Julius Erving likes to say that he didn’t choose basketball, but, rather, that the sport chose him.
It’s easy to see why it did.
Born in the Hempstead neighborhood of Long Island on February 22, 1950, he was drawn to basketball the first time he picked up a ball, at age eight.
“Although I wasn’t good, there were things that I liked about it,” said Erving of his early playing days. “I couldn’t shoot it straight, and I wasn’t a good defender.”
But Erving, who possessed a tireless work ethic even at a young age, was undeterred.
“I had to spend countless hours to try and perfect the fundamentals,” he said. “I was never given too much too quickly.”
You wouldn’t know it from looking at the player Julius Erving became as a professional, but slow and steady was, indeed, the story of his basketball career.
Erving entered Roosevelt High School (NY) as a 5’9” freshman guard. Unassuming, but determined, he was known more for his fundamentally sound play and grit than for the dynamic style that would later define him as a pro.
Standing just 6’3” at the time of his graduation from Roosevelt in 1968, the 18-year-old was overlooked by college basketball’s elite programs.
After considering an offer to play for local St. John’s University, Erving decided to enroll at the University of Massachusetts, at the suggestion of his high school coach, who had a relationship with Minute Men head coach Jack Leaman.
Although Erving didn’t receive much national attention as a member of the Minute Men, he made an impression on those around him during his shortened stay.
Because NCAA member schools did not allow freshmen to play on varsity squads, Erving spent his first year in Amherst playing with the school’s freshman team. He had grown several inches in the summer between high school and college and the benefits were tangible. In his first varsity-eligible season, he averaged 25.7 points (50.9 FG%) and 20.9 rebounds per game and led UMass to an 18-7 record and an NIT berth.
During the 1970-71 season, as a junior, Erving led the school to an all-time best 23-3 record. That year, he averaged 26.9 points (47.0 FG%) and 19.5 rebounds, making him one of just five players in NCAA Men’s Basketball history to average more than 20 points and 20 rebounds per game over their career.
Despite Erving’s stellar college career, scouts at the pro level still questioned whether or not the UMass standout would be able to compete against top-notch competition at the next level. Undeterred by their assessments, he decided to leave college and pursue a career in professional basketball in lieu of staying in Amherst for his senior year.
While the NBA currently operates without much competition, it was not always this way. In the early ‘70s, the landscape of professional basketball was split, with both the American Basketball Association and National Basketball Association sharing a stake of the nation’s attention. The ABA differentiated itself from the NBA by adapting the three-point line and emphasizing slam dunks, but unfortunately failed to obtain any major television deals and struggled to maintain steady profit.
After several failed attempts to merge with the NBA due to antitrust issues, several team owners in the ABA began running out of time and money to hold onto their franchises. The ABA was sick, and its owners, players, and fans were in need of a cure – The Doctor provided exactly that.
Following his junior year at UMass, Erving saw his single mother struggling to get by and began to look for a way to provide for her. At the time, underclassmen were barred from signing with NBA teams; the ABA, however, had no eligibility restrictions. In the summer of 1971, he declared for the ABA Draft, but was not selected, and his hometown team, the New York Nets, were not interested in signing him as a free agent.
Soon after that, an executive with the Virginia Squires on business in New York City about the dazzling 21-year-old who was drawing huge crowds at local Rucker Park. Intrigued, he decided to see Erving first-hand. It wasn’t long before Erving was offered a four-year, $125,000 contract with the Squires.
He made his ABA debut on October 5, 1971.
By the end of his rookie season, he ranked sixth in the league in scoring and third in rebounding. He was selected to the ABA All-Rookie Team and the All-ABA Second Team.
After a phenomenal rookie season in the ABA, Erving continued to step further into the limelight of professional basketball. In the summer of 1972, he was drafted 12th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks. However, Erving instead chose to sign with the Atlanta Hawks after discovering that his agent, Steve Arnold, was working for the Squires and had convinced him to sign a lower-paying contract with the cash-strapped organization.
Unfortunately for Erving, the Squires filed court papers, claiming they held his exclusive rights. Following a decision from a three-judge panel, their request was granted.
Nevertheless, this proved to be nothing more than a minor setback in Erving’s rise to greatness. Returning to the Squires for a final season in Virginia, Erving elevated his game to a new level, leading the league in scoring and averaging 31.9 points per game.
“I didn’t think it was possible that I might be the most talented player in the world,” he said. “But after I became a pro, after my second year in Virginia, I thought that there was a possibility that I could offer something unique.”
However, Erving’s Squires failed to achieve a title and the team, in need of financial relief, traded him to the New York Nets.
Erving always knew that to be great, he would need to win a title, and New York certainly gave him the tools to succeed.
In the ensuing 1973-74 season, he led the Nets to a 55-29 record and was named the ABA’s MVP.
In the playoffs, Erving led his hometown team to an ABA championship over the Utah Stars.
By the end of his fifth ABA season, he had won two championships, three MVP awards, and three scoring titles. But he had not yet reached his peak.
“He comes from the ABA and, all of a sudden, he is looked upon to carry the torch…Which suggests to me very strongly that part of the reason the NBA and ABA merged was Julius Erving” – former NBA player and friend of Erving, Quinn Buckner
In 1976, the world of professional basketball changed forever, with the completion of the long-anticipated merger of the ABA and NBA. Only four ABA teams were allowed to make the jump – the Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers, and New York Nets.
Following the payment of a $3.2 million NBA entry fee, the New York Nets were required to hand over an additional $4.8 million in compensation to the New York Knicks for “territorial invasion”. Unable to afford such a payment, the Nets needed to get creative. Unfortunately for them, their best bargaining chip was Julius Erving.
Just 24 hours before the opening game of the 1976-77 season, the Nets negotiated the forfeiture of Erving’s rights to the Philadelphia 76ers. Costing the Sixers $3 million to buy out the contract and an additional $3 million to sign Erving to a new deal, his net $6 million price tag was one that raised eyebrows around the sports world.
On October 22, 1976, Erving made his NBA debut in a home game against the San Antonio Spurs. The new number he sported on his jersey, 6, was chosen as an homage to legendary Celtics center Bill Russell, as well as an iconic tip-of-the-cap to his new team’s name. Unlike in his ABA debut, though, Erving and the Sixers fell short of victory, falling 121-118.
The loss would prove to be a rare occurrence for Erving and the Sixers that year, as they turned in a 50-win season and made it all the way to the NBA Finals before eventually dropping the series to the Portland Trail Blazers. Although they jumped out to a 2-0 lead in that series, the Sixers went on to lose the next four straight to Portland.
Over the following two seasons, the Sixers failed to get back to the Finals, despite the growth of Erving and the development of complementary players like Darryl Dawkins and Henry Bibby.
The 1979-80 season, though, brought with it another chance for Erving and the Sixers to try for a championship.
Despite a stellar season, that year’s Sixers team found themselves perpetually trailing their division rivals, the Boston Celtics, in the standings. By season’s end, Philadelphia boasted its best record of the Dr. J era – 59-23. The Celtics, though, finished 61-21 en route to an Atlantic Division title.
But Erving and the Sixers would soon get their chance at vengeance.
The Celtics were awarded a first-round bye, while the Sixers were matched up with the Washington Bullets in an opening-round best-of-three series. Philly swept that series and advanced to the second round. There, both the Celtics and Sixers made quick work of their opponents, with the former sweeping the Houston Rockets and the latter defeating the Atlanta Hawks 4-1. Now, the stage was set for the fierce rivals to meet in the Conference Finals for the first time since 1967, when the Sixers topped the Celtics 4-1 and eventually won their first NBA title.
The resulting series, which the Sixers won in five games, not only strengthened the rivalry between Philadelphia and Boston, but also ignited one of the more heated rivalries in professional basketball during that time – Julius Erving and Larry Bird.
The personal competition between the two would only continue to grow from here, as the teams met in the Eastern Conference Finals in each of the next two seasons, as well.
But for now, Erving and the Sixers put Bird and the Celtics in the rear-view and prepared for their next challenge – the Los Angeles Lakers.
Unfortunately, the “Showtime” Lakers proved to be too much in the 1980 Finals, with rookie sensation Magic Johnson, veteran swingman Jamaal Wilkes, and legendary center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar helping propel L.A. to a 4-2 series victory.
The Sixers’ championship woes would persist for two more seasons, despite Julius Erving’s MVP-level play.
After falling to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1982 Finals, again in six games, the Sixers knew they needed to form a star-studded team of their own. That summer, their vision was realized.
At the conclusion of the 1981-82 season, the Sixers negotiated a trade with the Houston Rockets for superstar big man Moses Malone. With him on board, the team now had each of the league’s last two MVPs on its roster.
The 1982-83 Sixers are regarded by many to be one of the best teams in the history of professional basketball. An equally dominant team on both ends of the floor, they went 65-17 and secured the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
When asked for his prediction for the team in the upcoming postseason, Moses Malone simply said, “Fo, fo, fo,” suggesting a 4-0 sweep of each of the three series that stood between them and the championship.
His prediction was almost right.
The Sixers would go “Fo, fi, fo,” en route to their first championship since 1967, but despite their Finals sweep, that series was, indeed, hard-fought. Despite the uninterrupted string of victories that marked the Sixers’ championship run, the wins were not so easily acquired. This was especially true of Game Four of their series with the defending champion Lakers in the Finals.
The Lakers got out to a fast start, dominating the the first half and holding a 16-point lead at the start of the third quarter.
It looked as if the series was heading back to Philadelphia for Game Five, but a heroic second-half effort from Erving, Malone, and company breathed new life into the Sixers. Philly busted out a 33-15 run and never looked back.
With the Sixers leading 115-108 with just two seconds left on the clock, Philly fans in L.A. stormed the court in celebration; the game was called and the victors declared.
For Erving, the championship offered cathartic release. It was just one year earlier, on that very same court, that Philly suffered an agonizing defeat to the L.A. in the 1982 Finals. And it was in the very same locker room where he now celebrated his first NBA championship that a year earlier, he slouched in front of his locker, hiding his tears with his massive hands.
The Sixers returned home the next day and were greeted by a hoard of adoring fans. The ensuing championship parade included an estimated two million who proudly honored their heroes.
Now a 32-year-old veteran, Erving would continue to lead the Sixers for four more seasons until his retirement in 1987.
Erving announced his retirement on the first day of the 1986-87 season. Over the next 81 games, fans came out en masse, both at home and on the road, to support one of the game’s all-time legends. Opposing fans put aside their competitive feelings and honored Erving. They knew that they would never see another Dr. J again.
‘'I just feel blessed in a special way, so there's nothing to be sad about. For me this will be a very, very long off season, the longest one I've ever had.'' - Julius Erving, after his final game
Fifteen years after leaving the University of Massachusetts to begin his career in professional basketball, Erving regained his status as a UMass student and finally obtained his long-delayed bachelor’s degree in business through Amherst’s University Without Walls program, which helps individuals receive academic credit through life and work experience.
Experience is something The Doctor wasn’t short on.
Erving has called his transition from a basketball stardom to the world of business a natural one. From obtaining an ownership stake in a Philadelphia-based Coca-Cola bottling plant to working as a television analyst, Erving certainly put his degree to good use.
15 years after his retirement in Philadelphia, The Doctor made his long-awaited return.
During halftime of Game Three of the Sixers’ 2012 first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls, the team announced that Erving would serve as a strategic advisor, offering guidance for the team’s new ownership group and interacting with fans and sponsors. While Sixers fans are undoubtedly ecstatic to have him back, The Doctor is equally excited about being back in the City of Brotherly Love.
“I always enjoy coming back to Philadelphia where I had so many great memories. I’m excited about what the future holds.” – Julius Erving
“We heard about Julius Erving and asked for a tape of him. We got this grainy black-and white film of the UMass-North Carolina game in the NIT. The quality was so bad that you could hardly tell what was going on, but we saw enough of Julius to sign him after his junior year. Since we'd never seen him live before he wore a (Virginia) Squires uniform, we thought he'd be able to help us on the boards and we hoped he'd be able to score some. We had no idea what he'd become.” – Johnny “Red” Kerr
While Erving’s skills wouldn’t truly begin drawing national attention until after his college career, it was back in high school that he received what what was arguably his most important trait – his “PhD”.
In high school, Erving says, Saunders was known as an eloquent and verbose speaker. Naturally, he began calling him “Professor” and Saunders, wanting to return the favor, began calling Erving “Doctor.”
Eventually, the name evolved to “Dr. Julius,” before later being shortened to “Dr. J”; the name quickly stuck with Erving on the courts. It then followed him into college and there, he really made it known.
But this wasn’t his first nickname. During his Salvation Army Basketball days as an adolescent, his peers called him “Medicine Man”. Whether they believed he was destined for the field or if it was merely a strange coincidence is unknown. But fate clearly had other plans for the Dr. J.
DOC RIVERS - NBA HEAD COACH
JULIUS PEPPERS - CHICAGO BEARS DEFENSIVE END
DR. DRE - RAP SUPERSTAR
Julius Erving was blessed not only with impressive physical tools, but also with a relentless drive on the court and a warm demeanor off of it.
“I never wanted to be just a world-class athlete. I`d rather be a world-class citizen or person.” - Julius Erving
At a time when individual athletes typically took a backseat to the teams for whom they played in the minds of fans. Erving transcended the sport. Children wanted to be like him and their parents did, too.
Although commonplace today, he became one of the first athletes to endorse a sneaker – the Converse Dr. J Pro Leathers, in 1976.
Julius Erving may not have begun his basketball career with much fanfare, as he was known for being a solid, yet unspectacular, player in middle school and high school, but by the time he reached the professional ranks, his dominant play spoke for itself.
While The Doctor is most popularly known for his above-the-rim style and posterizing slam dunks, it didn’t start off that way for him. In fact, he wasn't even allowed to dunk while in college. Between 1968 and 1976, the NCAA had implemented a ban on slam dunking during gameplay. Although this rule was said to be the result of both player safety and equipment maintenance issues, many believe it to have originated in response to the dominating play of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Known then as Lew Alcindor, the future Laker hall of famer would command complete control over games, due in large part to his ability to dunk with tremendous ease. This led many to refer to the ban as the "Lew Alcindor Rule".
With the ban in effect during his UMass days, Erving was made to develop other aspects of his game, especially his finesse around the basket. That effort may have resulted, 10 years later, in what some believe to be the most impressive play in NBA history, a wrap-around baseline layup that stunned the nation during the 1980 Finals.
But Erving didn’t let the NCAA ban on dunking keep him from honing that craft. In the summer, he would play pickup ball back home and at New York’s Rucker Park. On the blacktop, he was known simply as The Doctor.
"No one has ever controlled and conquered the air like Julius Erving. The Doctor not only leaps and stays aloft longer than most players dream possible, but he uses his air time to transform his sport into graceful ballet, breath-taking drama or science-fiction fantasy depending upon his mood of the moment and the needs of his team." – Pete Axthelm, Newsweek.