The Doctor turns 67 today.
Julius Erving was the most graceful athlete of his generation. A mid-air maestro and innovator who changed the way the game is played, he established a style of play that would prevail in the decades to follow. The dominant player of his era, “Dr. J” seemed an irresistible force of nature. A wizard with the basketball, Erving played the game above the rim. He was the first to combine gravity-defying acrobatics with delicate grace and power, and he was one of the most thrilling players ever to grace the hardwood. Rick Barry [Daily Dose, 2/9/16], who played with Erving in both the ABA and NBA before joining him in the Naismith Hall of Fame, called Julius “the most exciting basketball player I have ever seen.” While Elgin Baylor was the first to play basketball in the air, and Connie Hawkins took it to the next level, Erving perfected it, introducing a new term—hang time—to the basketball lexicon. The list of athletes who revolutionized their sport is short. The list of those known by only one name is shorter: Ali. Mario. Arnie. Doctor.
While Erving was in the air so often on the court, his feet were planted firmly on the ground off of it. Gracious, dignified and disciplined, he never got a big head. Articulate and smooth, he was an ambassador for the game. The epitome of class, no player was more respected than Erving. The first spokesman for the NBA, he stood out as the essence of the league. Friendly and uncommonly modest, The Doctor was always the coolest cat on the floor—and in the room. Julius did it all. He won two ABA championships and one NBA title. He earned MVP honors in both leagues, including three in a row in the ABA. Erving was the MVP of two NBA All-Star Games and almost single-handedly invented the Slam Dunk Contest. The ABA was in its final year of existence in 1976 when it held the first Slam Dunk Contest during its All-Star Game halftime. Erving dominated the competition. In his final effort, he started at the far end of the court, gathered speed as he approached the basket, took off from behind the free throw line, and extended the ball over his head as he soared to the rim before delivering a thunderous dunk. It was one of the most iconic moments in basketball history and cemented Dr. J’s legend as the greatest dunker the game has ever seen. The NBA adopted the Slam Dunk Contest in 1976, and it remains a staple of the league’s All-Star Weekend.
Born in East Meadow—a hamlet on Long Island, New York—on this date in 1950, Julius Winfield Erving II moved with his family to nearby Roosevelt at 13. He attended Roosevelt High School, alma mater of radio’s Howard Stern and actor/comedian Eddie Murphy. One of Erving’s Roosevelt classmates was Leon Sanders, whom Julius called “The Professor.” Sanders, in turn, called Erving “The Doctor.” Erving played basketball in high school but did not start until his senior year, when he emerged as a 6’3” scorer. Later, while playing in Harlem’s famed Rucker Park League, people tried calling him “Black Moses” and “Houdini.” Erving said, “If you want to call me anything, call me ‘doctor’.” Over time, the nickname evolved into “Dr. Julius” and finally, “Dr. J.”
Despite being one of New York City’s most spectacular prep performers, Erving was lightly recruited coming out of high school. In 1968, he accepted a scholarship to the University of Massachusetts. In two varsity seasons [NCAA rules prohibited freshman from competing in varsity athletics at that time, so Erving played as a sophomore and junior], Erving averaged over 26 points and 20 rebounds per game, one of five players in NCAA history to do so. After recording 51 double-doubles in 52 games, he left UMass following his junior year to sign with the Virginia Squires of the ABA [Daily Dose, 5/13/16]. Professional basketball was volatile when Erving joined the Squires in 1971, with players jumping leagues, and franchises in flux. Erving entered the ABA with little fanfare. The league lacked a television contract and was comprised almost entirely of small-market teams that lacked deep pockets. When Erving’s college class graduated in 1972, the Milwaukee Bucks drafted him with the 12th overall pick of the NBA draft, where he could have joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson in what may have become the greatest trio in league history. Instead, he signed with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, but the courts banned him from playing in the NBA, and he returned to Virginia. After leading the league in scoring in just his second season, the financially-strapped Squires sold Erving to the New Jersey Nets in 1973.
The basketball world took note of Julius Erving upon his arrival in the Big Apple. In his first season in New York, the Doctor won his second scoring title while leading the Nets to the franchise’s first championship. He was named regular season and playoff MVP and was rapidly becoming the league’s biggest star. Erving’s confidence was rising. In a game against the Kentucky Colonels, he drove to the basket against 7’2” Artis Gilmore and 6’9” Dan Issel. “I went between both of them and just hung there and waited for them to come down,” said Erving. “Then I dunked on them so hard I fell on my back. Just doing that made me confident to go after anyone without fear.” After failing to reach the finals in 1974-75, Erving guided the Nets to the ABA crown the following year–in what would prove to be the league’s final season. Doc was brilliant, leading the league in scoring for the third time in five seasons and earning his third straight ABA MVP Award.
The NBA and ABA merged prior to the 1976-77 season, and Julius Erving was the main catalyst. The Doctor built the ABA and was the greatest player its league. Coveting his star power, the NBA had to have him. And to do so, they had to absorb the rest of the ABA. In addition to getting Erving and the Nets, the NBA took in the Indiana, San Antonio, and Denver franchises, while the remaining ABA players were dispersed via a draft. When Erving became embroiled in a contract dispute with the Nets in the offseason, they sold him to Philadelphia the day before the start of the 1977 campaign.
Two hundred years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Julius Erving signed with the Philadelphia 76ers and became basketball’s biggest star. His 30-point, 12-rebound performance at the 1977 All-Star Game [Daily Dose, 10/14/16] made him a household name. Erving’s artistry helped the NBA soar to a new level, bringing the league into the mainstream. Dr. J instantly made the Sixers into contenders, leading them to the NBA Finals in his first season in Philly. Despite being named league MVP following the 1981 season, Erving alone could not deliver a title. After another failed trip to the Finals in 1982, the Sixers obtained Moses Malone prior to the start of the 1982-83 season. Philadelphia dominated the regular season, winning 65 games before sweeping the Lakers in the NBA Finals for the third title in franchise history. After the championship season, Erving was in the golden years of his career. As his career wound down, so did the Sixers. Dr. J retired following the 1986-87 season and, after nearly a decade among the league’s elite, Philly returned to mediocrity.
Named one of the 40 most important athletes of all time, Julius Erving was a superb scorer and underrated defender. In five ABA seasons, Erving earned three scoring titles, two league championships and was a three-time MVP. He was an All-Star in each of his 16 pro seasons—five in the ABA and 11 in the NBA. Immensely popular, the Doctor was one of the first basketball players to have a shoe marketed under his name and endorsed several products—including one as “Dr. Chapstick.” Erving is one of four players in pro basketball history [Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone] to score over 30,000 career points and collect more than 10,000 rebounds. He is a member of both the ABA and NBA’s all-time teams and had his number retired by both the Sixers and Nets. Dr. J was voted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993 and College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006. In 1986, Julius Winfield Erving II graduated from the University of Massachusetts, earning a bachelor’s degree and fulfilling the promise he made to his mother.
Happy Birthday, Doc.