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The Doctor, Julius Erving

Julius Erving soared to heights never before seen, and lifted the Nets with him

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. 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 the Nets, Erving again led the league in scoring, winning his first ABA MVP in leading the Nets to the 1974 ABA championship. He repeated as MVP each of the next two years and led the Nets to their second title in 1976 in the ABA’s final season.

Over 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.

Prior to the 1976-77 season, Erving was dealt to the Philadelphia 76ers. The cash the Nets received in the deal was needed to help cover the franchise’s fees to enter the NBA.

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.”

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