Nets All-Time Top 25: No. 2 Julius Erving
Dr. J soared to heights never before seen, and lifted the Nets with him
The selections for the Nets All-Time Top 25 Team were made by the author, with no input from the Brooklyn Nets organization. Selections were based on a combination of individual performance, team success and their contribution to it, and longevity with the franchise.
For three seasons with the Nets, Julius Erving was more than just a franchise player. With his skywalking style and awe-inspiring dunks, the man they called Dr. J carried a league and became a cultural touchstone. He reinvented the notion of what was possible on a basketball court.
“More than any single player, though, Erving transformed what had been a horizontal game (with occasional parabolas) into a vertical exercise,” wrote Frank Deford in a Sports Illustrated retrospective at the close of Erving’s final season in 1987. “Basketball is now a much more artistic game than it was before — than any game was before — because of Julius Erving.”
The Erving legend grew on the playground at Harlem’s Rucker Park. Onlookers and announcers cycled through nicknames before Erving mentioned that friends back home on Long Island had called him “Doctor.” Before long, Dr. J. was christened.
But Erving was still little known when he turned pro out of UMass, despite averaging 20-plus points and rebounds for his college career. He tore through the ABA from the start, averaging 27.3 points and 15.7 rebounds as a rookie with the Virginia Squires, then leading the league in scoring with 31.9 points the following year.
In the summer of 1973, Erving came back to New York as a pro, traded to the Nets for forward George Carter and “a lot of cash,” according to Virginia owner Earl Foreman. While the ABA struggled to survive, Erving became its signature player, for both his substance and style.
Sports Illustrated’s Peter Carry visited with Erving in his ABA days and recalled a transcendent talent in that 1987 retrospective.
“There was never anything like the young Julius in the open court—huge strides eating up the hardwood, mammoth hands swallowing up the ball before slamming it through the hoop.”
With Erving, the Nets were transformed. After finishing 30-54 in 1972-73, they rounded into form after a tough early-season stretch, ripping off 19 wins in 22 games and closing the regular season by winning 10 of 11 to capture the ABA’s Eastern Division with a 55-29 record.
Erving won the first of three straight ABA MVP Awards after averaging a league-leading 27.4 points, 10.7 rebounds. 5.2 assists, 2.4 blocks and 2.3 steals per game. He led the Nets on a tear through the playoffs, where they won 12 of 14 games, including a five-game victory over the Utah Stars for their first ABA title.
Over his three seasons with the Nets, Erving averaged 28.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.3 steals and 2.1 blocks per game. He led the team to its second title in three years – and the ABA’s final championship – in 1976, averaging 37.7 points in the finals and 34.7 over 13 playoff games. The final game in ABA history was also Erving’s last as a Net. The merger with the NBA and Erving’s sale to the Philadelphia 76ers in the days before the start of the 1976-77 season marked the end of an era.
“Erving’s valedictory, the ’76 series in which he led his New York Nets past the Denver Nuggets for the league’s final championship, may be the least-seen great achievement in sports,” wrote Alexander Wolff in Sports Illustrated in 1994.
Erving would go on to be named NBA MVP in 1981 and win an NBA title in 1983. He was named to the All-NBA first team five times and led the Sixers to four NBA Finals appearances. An all-time great in any league or any uniform, the legend of Dr. J is crystalized with a red, white & blue ball and star-spangled jersey, soaring to the rim.
“What people call the show, well, that’s the best way I can see to get the bucket,” Erving told Sports Illustrated during the 1976 ABA championship series. “I’ve been doing it all my life, and I say when something works, don’t change it.”