Exclusive interview with Julius Erving - 9/8/2011
One of the most popular athletes in Philadelphia sports history, Julius Erving played 11 seasons as member of the Sixers after being acquired from the New York Nets of the ABA in 1976. "Dr. J" was selected to play in the NBA All-Star Game in each of his 11 season and the league and helped lead the Sixers to the championship in 1983. We sat down with the good doctor to chat about what's been keeping him busy in 'retirement' as well as some memories of his playing days and of his brief stint as an actor.
Sixers.com: What are some of the things that you've been keeping busy with lately?
Julius Erving: My son, Julius III, started a sports management company. I'm one of his clients and we've been managing my brand. Presently, I'm in a joint venture with a cell phone tower builder, a medical records retrieval and storage company and a blood cord company. I think the cord blood company, which is called CORD:USE, might be the most important humanitarian work that I've done. I think brand management is the biggest thing for me. I have contracts with Converse, Upper Deck, Panini cards, 2K Sports and the NBA. I'm also working on my book deal which should close by the end of this month as well as a documentary that I'm pitching and should have a deal by the end of the month.
S.C: You mentioned your involvement with the new NBA 2K12 video game. How much do things like that and the new Converse ads help in terms of introducing you to new generations of fans who are too young to have seen you play?
JE: It's really a pleasure to still be relevant. It's a blessing. I'm 61 years old. When I look at the guys who played before me like Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Bill Russell, they were my heroes. Those were the icons of my day. Those were guys who transcended their time on the court. You think about Jesse Owens, Babe Ruth and people who I heard about, but never saw play and I've become one of those guys. The latest generation has heard about me even though they haven't seen me play because they can go to YouTube and see highlights. They have so much more available to them than when I was a youth collecting baseball and football cards and catching games on TV in black and white.
S.C: Given how popular you became during your era, do you ever think what it would have been like for you playing in today's world of 24-hour sports coverage and social media?
JE: It's an amazing thought to have. It would almost be impossible to project. Part of what I think has given me longevity is that I've never sat still and rested on my laurels. Even in my early ABA/NBA years, I always travelled abroad with Converse and Spaulding. Everywhere I went, the Globetrotters had already been there. I kind of smile when the NBA goes to places like Turkey because I was there doing clinics back in the 70's and 80's breaking ground for what's going on now with the international game. Even upon retiring in '87, I travelled abroad for two years under contract with David Stern and the NBA to help re-break the ground. The Globetrotters were first. There's no question about it. I think they were the greatest ambassadors of the sport. If the electronic and social media of today was around back then, it probably would have been more than we could handle! I'm not really an endorser of 24-7 celebrity. You need some down time, you need some personal time, you need family time.
S.C: Is it true that you really didn't consider your chances of playing professional basketball until after your sophomore year of college?
JE: I think that's when I realized the level of my talent on a national level. I always understand and felt good about competing with the best in my region but I didn't get the chance, until the Olympic development camp, to play against guys from all over the country who had reputations and who played at bigger schools than UMass. I realized a couple days into that camp that I was as good as any of them and better then most of them. That evening in the dormitories, guys were talking about the pros and I eventually got into that discussion and thought 'okay, if that's what you're going to do, then I should be alright, because they seemed pretty sure! [laughs]
S.C: Since you weren't allowed to dunk in college, do you think that helped you become even more creative around the basket?
JE: In college, the rule was changed after my freshman year. That helped with catching alley-ops, finger rolls, spins and attacking the basket and flipping it off the glass. It was really great to go into the pros and be able to dunk the ball because I had stored up a lot of dunks! That first year in the ABA, I was a dunking fool.
S.C: You left college early to turn pro, but eventually went back and completed your degree. How important was that for you?
JE: It was not an option. I promised my mother I would finish college. She said, 'You have my blessing to leave if you come back and finish.'
S.C: A lot of fans aren't aware that in 1972, you played in some preseason games for the Atlanta Hawks before the contract was voided. What was playing with Pete Maravich like?
JE: Pete and I were good friends. We went through training camp together. We had the ultimate respect for each other. We used to stay after practice and play 1-on-1. He showed me so much in terms of being a gym rat. He just lived in the gym. The game flowed and exuded from him. He was very impressed with my dexterity and jumping ability. He could jump pretty well; he was 6'5", it wasn't like he was a little guy. The stuff he used to do on the ground, I used to do in the air. We had a little pact in those exhibition games that we played. He always knew where I was, he had a great feel. He was the best playmaker that I played with or against. It was a special time.
S.C: When you moved to the NBA, people like Celtics President Red Auerbach said things like 'the ABA was a minor league, over here, Erving is just another small forward.' Did talk like that motivate you?
JE: It pretty much fell on deaf ears. When I did go to Philadelphia, I was asked to tone down my game a little bit because we didn't need a 30-point scorer. I played more on the wing and was asked to play a certain role that I think I fulfilled admirably because we had the best record in the league and made it to the Finals in the first year. I really think that if that team stayed together, we would have won one or more championships in those first three of four years. But it wasn't meant to be and that team was broken up and we pretty much had to start all over. It got us to three more Finals over the next six years. I was always a team player, so my mindset was I just have to be consistent night in and night out. I don't have to be the most spectacular player out on the court. It wasn't about putting on a show every night, it was about being consistent. We had one goal in mind of building a team that would win a championship.
S.C: One of your teammates during that era was Doug Collins. What was he like to play with and was there any doubt in your mind that he would go on to become a successful coach?
JE: There was no doubt in my mind that Doug would be a great coach. Doug was a great player, somewhat befell by injuries. Nobody that I played with had a quicker release on his shot, better hands or hand-eye coordination. We had some guys, including myself, who weren't that accurate on passes but you could throw Doug a bad pass and he'd turn it into a good pass. He was just so quick that he'd grab it and put it in a position where he could do something with it. I loved playing with him. He was a great teammate. Smart. Loved the game. I really missed him when he got hurt.
S.C: There's a lot of talk these days with superstars playing together and the sacrifices they need to make in order to succeed, but when Moses Malone joined the Sixers, he was the reigning MVP and you were one of the faces of the league yet the team seemed to gel instantly. What do you credit that to?
JE: I think Moses came in with the attitude that this was Julius' team. He was quoted as saying, 'It's Doc's show, but with me here, it's going to be a better show' as only Moses could say. I was MVP of the league in '81 and he was MVP in '82 and '83. We really had the powerhouse team and every night we stepped out onto the court, we felt we were going to win.
S.C: After dropping your first three NBA Finals, how sweet was it to finally win it all in '83, especially given the way the team tore through the playoffs?
JE: That game was on last night, the Sixers/Lakers fourth game. It was a good reminder in terms of how happy everyone was, especially me. I didn't even take a sip of champagne afterwards. I just poured it on people and myself. I just wanted to be sober and savor the moment. It was one of the most special moments of my life.
S.C: In your final regular season home game, you needed 36 points to reach 30,000 for your career and scored 38 with Andrew Toney tallying a career-high 13 assists. What was going through your mind that night?
JE: It was the last home game and we were set for the playoffs. It was Tux and Tennies night. Maurice [Cheeks] and Andrew said 'look, WE are going to get this tonight.' Not 'you' are going to get it, 'we' are going to get it. They fed me the ball. I think I might have had 26 at halftime. At age 37, I was supposed to be winding down. It was a special night, but it was a team celebration of that moment.
S.C: So many of your contemporaries like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson have tried their hands at coaching and/or management. Was that something you ever gave strong thought to pursuing or did you have enough outside of the game to keep you busy?
JE: The initial feeling for me, from '87-'97, I really wanted to move away from being so consumed by the game. I played the game since I was 9, played professionally for 16 years and I really wanted to take a break from it, so I did. I did the ambassador role for a couple years and moved onto other things. I did some TV. I got into business and helped build the Philadelphia Coca Cola Bottling Company. I tried my hand at different things, which after 10 years led me back to going into basketball management with Pat Williams and a few other Philadelphia guys like John Gabriel down in Orlando for six years. That was really my stint in the front office. Basketball is still relevant in my life and is part of my platform but I never just wanted to be a one horse show. So that's where I am now. I have a very diverse business portfolio. I think that's a reflection of going to UMass for three years, playing in the ABA for five years and then playing in the NBA. It's like Frank Sinatra says, 'I did it my way.' It landed me in the Hall of Fame with two retired numbers, 32 and 6. Doing it your own way is good. It's not playing the same old riff as everyone else.
S.C: You helped make the dunk contest popular and have stayed involved with it over the years as a judge. Are you disappointed at what it's evolved into in recent years?
JE: I think you should be penalized if you miss. I missed a dunk in a contest against Larry Nance and it sealed my fate. There should be a penalty for not doing what you're trying to do. You're not an amateur, you're a professional. Professionals to me have always me difficult things look easy. It's amateurs who make difficult things look difficult. There is a bit of a loss of prestige with the dunk contest when you get to replace [dunks] and you get to miss and you're still in it. If you miss, you're out. I'd like to see that restored. I'd like to see the purity of the professionalism of how it was originally conceived back in the day come back into play.
S.C: Everyone has their favorite Dr. J highlight, whether it's the behind-the-basket move, dunking from the foul line or the dunk on Michael Cooper. What's your favorite highlight from your career?
JE: There was a dunk against Elvin Hayes when we were chest-to-chest. Within the last year, I saw it again. I thought it was lost in the archives because it was in the Capital Centre. Every time I've seen him over the years, he's still a little upset over that one! [laughs] That was the Big E and I was the Little E but the Little E came in and slammed over the Big E! It took the air out of the building because everyone was quiet for five or six seconds. I remember we went up and met chest-to-chest. He had both hands up; he was a good shot-blocker and was a big, strong guy. I just kind of waited on him and he slid down a little bit and I threw it in. That dunk was probably the best of my career
S.C: When's the last time you watched The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh?
JE: Actually I watched it with my sons and my daughter when it was on a couple weeks ago. It was on NBATV. I got a call and about three or four texts saying, 'Hey, it's coming on.' So we watched it. They got a kick out of it. It was the first time my 13-year-old, my nine-year-old and my six-year-old had seen it. The special effects are so outdated that we were sitting there laughing at it.