Legends profile: Julius Erving
Julius Erving, the great and wondrous “Dr. J,” was the dominant player of his era and an innovator who changed the way the game was played. He was a wizard with the ball, performing feats never before seen: midair spins and whirls punctuated by powerful slam dunks. Erving was one of the first players to make extemporaneous individual expression an integral part of the game, setting the style of play that would prevail in the decades to follow.
A gracious, dignified, and disciplined man, Erving was an ideal ambassador for the game. He was the epitome of class, and no player was more respected.
“As a basketball player, Julius was the first to truly take the torch and become the spokesman for the NBA,” said friend and former coach Billy Cunningham. “He understood what his role was and how important it was for him to conduct himself as a representative of the league. Julius was the first player I ever remember who transcended sports and was known by one name — Doctor.”
Erving began his professional career in the American Basketball Association with the Virginia Squires and the New York Nets. Widely regarded as the greatest player of his time, he is often considered to have been the main catalyst for the ABA-NBA merger in 1976. The 6-foot-7, 210-pound small forward also played for 11 years with the Philadelphia 76ers, leading them to the NBA crown in 1983.
In his five ABA seasons, Erving won three scoring titles, three Most Valuable Player awards and two championships. During his 11-year NBA career, Erving was an All-Star each season, the MVP in 1981 and a five-time member of the All-NBA First Team. He scored 30,026 points in his combined ABA and NBA career; only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Karl Malone and Michael Jordan have scored more points in the history of professional basketball.
Julius Winfield Erving II was born on Feb. 22, 1950, in Roosevelt, N.Y. He starred for Roosevelt High School, earning a reputation as a fundamentally sound (but not spectacular) player. Although the origins of his nickname remain unclear, the most common story has the moniker coming from a high school friend, who dubbed Erving “Doctor” because Erving called him “Professor.” The name stuck, and it even came to define the way Erving “operated” on a basketball court.
He enrolled at the University of Massachusetts in 1968, and although he averaged 26.3 ppg and 20.2 rpg over two seasons, he was still fairly obscure when he left the school in 1971 to sign as an undergraduate free agent with the Squires.
Professional basketball was extremely volatile in 1971-72, the year Erving launched his brilliant career. The ABA and NBA were already talking about a merger, players were jumping from league to league and franchises were in flux.
Although Virginia already had ABA scoring champ Charlie Scott, Erving began to contribute immediately. He later said he realized he was in his element during his first game as a rookie.
On a drive to the hole, he was challenged by the Kentucky Colonels’ 7-foot-2 Artis Gilmore and 6-foot-9 Dan Issel. “I went in between both of them and just hung there and waited for them to come down. Then I dunked on them so hard I fell on my back,” recalled Erving in the Boston Globe. “Just doing that made me confident to go after anyone, anytime, anywhere, without any fear.”
He scored 27.3 ppg as a rookie, was selected to the All-ABA Second Team, made the ABA All-Rookie Team and finished second to Gilmore for the ABA Rookie of the Year Award.
Virginia finished 45-39, second place in the Eastern Division behind the powerful Colonels, who dominated the league at 68-16. In the playoffs Erving scored 33.3 ppg as the Squires beat the Miami Floridians in four straight and then fell to the New York Nets and Rick Barry in Game 7 of the Eastern Division Finals.
When Erving’s college class graduation rolled around that year, he was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round (12th pick overall) of the 1972 NBA Draft. Had he landed in Milwaukee, Erving would have been added to a team that already had Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson.
However, during this time players were playing musical teams and Erving was no exception. Rather than attempt to play for the Bucks, he attempted to jump to the Atlanta Hawks before the 1972-73 season. Prior to Atlanta’s games that season, he would be at the arena ready to don a Hawks uniform, but he was legally barred from playing due to court injunctions initiated by the Squires. A court order eventually forced his return to Virginia four games into the ABA campaign.
He went on to lead the ABA in scoring that season, pouring in a career-best 31.9 points per game. Word began to spread of his exciting, innovative style of play, and he received the first of four consecutive All-ABA First Team selections.
Erving began to realize, along with everybody else, that he was something special. “That really didn’t become something that I accepted ’til I was a professional,” he told the Sacramento Bee. “I didn’t think it was possible that I might be the most talented player in the world. 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.”
Erving was gaining recognition in the ABA, but he was still hampered by the fact that the Squires were a low-profile team in a small market. Then, prior to the 1973-74 season, the Squires traded Erving and Willie Sojourner to the New York Nets for George Carter, the draft rights to Kermit Washington and cash.
Warmed by the media attention he received in New York, Erving led the Nets to a 55-29 regular-season record and the 1974 ABA title. The Nets’ roster also included talented youngsters Larry Kenon and Billy Paultz, and once the players got used to each other, the team was unstoppable. After claiming the Eastern Division by two games, New York beat Virginia in five games and then swept Kentucky to reach the ABA Finals. Once there, the Nets dropped the Stars in five games for the crown.
Erving repeated as league scoring champ with an average of 27.4 ppg. His all-around game began to emerge as well: he ranked sixth in the league in assists and third in both steals and blocked shots. As a reward, he picked up the first of three consecutive ABA MVPs.
The ABA had plenty of good players, but Erving stood out as the essence of the league. He dominated the game from the small forward spot. But more than that, he took some of the things Connie Hawkins had done in flashes — such as swooping dunks — and made them an every-night occurrence. He was always doing something new: inventing, soloing, extemporizing. He was the first to combine extended hangtime with delicate grace and pure power. Erving was the ABA’s top superstar and his success in New York cemented his reputation as the most thrilling player in either league.
By 1975-76, a handful of ABA teams had folded or were struggling to meet payroll demands and the league was consolidated into one division for its final, tumultuous season. Nevertheless, the ABA went out with flair. At midseason, the folks who had introduced the red, white and blue ball and the 3-point shot unveiled the first All-Star Game Slam-Dunk Championship. Erving outjammed Gilmore, Kenon, George Gervin and David Thompson for the title with an iconic dunk from the free-throw line.
The Nets met the Denver Nuggets in the last ABA Finals, and Erving led New York to its second title in three seasons. In the postseason, Erving averaged 34.7 points and was named the playoffs’ MVP. For the third time in four seasons, he claimed the scoring crown, averaging 29.3 ppg. In what was practically a foregone conclusion, he was honored with his third consecutive MVP and in his five ABA seasons, Erving won two championships, three MVPs and three scoring titles.
The ABA era was over. The NBA had to have Erving and to get him, they had to take the rest of the league, too. So the Nets, San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers were absorbed into the NBA for the 1976-77 season with the rest of the ABA players dispersed in a draft.
On the eve of the 1976-77 campaign, the greatest player in the game was locked in a salary dispute with the Nets. When it couldn’t be resolved, New York sold him for $3 million to the Philadelphia 76ers only 24 hours before the start of the season. In Philadelphia, Erving joined another high-scoring former ABA star in George McGinnis and was on a team with offensive-minded guards Lloyd B. Free (later World B. Free) and Doug Collins.
Sizing up the situation, Erving subverted some of his more sensational abilities and offensive instincts in the interest of team success. Because of that, he seemed to fall short of his advance publicity — at least until the 1977 NBA All-Star Game, when he seized the opportunity to display the artistry that had made him the most exciting player in the ABA. He scored 30 points, grabbed 12 boards, recorded four steals and walked off with the MVP trophy. He also seized the opportunity to be a successful pitchman endorsing products and became one of the games’ first players to have a shoe marketed under his name.
On the court, Erving scored 21.6 ppg, leading the 1976-77 Sixers to a 50-32 record and the Atlantic Division title. The playoffs, however, were a struggle. Philadelphia had to go seven games to vanquish the Boston Celtics and six games to dispatch the Houston Rockets. In the NBA Finals against Portland, the Sixers won the first two games before the Trail Blazers, led by Bill Walton, roared back with four straight victories to claim the crown.
Philadelphia’s management realized that it needed to build a team of players who could complement Erving, not the other way around. Over time, GM Pat Williams rebuilt the Sixers, acquiring defensive genius Bobby Jones and floor general Maurice Cheeks. Although Philadelphia spent 1978 and 1979 as a bridesmaid to Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld of the Washington Bullets in the East, the team was improving. And Erving had elevated his game even further, establishing himself as a permanent fixture on the All-NBA First Team.
By all accounts, Erving was playing at a higher level than the rest of the league. In 1980 he was one of two active players named to the NBA 35th Anniversary All-Time Team. (Abdul-Jabbar was the other.) For the 1979-80 season, Erving averaged 26.9 ppg, his highest NBA scoring average and ranked fourth in the league behind Gervin, Free (now a San Diego Clipper) and Adrian Dantley.
The Sixers also began a concerted four-year assault on the title. After a 59-23 regular season, Philadelphia dispatched Washington, Atlanta, and Boston (led by rookie Larry Bird) to take the Eastern Conference crown. In a hotly contested 1980 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, Erving was spectacular as the teams split the first four games.
In Game 4 Erving made the legendary “Baseline Move” that would go down as one of the most spectacular shots in NBA history. First he drove past defender Mark Landsberger along the right baseline and left his feet on that side of the backboard with a layup in mind. His route to the rim was quickly blocked by Abdul-Jabbar’s outstretched arms. Erving brought the ball back down and just continued to float, seemingly forever, passing behind the backboard while appearing to glide slightly to the left in midair. He finally cleared all the way to the other side of the hoop, reached back in toward the court and put up a soft, underhanded scoop for the score.
“Here I was, trying to win a championship, and my mouth just dropped open,” Magic Johnson, then a rookie, recalled. “He actually did that. I thought, ‘What should we do? Should we take the ball out or should we ask him to do it again?’ ”
Johnson had the final say, however. The Lakers won Game 5 and in Game 6 in Philly, Johnson filled in at center for the injured Abdul-Jabbar and scored 42 points to lead the Lakers to the title.
The 1980-81 season was Erving’s greatest individual year. He was named MVP after scoring 24.6 ppg while chalking up career highs with 364 assists (4.4 apg) and 173 steals. Philadelphia and Boston rang up identical 62-20 records during the regular season, setting up a showdown in the Eastern Conference finals. Erving paced the Sixers to a 3-1 lead, but Bird’s Celtics stormed back for three straight wins and a springboard to the NBA title.
Playoff disappointment only whetted Erving’s appetite. He was relentless again in 1981-82, scoring 24.4 ppg and earning another spot on the All-NBA First Team. It was taken for granted that the 76ers would dominate in the regular season. The question was, how far could they advance in the playoffs? In the 1982 Eastern Conference finals the Sixers again met the Celtics.
Philadelphia again built a two-game lead to push Boston to the brink of elimination, and again the Celtics roared back to force a seventh game. But this time the Sixers prevailed, winning Game 7, 120-106, to advance to the NBA Finals. The Lakers proved too tough once more, however, winning the series in six games for their second championship in three seasons.
Philadelphia had built a consistent winner around Erving, but the team lacked one important piece to complete the championship puzzle. The Sixers needed a dominant center to combat Abdul-Jabbar. With that in mind, Williams traded Caldwell Jones and a first-round draft choice to the Houston Rockets for Moses Malone, who had succeeded Erving as MVP in 1981-82.
The Sixers went 65-17 in the regular season, behind 24.5 ppg from Malone and 21.4 ppg from Erving. Both players were named to the All-NBA First Team and Malone won his second MVP. But Philadelphia won with its depth, surrounding the two superstars with Cheeks, Andrew Toney and Jones.
The Sixers ripped through the 1983 playoffs, winning eight of their first nine playoff games as they returned to The Finals. For the third time in four years, the Sixers and the Lakers squared off for the NBA title. But this meeting lacked the drama of the previous two: Philadelphia overpowered Los Angeles in four straight, giving Erving his first (and only) NBA championship ring.
After the championship season, Erving was in the golden years of his career. He still played well but relied more on intelligence than on the raw physical skills that had been his trademark. In the 1984 All-Star Game, the kind of exhibition in which he could still showcase his skills, he came up huge and poured in 34 points.
As Erving’s career wound down, so did the Sixers, after nearly a decade among the league’s elite. Philadelphia was in transition, with younger players such as Charles Barkley arriving on the scene. After Erving announced that he would retire following the 1986-87 season, the campaign turned into the Julius Erving farewell tour. He was honored in every NBA arena, as fans across the country showed their love and admiration for one of the greatest players the game had ever seen.
Erving retired at age 37, having scored more than 30,000 points in his combined ABA and NBA career. Erving scored 22.0 points per game in his 11 NBA seasons with Philadelphia and 28.7 points per game in his 5 ABA seasons with Virginia and New York. In 1993, Erving was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Since his retirement, Erving found success in business and as a basketball executive career. His investments include: ownership of a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Philadelphia, as well as cable television stations in New York and New Jersey. He also worked as an in-studio analyst for NBC during it’s coverage of the NBA.
Erving joined the Orlando Magic’s front office staff as Vice President of RDV Sports and Executive Vice President of the Magic on June 4, 1997 before resigning from the position in 2003.