Archive 75

Julius Erving

By Shaun Powell·

Julius “The Doc-tah” Erving …

He began as a rumor and a ghost. Amazing, when you think about it here in modern times, how someone so great can have such an inauspicious start. But such was the case of Julius Winfield Erving, known to but a few hard-core and very fortunate basketball souls, and even then, not so much. Such is life for a player who launched in a secondary league with very little TV exposure and was virtually ignored by the sporting masses. Yes, strange but true: While most homes in America had TV sets, the player soon known as "Dr. J" made few house calls.

Who was Dr. J? This was a question that mushroomed and soon demanded answers because a basketball world had become suspicious and curious about an ABA player that some thought was among the best in the world. The footage on him then was skimpy -- this was when the television age in sports was in its infancy. In a rare and valuable interview conducted just when Erving began making noise, he gives us a peek inside a player who was eloquent and confident. Eventually, we’d all want a whole lot more.

Erving was the biggest attraction in the ABA and gave the league some shine. He took the New York Nets to the Finals where they faced David Thompson and the Denver Nuggets. "The Doctor" had a big stage and when the buzzer finally sounded in Game 1, that stage would never be the same.

The ABA-NBA merger in 1976 was made in part because of one player: Julius Erving. A basketball nation was insanely curious about him and how he’d perform against “real” competition, and whether he was worth all the fuss that followed him from the ABA. The Nets, who were in financial trouble at the time, essentially sold Erving to the Sixers. Almost instantly, Philadelphia became an NBA title contender. And just as quickly, any doubts about Erving were shattered by the first tomahawk dunk.

Erving became the first NBA player to attract the casual basketball audience and turn it hardcore. That’s because he played in the air. With the convergence of TV and sports in the mid-1970s, he was right on time, a basketball physician giving the league a shot in the arm, if you will.

Oh, and the highlights? Yes, start the drumroll, and more, please.

The All-Star Game was made for a player like Erving, and his first in the NBA (1977) was hotly anticipated. Imagine this: An aerial artist playing on a constantly wide-open court against other stars where he had the chance to freelance and improvise? That’s Erving in his element.

Erving, as expected, took the Sixers to The Finals right from the start and commanded the biggest audience he ever had.

Almost on cue, he had a pair of dunks against the Blazers that became highlight gold. Bob Gross and Bill Walton became forever fixtures in the Julius Erving film vault.

Erving turned the corner in 1979-80. Fueled by a failure to beat the Blazers for an NBA championship, Erving averaged almost 27 points and delivered an epic season that helped Philly reach The Finals again. Along the way, Philadelphia embraced him and celebrated him for everything he meant to the city.

As noted by the legendary voice of NFL films, John Facenda: “There will never be another like Dr. J.”

After years of failing to get a championship, Erving and the Sixers knew they needed some Mo. So, they got a lot Mo, as in Moses Malone, the premier inside force in the NBA. And right from the start, Malone gave Philly pole position in 1982-83.

He boldly declared “fo, fo and fo” -- as in the Sixers would win each round of the playoffs in four games. He came up a bit short in that prediction of a complete postseason sweep. But in The Finals? This time, everyone had a hunch the Sixers would not fall short, and Erving would not be denied.

What happens when you put Julius Erving and Red Auerbach in a gym? Well, these giants for the Sixers and Celtics put their rivalry aside -- in the 1980s, no less, when that rivalry was white-hot -- and collaborate on the art of the dunk for the "Red On Roundball" series. Here, Erving gives a dissertation on the dunk, as only he can.

Julius Erving and Wilt Chamberl

How can anyone possibly squeeze a lifetime of Erving dunks into a top-10 list? It’s quite an ambitious attempt, and so here it is. Erving didn’t invent the dunk, but he definitely popularized it, most famously in the ABA dunk contest and then over various arms and heads in the NBA. As for his most famous dunk, the one sitting at the top spot? Well, rather than give it away, we’ll drop this hint: Chick Hearn, the famed Lakers broadcaster, gushed on air how Erving “rocked the baby to sleep.” Enjoy, and good night to all.