So we don’t forget how prolific a scorer Doc was…check this list of Erving’s 40 and 50 point games.
The 2nd greatest athlete in Philadelphia sports history
I was 8 and the city of Philadelphia was celebrating its bicentennial. Ben Franklin was so omnipresent, you’d thought he was Santa Claus after Thanksgiving. There were cherry trees…you could not tell a lie. City Hall was made up in everything red, white and blue. Most of our school assignments involved some sort of 1776 history lesson so the patriotic time was always on our minds.
Pop had a green 1969 Chevy Nova and being so young, I could barely see over the seats. As a result, my sister Gina and I fell into the music of the day. We sang along to everything because Dad had great taste…genre undefined.
Something like this…
… advanced my soul primitive imagination and flexed it spirit futuristic. I began to view the world differently. I wanted to know how this and that worked, how we actually saw out of our face, what life would be like in the year 2000…things of that nature. I’m visual after the mental, so when I see something of great influence, I search for its understanding.
I needed something to advance my mind even further.
We lived in Sharon Hill, PA and the Philadelphia skyline was a mere five minutes away. This broadened my sense of wonderment. I wanted to be.
Be, but there was something missing…
This was one year before Reggie Jackson, Franco Harris and Lynn Swann entered my mind frame. Obviously, Muhammad Ali was an enormous figure because he transcended sports and everything would be drastically altered after his athletic and social emergence.
The only other was OJ Simpson, known in my toddler world as “orange juice”, the name I called him while watching USC games with my Pop and his friends.
From then, things began to change quickly.
There was this talk about an athlete everyone called The Doctor. The older kids would rave about him and do this finger flip with the ball on the neighborhood court. When they made it, they were so excited and jumped all over the place. The younger kids were having too much fun on the merry-go-round and cared less. We spun it so fast and hard that when we jumped on our lives spun for days when our feet finally hit the ground.
I remember sitting one out because this basketball player piqued my interest to the point of confusion. When Dad picked my sister and I up to go into the city, I couldn’t wait to ask: “A basketball player with a PhD? Really? Doctor who?” I said. “Dr. J, son, he lives right over there next to your grandmother,” Pop said, pointing to a stretch of nice homes in close proximity to Philadelphia International Airport where my Mom’s Mom lived. “What team does he play for Dad?” I asked. “He used to play for the New Jersey Nets in the ABA, but the league folded so he’ll play here next year,” Pop explained.
“Son, don’t say that.”
I couldn’t wait to see this guy.
The Doctor was a nickname given him by Leon Saunders…a friend at Roosevelt High in Long Island, NY, later at UMass and still a friend to this day. He, in turn, called Saunders “The Professor” because of Saunders’ penchant for wanting the upper hand in everything…mental and physical.
In two seasons at the University of Massachusetts, Erving averaged 32.5 points and 20.2 rebounds, one of five Division 1 players of all time to average a 20/20.
Before the start of the 2008 NBA Finals, Doc gave an impromptu press conference on the floor as Boston and LA warmed up. Doc explained why he had the respect of Boston fans despite playing for the hated 76’ers: “Individually there was always a red 6 up there (painted in the stands because of Doc’s collegiate years at the University of Massachusetts) and the fans were always kind to me individually.”
He then left to sign as an undrafted free agent with the Virginia Squires where he played from 1971-1973.
He was second to Artis Gilmore for ABA Rookie of the Year, made the All ABA Rookie Team and also 2nd Team All ABA. The Squires lost in the Eastern Division Finals to, of all teams, the Rick Barry-led New Jersey Nets.
It wasn’t until he played with the Virginia Squires that the moniker “Dr. J” was firmly established by his roommate, Willie Soldier.
Draft eligible in 1972, the Milwaukee Bucks picked him 12th overall but he signed to play with Pistol Pete Maravich and the Atlanta Hawks, placing him in the middle of a major court case, consisting of a three judge panel, three teams and two leagues.
Erving played in three exhibitions with the Hawks
The panel eventually ruled Doc back to the Squires where he would be teamed with George “The Iceman” Gervin (The Iceman was also gifted with the finger roll. What a team that must have been). Doc went on to average a career high 31.3 points before the Squires, because of failing finances, had no recourse but to trade Doc to the New Jersey Nets.
Nets owner Roy Boe then signed Erving to an 8 year, $2.5 million dollar contract.
Wait! Could you imagine a team of Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving? The irony is that later in his NBA career, Doc and the Sixers would perennially defeat the Bucks (Sidney Moncrief, Marques Johnson, Bob Lanier, Paul Pressey) on their way to an annual Eastern Conference Finals showdown with the Celtics. Did it have anything to do with the ruling? Possibly, but that’s speculative. It’s also notable his last game was against the Bucks in the 1987 playoffs. He scored 21 in the contest (his last NBA shot a three point make) and I remember weeping like a child when he left the floor because there would be no more finger roll and no more Dave Zinkoff announcing… “Julius the Doctor Errrrrrrrrrrving!”.
As he headed into the tunnel, he held the game ball up high to a standing ovation by the classy Milwaukee faithful. He was the Fish that Saved Pittsburgh and Cornbread, Earl and Me. Now he was gone and yes there were tears. Damn right I cried.
Nobody did it like Doc.
During his time with the Nets, the game was changing. The ABA was seen as far more exciting than the more established NBA and Doc was the league’s most promising and exciting star. He led the Nets to the pinnacle in ’74 and ’76 but more and more teams were dropping out of the league because of financial difficulty.
The 1976 ABA Slam Dunk Contest advanced the frame and elevated Doc to basketball immortality…
While coaching in the ABA, Hubie Brown would fine his players if they didn’t foul Doc before the bang because his dunks put a charge in the crowd so electric he feared his team would not recover.
The dunk became a weapon of influence and the NBA was poised to take advantage.
As the league dissolved, the NBA absorbed four ABA franchises, San Antonio, Denver, New Jersey and Indiana. Unfortunately, because the Knicks most likely feared Doc’s Nets would take away from their gate because of close proximity, the Knicks sought…or better yet demanded…$4.8 million from the Nets.
Boe promised to raise Erving’s salary but because of NBA entry fees and other responsibilities, he couldn’t come through on his promise, so Doc refused to play.
Rod Thorn, in an article reporting Boe’s passing in 2009:
“What it came down to was, he didn’t have the money,” the current president of the Nets, Rod Thorn, who was an assistant coach for the team in 1976, said Monday. “The owners in the league felt getting into the N.B.A. was the panacea that was going to solve all their problems, and the price for Roy getting in was selling Julius.”
Nets writers and fans hated what Boe did next. He sold Julius Erving’s rights to the Philadelphia 76’ers for three million.
I also talked to Rod Thorn about the historic transaction and if he could compare Erving to the greatness of players like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James: “When we were coming into the league, we were going to be a good competitive team. We’d just picked up Tiny (Nate) Archibald and we had Dr. J. Our owner, in order to get into the NBA, ran out of money. So, he had to trade him (Erving). When he ended up selling to the Sixers, it killed our team (Nets) and of course he went on to great things with the Sixers. Had our owner had the money, we could have kept him and the Nets would have been terrific.
Julius would be as big a star now as he was then. His personality and talent…when he was young he was as unbelievable as any player whoever played. He would have been a huge star in any era he played in.”
Combined with the multi-skilled George McGinnis, the Sixers finally made the playoffs again but lost in three games to the Buffalo Braves.
Fitz Eugene Dixon Jr. buys the team for $8 million. He paid the Nets $3 million and paid Erving $3 million as well. In a city where the fans just don’t sell out their pro basketball stadiums, Fitz was hell bent on infusing life…and big dollars…into the team.
The city is Ben Franklin electrified and under head coach Gene Shue, the team is set to flourish.
Lloyd Free…who would later change his name to World B. Free, current TNT analyst Doug Collins and Henry Bibby…Mike Bibby’s Pop…were also on this team.
Julius and then wife Turquoise.
Doc’s first year the Sixers went 50-32. In the playoffs, they defeated the Celtics and the Moses Malone-led Houston Rockets on their way to their first Finals appearance in ten years against the Portland Trail Blazers. After winning the first two games, Portland swept the last four to claim the title. Portland was of course led by Hall of Famer center Bill Walton and enforcer Maurice Lucas. It was a different time. Every team had a big man who set the record straight and if they didn’t have one, they went out and got one. The league was known for fights that sometimes turned bloody.
It seemed like the Sixers never recovered after a fight in Game 2. Chuck D of Public Enemy (who also went to Long Island’s Roosevelt High and also was a big fan of Doc) and I talk about it here:
Chuck D: “During the 1977 NBA Finals, what’s forgotten-because the NBA is trying to cool this image so much-is the fight between Dawkins and Maurice Lucas. I think Bobby Gross was hit by Dawkins and all of the sudden Maurice Lucas came up from behind him and smacked him. At the time Philly was up 2-0. So Dawkins and Lucas were ejected. The thing I remember is the next day in the press they said Dawkins ripped the door of a steel cage off because he was so hot and wrecked the dressing room. That dude was a monster man. Ever since then they put a cage on Dawkins. They were not gonna let him get out of control. Up to that point, Dawkins was a problem for everybody.”
Billy Cunningham took over the team from Shue and despite much anticipation the Sixers lost to Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld and the Washington Bullets…the eventual NBA Champions.
The Big Mac, George McGinnis and Doc never meshed on the floor. There seemed to be a power struggle and despite sharing the ABA MVP in 1975, McGinnis always seemed to play in Erving’s shadow. He was first to the Sixers after the merger and maybe he thought Doc would once again take his shine. Nevertheless, it just didn’t work out and McGinnis was traded to the Denver Nuggets.
This is where I initially learned the NBA is a business and over the years, whenever I ate a Big Mac, I thought of McGinnis. I’ve heard from many historians McGinnis was that generation’s LeBron James mainly because of his bulk and quickness.
The next six years became a typical Philly struggle for championship greatness but his impact began to take hold. Everyone had a pair of red on white Converse Dr. J’s.
In 1979 the Sixers lost in the ECF semis to George Gervin and the Spurs in seven. The Spurs lost to the Bullets in the Eastern Conference Finals and the Bullets lost to the Dennis Johnson, Jack Sikma and Gus Williams led Seattle Supersonics 4-1 in the NBA Finals.
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird enter the league. Doc and the Sixers would lose heart breaker after heart breaker to either star and their loaded teams…the Lakers and the Celtics respectively.
The Boston Strangler (as he later became known), Andrew Toney, was brought in to provide scoring assistance and with All Stars Mo Cheeks and Bobby Jones, the Sixers had a foundation to build upon.
Doc was consistent over this period and was widely known as the NBA’s best player. He became the league’s ambassador and most popular athlete. He was a scorer, team rebounder and obviously known for his thunderous yet jazzy smooth dunks.
The Sixers needed one more piece. The Celtics and Lakers were total teams and the Sixers didn’t have enough down low after McGinnis was traded. You could start to see this all wearing on Doc as he balanced league, sport and team duties.
Harold Katz purchased the team in 1981 and wanted to make a splash.
Splash he did.
The Houston Rockets all world center, Moses Malone, was signed by Sixers GM Pat Williams:
Michael Tillery: Pat, you were that guy for me growing up because you helped bring a championship to Philadelphia, what was the feeling around here?
Pat Williams: It was definitely a sense of relief. We’d gotten to the Finals three times prior to that in ‘77, ‘80, ‘82 and came so close. Then the relief came after climbing the mountain so hard every year…battling so hard. Playoff disappointment after playoff disappointment. When it finally happened it was an enormous lifting of a burden.
The Sixers dominated the league in 1983
MT: Were you happy for Doc because he was brought in to do what you finally did in ‘83 5 years earlier?
PW: I think so. That season was a tribute to Doc. Everybody felt good for him like everybody wanted Ernie Banks to win one in Chicago. It’s hard to do. Many, many great players never won one. There was a sense that Doc earned it and deserved it. Our greatest joy was for the long suffering Philly fans. They’d been through so much. Looking back after 25 years, that was the greatest sense of achievement. I spoke at a convention earlier today in Tampa and there were two guys there from Philly who wanted to talk about that team. You hear stuff like, “I was ten years old when that team won. I remember…”. I hear stuff like that so often.
MT: What made you pull the trigger? Was Moses the difference?
Swept the Lakers
PW: Oh yeah.
MT: How did the deal come about?
PW: That was the summer of ‘82. We’d sold Darryl Dawkins to New Jersey and suddenly we were nervous and uncomfortable about where we were. Moses was a free agent. Harold Katz, the owner, was the driving force. I mean, he just had an absolute vision–almost a conniption to get him. We set up the meeting. I think we all were kind of really shocked that he was interested. It took $13 million dollars to get him to sign. In 1982 that was just unprecedented and staggering. It wasn’t true free agency so there was compensation. We had to make a deal with Houston that involved Caldwell Jones–a key part of this team–and a future first. That was painful. I remember we just had a terrible time relinquishing that package, but that’s what it took. Without question, from the first day of training camp, there was a sense that this was it. It was gonna happen. There was much focus and then when people saw Moses and the way he approached the game, everyone else knew it as well. The only question was if Doc and Moses were going to collide. Moses cleared the air at the first press conference, by saying this was Doc’s team and he was here to help Doc. That proved to be true.
My greatest sports moment as a fan
As Mr. Williams alluded to, those Eastern Conference and NBA Finals losses were tough. I’ll never forget watching the ’80 Finals late on a small black and white set in my room sneaking because it was late. I couldn’t believe what Jamaal Wilkes (37 and 10 rips) and Magic (42, 15 rips, 7 dimes, 3 steals 14-14 from the line) were doing to my Sixers. I wept and I knew kids far and Philly-wide cried with me. Fans of the city wanted it so bad for Doc. When Moses came on the scene and the Sixers finally won? Best sports feeling ever as a fan.
He even has songs written for him:
“When I wrote it,” says Washington, “I was trying to portray The Shot in the musical sense.” The Shot was a vintage Erving job that occurred in the fourth game of the 1980 championship series between Philly and L.A. Erving was driving down the right side to the basket. L.A.’s Mark Landsberger picked up Erving and forced him to the baseline. Erving drove around Landsberger and jumped for the basket but in midair found his flight path blocked by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Still in the air and now completely behind the backboard. Dr. J then reached out from behind the basket and flicked the ball off the backboard through the hoop on his way down.
“The foundation of the Spectrum was in trouble that night,” Washington says. “The fans just went wild. Later I told [Erving], ‘You have one coming for that.’ ” In the song, a bass drum sets the tempo of a basketball being dribbled. “The concept of the song is how the Doc floats through the air, over everybody else,” he says. Washington sets this up by having the sax melody float over the notes being played on the bass and over the tempo set by the bass drum.”
Baseline brand new funk
Erving was a force of jazz in motion. He floated so long and strong it seemed as if everything moved in slow motion. Most of the time, he himself had no idea what he was going to do as he left the ground.
His Mom used to tell him to “Just do it” way before the Fourth Evolution.
Could Doc’s Mom be the inspiration behind Nike’s lucrative pop culture slogan? One has to wonder.
His former Sixers teammate, Joe Bryant, sired the Fifth and wore #23
MT: Is there a natural basketball link between you, Michael and Kobe?
Doc: “Yeah, I would add a few other guys to that at the beginning.”
MT: Who? Connie Hawkins?
The 2nd Evolution’s career was very much misunderstood
Doc: “Yeah, Connie and Elgin Baylor. I felt as though I followed Connie and Elgin.”
The 1st was a scoring machine. If Elgin played today, he might be considered the GOAT
“Then you had Michael, a little bit of Dominique in there and some Vince Carter. I see where you are going with that. Those are the names.”
The lineage was so broad ranging it now includes Vince Carter and Dominique Wilkins as offshoots.
In sixteen professional seasons, his 30,026 combined ABA/NBA points are only surpassed by Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Karl Malone and Michael Jordan. In five ABA seasons he was a three time consecutive MVP and claimed two scoring titles. An All Star in each of his five ABA seasons, he was an All Star each of his 11 NBA seasons (MVP ’77 and ’83) as well, 1st team all NBA five times (1978, ’80, ’81, ’82, ’83, 2nd team ’77, ’84) and NBA MVP in 1981.
NBA champion in 1983 with Philadelphia, his Nets won two ABA championships in ’74 and ’76.
Doc is credited as the major influence in the ABA/NBA merger. Think Namath and the NFL. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993 and is a member of the 50 Greatest NBA players.
My thoughts on his daughter Alexandra are spoken as a Father who loves his daughter dearly and honestly, it is not my place to comment. Living my own life and wondering how things got to this point, it would be irresponsible to judge Doc and even his affair with Alexandra’s Mom, Samantha Stevenson. I’m sure there is so much we don’t know so I’ll leave Doc’s personal life alone. This goes for anybody and my house is surely not made of glass. I don’t care how much in the public eye he was. When other legendary athletes are scrutinized the same, then we can talk but until then…
His life is his business, not mine…or yours.
On the court is different.
Good to see Doc and Alexandra build a relationship
There was also the very unfortunate news his son Cory drowned in 2000. This along with the story of his daughter, made Doc human. I’ve never objectified an athlete since. Some see athletes as entertainment, I see differently because when I talk to them I want to pass along their knowledge and wisdom…after all, they are one in a million. There is so much we can learn. Why break them down or smear their careers with even the smallest brush?
Julius, along with Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Reggie Jackson and Randall Cunningham helped create a hunger for sports history. Julius and Randall also proved (because I saw their careers up close) that despite the frustrations life can bring, you better keep your head up and fight with resolve.
A former business partner, Aki Tymes, (Doc is also his favorite athlete) and I spoke last week and he along with many Julius Erving fans are upset Doc’s legacy is slowing but surely pushed further and further into the past. Many sports fans do not understand how important Erving was to the game itself and it’s my job to show them.
When I hear that Magic and Bird saved the league, I understand, but I also wonder if such a sentiment was based on demography. The NBA had a horrible drug and race problem in the seventies (remember the New York Niggerbockers?) and with Doc’s crossover influence the game began to heal itself just as Magic and Bird began to make what was to become a historical impact.
Michael Jordan then solidified what Doc began. They were the same player in terms of fan reaction…just navigated two different eras. Michael added more to his game earlier…hence the difference. Doc’s legacy…like Warren Moon in the CFL…was less pronounced because his best years were played in the ABA.
You never saw Doc not wearing a suit. Same thing with Michael and now with Kobe. Even in the locker room you rarely…if ever…saw them not dressed. There’s a standard of excellence that must be carried on.
The 2008 Finals remains the standard as I trudge on doing what I do. Eleven time NBA Champion Bill Russell was also in the building. In a two hour period pre-game, I had dinner with Kareem and later, while interviewing Bob Ryan, spotted Doc joking with Kobe, interviewed Doc and watched as he chummed it up with Russell and Abdul-Jabbar. It was almost too much, for I remember squeezing my recorder so hard I felt it crack. Everything began to tie together historically and as a sports writer these are the moments that build a career.
Just an incredible unforgettable scene
In Doc’s last season there was a celebration of his career. He was given gifts in every NBA city the Sixers visited. There were pre-game and halftime ceremonies. Fans were amazing in their respect and adulation for a man who routinely battered their hometown teams.
Things never changed from his days rocking live at Rucker Park…yeah the crowd facial expressions remained the same.
With his NBA retirement, jersey retirements (both Sixers and Nets), Spectrum closings (another great personal moment) and judging dunk contests, Doc has remained in the public’s eye but his career must not die as society lives through the unfortunate guise of a 24 hour news cycle.
There’s more than what’s directly in front of your face. That most sports writers can’t name players on specific teams is unacceptable.
You don’t have to become the times. Do your own research so you know where it all started. Julius Erving was much more than an ambassador. He was Hip Hop before the first beat dropped and to let his NBA soul fade into oblivion would be a crime to history.
Elgin made this moment possible, Doc gave it realism
Be history. It’s not just about us.
Yes, he is the Third Evolution.
It showed to Elgin, proved with Connie, jazz lifted Doc, shock rocked Mike and perfected Kobe.