the Philadelphia 76ers (1983), the MVP awards (4) in both leagues, 16 ABA and NBA All-Star appearances and prominent place among the NBA's 50 Greatest players that fill up his resume. 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.

But it was always the style and the grace and the oh-my-God-did-he-really-do-that spontaneity that filled up our eyes and our imaginations.

"Julius Erving did more to popularize basketball than anybody else who's ever played the game," said Magic. "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."

Pick a move, any move, to remember.

There was the 1976 ABA All-Star Game in Denver when he ran the length of the floor and used the free throw line as his launching pad in a flight of fancy that concluded with a lightning bolt dunk from the heavens. It was a dunk he repeated eight years later -- one month shy of his 35th birthday -- on the same floor, hitting his head on the backboard, eventually prompting the NBA to trim four inches off the bottom of the plexiglass.

There was the time that Mickey Johnson of the Chicago Bulls tried to draw a charge on a fast-breaking Erving. Dr. J would have none of that -- he simply jumped right over him. Johnson wisely ducked his head to avoid getting kicked by one of Erving's passing Converse sneakers.

"Koo-koo, babe, that's the Doc," noted Hollywood courtside denizen and basketball connoisseur Jack Nicholson once said. "He kills me, knocks my socks off, koo-koo. That man can turn on a crowd."

He made a fast game faster. He defined free-form basketball, injecting into a game that already throbbed with its special rhythms a choreography of aerial improvisation that took your breath away. He spawned a whole generation of cloud-hopping, wing-walking imitators and, in the process, changed the way the game was played forever.

Elgin Baylor had the agility, David Thompson had the leaping ability and Jordan possessed the engaging personality. But only Erving was the embodiment of all the best of those attributes.

"What is a renaissance man anyway?" asked the late Hall of Fame coach Chuck Daly. "The total man for all people, all seasons? That's Doc. The most consistent individual I've ever known."

It was not all four-lane, yellow-brick superhighway. There were potholes, detours, even dead ends. His father left home when Erving was five years old. Six years later, a car struck and killed his father. His younger brother, Marvin, died of Lupus and Erving said that he cried uncontrollably for three days at the gravesite.

He had teeth knocked out, stitches in his face, broken fingers and toes and a world-class case of tendinitis in those knees that so often launched him toward the stars.

For all the pyrotechnics of his play, it was always his role as part ambassador, part shepherd for the game that made him unique and a keeper of the NBA flame at a time when the embers needed fanning.

Erving was the single biggest factor behind the merger of the NBA and ABA and in his first year in the NBA (1976-77) gave the league a freshness and identity it was sorely lacking. At time when public perception of the league was a bunch of renegades, he was a gentleman, a touch of class.

His 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 from the most timid of notebooks or microphones, made him a source of amazement for players as well as the media.

"I don't know how he does it," Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said.

But decorum should not overshadow the spectacular player.

"The last year of the ABA , in '75-'76, he was the most awesome player I've ever seen," said Loughery. "Those were the games of 40 points, 20 rebounds, 15 assists, a dozen blocks."

There was the 1980 NBA Finals, Sixers vs. Lakers. Dr. J swoops along the right baseline. But there's a double-team waiting. No way he can get off a shot. He curls under the basket, takes off, his arm extended, the ball hanging out of bounds a couple of feet. Still, nothing doing. Too clogged. But he's still going, somehow extending and walking on air long enough and far enough to hook around a flat-footed Abdul-Jabbar. And there's the graceful flip, a reverse bank shot. It's now a staple of NBA archives, replayed dozens of time every season during the playoffs.

"He is a great person," Hall of Fame coach Pat Riley said in the year (1987) that Erving retired. "But it is his playing that he will be remembered for. There are probably several other people as good as Julius Erving, mothers and the Pope and at least several others who are as classy and special and good.

"But there was only one Dr. J the player. And it was because of that playing that his other side came to be known. It was his basketball that caught the attention of millions of kids and steered at least a portion of them into the right path. I'll remember him being the most spectacular basketball player I ever saw."

He was also one of the most doggedly determined throughout an often frustrating NBA career. In his first season after the merger, Erving's Sixers advanced to The Finals to face Portland, but lost in an upset to the Trail Blazers. He took Philly back to The Finals in 1980 and 1982, suffering more defeat, before finally breaking through to claim the NBA championship in 1983.

Too good to be true?

"I'm no angel," Erving said. "I never claimed to be perfect, and I haven't always walked the straight and narrow. But I've always shown moderation."

Except on the court, where he constantly pushed at the limits of his and our imaginations.

"Pro basketball is an unreal existence," Erving said. "God gave us a gift with our bodies. Acknowledge that and you must acknowledge a certain responsibility. I've done right with my gift."

He was always soaring on the wings of your wildest dream and yet, somehow, still down to earth.

Dr. J changed the game without ever changing himself.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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