Julius "Dr. J" Erving Biography
A Natural Basketball Player, Became ABA All-Star, Leaped to NBA Stardom
Basketball player, basketball executive
So much has been written and said about Julius Erving over the years that it is difficult to say what is most important about him. He will go down in history as one of the basketball pioneers who took a sport that had been traditionally played on a wooden floor and changed it so that it was played in mid-air, and he popularized a form of scoring known as the dunk. He was a legendary figure that very few people saw play in his early professional years in the American Basketball Association, and his reputation probably forced the more established National Basketball Association to merge with that league. He was the consummate team player, who won championships in both professional leagues. He was a perfect gentleman and an ambassador for the game at a time when its popularity was at a low ebb, and he will be remembered forever as "Dr. J."
Julius Winfield Erving II was born February 22, 1950, in Roosevelt, New York. He and his brother were raised by their mother, Callie. His father, Julius, was absent much of the time, and when young Julius was seven his dad was hit and killed by a car. "I never really had a father, but then the possibility that I ever would was removed," he told Esquire. He attended Roosevelt High School, where he was a fine student and an even better basketball player. He made the all-county and All-Long Island teams in high school.
A Natural Basketball Player
Julius was a natural at basketball as a youngster, both in school and on the playground. Erving told Esquire, "I've never felt particularly unique. Even within the context of basketball, I honestly never imagined myself as anything special. I remember back home, when I first started playing, at nine, ten, I had a two-hand shot. Then by twelve-and-a-half, thirteen, I had a one-hand shot. Always went to the basket, that was my way, that pattern was set by then." "Actually, I don't think I've changed much as a player since then," he continued. "Back then, before I was physically able, I felt these different things within me, certain moves, ways to dunk. I realized all I had to do was be patient and they would come. So I wasn't particularly surprised when they did, they were part of me for so long. I didn't find anything particularly special about them. It wasn't that I didn't think I was a good player, that I could play, I just assumed everyone could do these things if they tried."
Erving parlayed his good grades and basketball success into a college career at the University of Massachusetts. He planned on becoming a doctor, and it wasn't until he found himself among the nation's scoring leaders that it occurred to him that he could make the move from the traditionally weak basketball school to a pro career. He got a break when he was invited to play some exhibition games for an Olympic development squad—those being the days when a college All-Star team also comprised the U.S. Olympic basketball team—and his reputation began to grow among pro scouts. His mother suffered some medical problems during Julius' college days, and he skipped his senior season to play in the American Basketball Association (ABA), which had a hardship rule that allowed college underclassmen to enter the league. Erving signed with the Virginia Squires as a free agent in 1971.
Erving enjoyed immediate success in the ABA. During his rookie season he played 84 games, averaged over 27 points and 15 rebounds a game, and led the Squires on a strong playoff run. He was named to the league's All-Rookie Team and the All-Star Second Team. It was also during Erving's rookie year with Virginia that a strong part of his identity was born. "The Doctor" had been a handle placed on Erving since grade school, when he announced in front of his class he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. It became a playground moniker when his high school teammate, Leon Saunders, and Erving began referring to each other as "The Doctor" and "The Professor." During that season in Virginia, Squire Fatty Taylor began sticking the "J" onto Erving's name, and the nickname "Dr. J" was born.
Became ABA All-Star
In 1972-73 Erving had another strong season, leading the league with 31.9 points-per-game (PPG). That year he also made the league's All-Star First Team, but he still faced the problem of his budding career being played in obscurity. The ABA was almost never on television, and the Squires hardly played in a major market. Erving had tried to jump to the NBA, signing a contract with the Atlanta Hawks after his rookie season, but a judge ruled that he was the property of the Squires and had to return to that team. At the end of his second season the Squires gave Erving a bit of a boost toward the big-time when they traded him to the league's Big Apple franchise, the New York Nets.
In his first season with the Nets Erving helped that team to the league championship, leading the league with a 27.4 scoring average and increasing that average to 27.9 over 14 playoff games. He was named both the league's regular season most valuable player (MVP) and the playoff MVP. Erving had now won a league championship in the biggest market in the country, but still relatively few people had seen him play. The league still didn't have a network television contract, and the Nets were low in the pecking order of New York Sports teams, never selling out a regular season game.
In his second season with the Nets Erving won the league's Most Valuable Player award with a 27.9 PPG average and 10.9 rebounds per game. Despite his averaging 27.4 points in the playoffs, the Nets lost in the first round. The following year, however, Erving again led the league with 29.3 points per game, and led the Nets in a charmed season all the way to the league championship series.
During this season Erving's reputation grew dramatically. It cannot be said that he invented the airborne style of basketball, often referred to as "playing above the rim." Others had preceded him in that style, most notably Connie Hawkins and Elgin Baylor. But Erving, while not really reinventing the sport, had upped the ante by being just a little bit faster, jumping just a little bit further, being just a little bit more spectacular than anyone ever had before. While the ABA's games still were not often broadcast for a national audience, the media began to do more features on the amazing basketball player playing for the New York team in that other league. Another key point came during the ABA's 1976 All-Star Game, when the first-ever slam-dunk contest was held. Erving won it, due in large part to his final dunk, on which he gripped the ball in one hand, ran the length of the floor, took off in flight at the free throw line and dunked before coming down. Several other players have done the identical dunk since, but at the time it seemed as if Erving had done the impossible. Footage of the dunk received widespread television exposure, and Erving became a national phenomenon.
That season Erving capped his ABA career, and the history of the league, with a sensational final series against the Denver Nuggets. The Nets beat the Nuggets four games to two, and Erving was so instrumental and spectacular in both the wins and the losses, that it was sometimes easy to forget there were nine other players on the floor. Erving scored 45, 48, 31, 34, 37, and 31 points in the six games, and led the Nets back from 22 points down in the final game at Nassau Coliseum. It was the last game in the history of the ABA.
Leaped to NBA Stardom
Before the 1976-77 basketball season, the ABA folded in triumph, with four of its teams, including the Nets, being accepted into the older, more established, more conservative NBA. Although history has not recorded definitively that Julius Erving was the primary or possibly even only reason the NBA agreed to the merger, that likelihood has been suggested and a strong case can be made that Erving had proven that world-class basketball was played in the ABA. At any rate, Julius Erving was finally about to showcase his talents on the biggest basketball stage in the world.
As some had predicted, Erving found a bit more resistance to his freewheeling style of play in the older league. The day before his first season in that league was to begin, the Nets traded him to the Philadelphia 76ers. His scoring average dropped about 25 percent with Philadelphia compared to what it been in New York, to about 21.8 points per game his first season. He did help the Sixers to the league championship series that year, but their loss to the Portland Trailblazers was considered such a disappointment that the team felt it had to live down the loss for years afterward. The highlight of the season for Dr. J may have been the All-Star Game, in which he had 30 points and 12 rebounds, and won the game's Most Valuable Player award.
That started a long string of seasons in which Erving was considered the best player in the league who had never won a championship. Through the late 1970s and early 1980s his image was that of a spectacular player, certainly one of the best in the league. Yet the question remained as to whether he would ever win a NBA championship. He didn't dominate the NBA as he had the ABA, although he played in the All-Star Game every year, was named to either the league's post-season first or second All-Star team every year except 1979, and even won the league's Most Valuable Player award in 1981. But it seemed every year either the Boston Celtics or Los Angeles Lakers beat the 76ers and left them waiting.
The year Erving and the 76ers were waiting for finally came during the 1982-83 season. That year Erving won the All-Star Game MVP for the second time, even though his scoring that season was at its second-lowest point since he came into the NBA, only 21.4 points per game. But the 76ers had acquired a strong inside force that season in Moses Malone and they proved unstoppable in the playoffs, steamrolling into the finals, where they met the Lakers, to whom they had lost tough final series in 1980 and 1982. Erving's scoring average was down for the playoffs as well, to under 20 points per game, and Malone was the standout as the 76ers won the first three games from the Lakers. Dr. J saved his magic for the final game, making a shot from the top of the key in the closing seconds to give Philadelphia a three-point lead and clinch the championship. It was also during this series that Erving made a shot that will probably be repeated on highlight reels forever, a reverse windmill layup from behind the backboard. Dr. J, who by this was wearing his trademark Afro short and with some flecks of gray, had his most memorable shot and his first NBA championship.
It also turned out to be his last NBA championship. Although the 76ers continued to be a strong team, and made the playoffs every year—Erving never missed the playoffs in his ABA or NBA careers—they never made it back to the NBA finals. Erving still averaged over 20 points a game for the 1983-84 and 1984-85 seasons, then saw his PPG drop below that mark for the first time in his professional career for his last two seasons.
Became Game's Elder Statesman
But while Dr. J's game may have fallen off a bit in his late 30s, he had another reputation that became even stronger in those late seasons. He was known as one of the true gentlemen of professional basketball, and was universally admired by opponents, sportswriters, broadcasters, and fans. He was never seen to be short-tempered or rude with reporters or fans, a difficult task considering the constant demands placed on a basketball star of his stature. Erving had entered the league at a time when its popularity was at a low ebb, with two-thirds of the league's teams in serious financial trouble. While the subsequent arrival of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and later Michael Jordan, had more to do with the ascent of the game's stature in the 1980s, Erving served an important role in keeping the game afloat and bolstering its reputation. "I've never heard anybody knock him or express jealousy," Dominique Wilkins of the Atlanta Hawks said during Erving's final season. "Never one negative word. I can't name you one other player who has that status."
Also in those final seasons, Erving began to make the transition from his playing days to his retirement years by making shrewd business investments. In 1983 he purchased shares in the New York Coca-Cola Bottling Company, and three years later he turned that investment into an outright purchase of the larger Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Company, the 15th largest bottling facility in the world. As a result, he and his partner, Bruce Llewellyn, shared ownership one of the largest black-owned businesses in the world. He also started up a shoe store—dress shoes, not basketball shoes—which failed, and a television station and a cable television company in New York State.
When Erving announced that 1986-87 would be his last NBA season, he received an honor that is reserved for only the elite athletes: he was honored with special ceremonies not just in Philadelphia, but in each of the other arenas on his last visit. Accolades and souvenirs were showered on him on his farewell tour, as the league thanked Erving for what he had done for the game. In Los Angeles, Lakers coach Pat Riley told the crowd, "There may have been some better people off the court. Like a few mothers and the pope. But there was only one Dr. J the player."
Awards continued to be bestowed on Erving even after his playing days were over. In 1993 he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame, and in 1994, as part of its 40th anniversary, Sports Illustrated named him to a list of its 40 most important athletes. In 1996, as the NBA celebrated its 50th anniversary, Erving was an easy choice for one of the top 50 players in the history of the league.
Retired a Legend
Erving found plenty to keep him busy in his retirement. He continued to work with his business enterprises and charitable causes, and did some work in the 1990s for NBC TV's NBA broadcasts. In 1997 the Orlando Magic hired Erving as its executive vice-president, widely defining his duties as concerning both basketball and business aspects of the operation. Erving left the Magic after the 2002-03 season to pursue other business opportunities. Also in 1997 the legend of Dr. J was revived when Converse, a sneaker company which had seen its market share fall off dramatically since the mid-1980s, made Erving, along with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the staple of a new marketing campaign. Although Erving had by then not played basketball professionally in a decade, the company saw a dramatic turn in its fortunes, with sales up substantially.
Though Erving had enjoyed a squeaky clean public image for many years, events and press coverage in the late 1990s and early 2000s were not so positive. In 1999 it was revealed that Dr. J was the father of rising tennis star Alexandra Stevenson, the product of an adulterous liaison with a Philadelphia sportswriter. Tragedy struck the Erving family in 2000 when their youngest son, 19-year-old Cory, came up missing. After a 39-day search, it was discovered that his car had run off the road and into a swamp near the family's Florida home, drowning Cory. Though Erving was quoted in People saying that "we will be a stronger family as a result" of the tragedy, by 2003 his 31-year marriage to his wife, Turquoise, disintegrated in messy divorce proceedings that revealed a second child born out of wedlock.
While history may remember Erving for his statistics, or the championships he won, or the leagues he made profitable, it is more likely that most of the people who watched him play will remember him for other reasons. Long after he played, fans still swapped stories about the spectacular dunks and other moves they saw Erving make. Upon Erving's retirement, Frank DeFord of Sports Illustrated wrote, "More than any single player, Erving transformed what had been a horizontal game (with occasional parabolas) into a vertical exercise. Basketball is now a much more artistic game than it was before—than any game was before—because of Julius Erving. The slam, before the Doctor, was essentially an act of power—a stuff is what it was usually called—as great giants jammed the ball through the hoop. Erving transformed the stuff into the dunk, and made what had been brutal and the product of size into something beautiful and a measure of creativity."
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"Julius Erving," NBA History, www.nba.com/history/players/erving_summary.html (August 18, 2004).
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—Mike Eggert And
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