Original Old School: The Godfather of Soul
SLAM 17: One man kept the ABA together. One man blew up the NBA spot. Julius Erving…
Jackson and Julius. Scoop and Dr. J. No further introduction is needed for this classic interview, featured in SLAM 17, April 1997. Enjoy.—Ed.
by Scoop Jackson
As the words leave his mouth, a deeper understanding of life, not just basketball, overcomes me. I was meant to be here. For years, the man has been a part of me, part of why I do what I do, part of why I am what I am. Basketball served only as a catalyst, a center, a nucleus for what many of us did during our childhoods when the rainbow was never enough.
“Would you stop bouncin’ that damn ball!” I can still hear my mother screaming at me for waking her up. After her scream would come Ms. Johnson’s scream. Then Ms. Warfield’s scream. Soon, the whole neighborhood was up. 5:30 a.m. Red, white and blue basketball, knee braces, No. 32 t-shirt and ‘fro in effect. Ballin’ on a milk crate nailed to the light post in the alley behind the crib. Every day, all day. This is what I did as a child.
I never told Julius Erving this story, didn’t need to. He’s heard it from thousands of other kids who, like me, spent our formative years wanting to be him. He was all we had. He became our hero, our role model, to some of us, our father. All because he could do things with a basketball that nobody else could do. He, especially when he went into Dr. J mode, was able to transcend what the game was all about. He made every kid who watched him play feel something. And to this day, some of us have never experienced those feelings again.
My eyes are locked on him now. I’m watching his hands move as he makes a point to me in this life lesson that some of you will see as only an interview. These same hands that over 16 years produced 30,000 points, unbelievable moves, legendary dunks, and carried the weight of two leagues (one to beyond-cult status, the other into prosperity), were stressing the importance of balance. They were telling me about a career that embodied what black life tends to be all about: expression. The hands that changed the game of basketball forever were directly in front of me, speaking volumes about what I always wanted to know as a child. And I soon learned that the life of Dr. J was never about basketball; it was about being a man.
To some of us, basketball was the only outlet. In my mind, there was never anything else. Because I’m still alive to tell this story, I realize that Julius Erving is in front of me now to remind me that life begins once the ball stops bouncing.
SLAM: Two years. For two years you put me on hold. I’m not even nervous anymore [laugh]. Why?
JULIUS ERVING: Timing. I believe timing is everything. Me and you were consistent the whole time; we knew what was up. There was no real sense of urgency. You were going to be around, I was going to be around. I mean, just to do a story to get it out…
SLAM: Yeah, that’s true, because everytime we saw each other you made sure that we were taking care of everybody else. [In a deep voice] “OK, Scoop, did you get Gervin? Did you get the Big O? Did you get Artis? What about DT?” It was like you wanted to make sure everybody got theirs before you got yours. Is that the type of person you are?
ERVING: My story is going to be here [laughs], and yes, I believe that all of the people you mentioned deserve attention, especially in terms of the ABA significance. Gervin, Gilmore, Billy Knight, George McGinnis, the coaches, the owners–I’d like to see them all get play, because it’s been 21 years since the last ABA game and I never want the league to be looked upon as a CBA. I want it to be looked upon as a competitive rival to the NBA that because of the talent in the league and the competitive capability, forced an absorption of the last four franchises [Indiana, San Antonio, New Jersey, Denver] and made the NBA better.
I’ve never been one to seek attention or publicity unless it was necessary. So to put a lot of weight on my story just for the sake of doing it…I’ll just say that I think the quality of the story can only be enhanced by us waiting.
SLAM: Since we’re on the ABA, when people say, “Dr. J was the ABA,” how does that make you feel?
ERVING: As much as it may be flattering for someone to say that, I think it belittles the totality of the situation. In my mind, if you just look at it as Julius Erving just being the ABA, I think that I may have had the greatest influence as far as the league receiving recognition-but in no way was it just or all about me. And a lot of that had to do with timing. Once again, timing is important.
The ABA existed nine years; I participated in five of those years. The first five years versus the last four were drastically different. TV became more interested in the league, the media became more interested in our league, then there was the significance of the Nets/Nuggets series [the last ABA Championship series], plus the NBA. So when they say Julius Erving was the ABA, it’s a nice pat on the back, nice kudos, but it’s really not the answer to anything.
SLAM: Was that series the best basketball you’ve ever played? I mean, in my mind there are only three series in history that stand out as unreal: Bernard King’s ’84 playoff series against Detroit, Hakeem’s series against David Robinson a couple of years ago and yours against the Nuggets in ’76…
ERVING: Let me tell you about that-now that team had an exact identity. We were so in-sync with one another that the last month of the season, [coach Kevin] Loughery was so shrewd, he said to me, “I want you to go on vacation the last month so that you can be ready for the playoffs.” [Laughs.] This is what he said! He said, “Go to the islands, go somewhere, whatever…” And I said, “I can’t do that, coach.” So he said, “Well if you’re gonna stay, I’m only going to play you in the first quarter. So do whatever you’ve got to, just do it in the first quarter.” At the time I was leading the league in scoring, averaging about 29 a game. It was me and [George] McGinnis. So the last three weeks of the season, I was averaging like 12-13 points in the first quarter, then I’d sit down.
It was a sacrifice, because I wound up losing the scoring title, but by the time the playoffs came, I was fresh. I was healthy, I was ready. To the point where, in the first practice before the playoffs started, we had a lay-up line. And everybody was dunkin’ the ball. Boom, boom, boom. And I went in and…BOOM! Everything came down. The glass, the rim, everything. Matter of fact, I still have the rim at my house. After that, coach was like, “A’ight, y’all go home.”
And in the series with Denver, you now, I started off with 45 and 48 points back-to-back. I felt good. And the next four games, I don’t think I scored under 30 against them. So I probably don’t have a better time in which I played better basketball. I don’t think so. At least not in a playoff series. And that season, for all intents and purposes, it was really a season of being in total control, and it could have gone to any level.
SLAM: You once said that George Gervin was the best basketball player you’ve ever seen.
ERVING: No, I said George was the person I’d pay to see. Abdul-Jabbar is the best. He’s the guy I rate No. 1 as the best player.
SLAM: OK, then didn’t you once say, before anybody else was thinking like this, that Scottie Pippen was the best two-man in the history of basketball?
ERVING: Yeah, yeah. I said that before Michael retired [Ed.'s note: actually before the Bulls won their third championship]. There are certain things that he does for that team that Michael doesn’t do. Definitely defensively. I think offensively he’s always conscious of getting the other guys involved. Not to take anything away from Michael, but I think Scottie is just more cognizant of the total package, and that makes them complement each other real well.
SLAM: Who do you see more of your game in, Michael’s or Scottie’s?
ERVING: I think in the beginning it was Michael’s, but I think as time went on, more like Scottie’s. Scottie’s style in terms of taking the ball to the hole, and I think Michael’s as far as scoring from different positions and different angles.
SLAM: And man, you had angles…
ERVING: That’s funny, because I had a conversation with Bill Russell once, and he was saying that guys could get him once, but they couldn’t get him again because he’d always remember what their move was. So I said, “Bill, if I came down on you, I’m not even sure what I would want to do, so there’s no way you would know.” [Laughs.] He said, “Doc, I’d find a way to get you. I wouldn’t let you just come in dunking on me.” I said, “Bill, I could dunk on anybody.” So we went back and forth, back and forth. He was sure of himself…and I was sure of myself. I said, “Bill, you might get a few, but you ain’t getting ‘em all. I got too many.” [Laughs.]
SLAM: Has anybody ever told you thank you? I mean, you “raised” a generation of kids, especially black kids, that weren’t yours. Everyone from Magic to Grant Hill gives you credit for being more than just a role model in their lives; it was more like a father thing. In my life, it was my pops, Muhammad Ali and you-between the three of you, I learned about manhood. Has anyone else just walked up to you and said, “Thanks Doc”?
ERVING: Yeah, they have. A lot of cats, they come up to me, and they say, “You don’t know how you affected my life.” So I do get it.
And I looked at this, and I thought about it too, because you know my dad was gone. He and my mom separated when I was three, and he died when I was nine. My mother remarried when I was 13, so I had a stepfather until he passed when I was 34. And his role throughout my life made me feel very conscious of going through the transition from one who was being mentored to becoming the mentor. Because of that, I definitely feel as though I have been a mentor to a couple of generations of young black people, particularly young black men.
SLAM: So even though you were just playing ball, you felt the responsibility to fill that void?
ERVING: There’s no question that there is a responsibility to young boys and girls who are not yours when you are an influence in their lives. You have to step up to the challenge of being a positive influence and standing for something. Otherwise you will fall for anything. And I never wanted to be an extremist about it, because I think that the extremist viewpoint is very dangerous. So my thing was balance. I was always looking for balance. And I base this on the demand for me to get out and publicly speak. Youth games, boy’s clubs, YMCA’s, all of those things. Why would they call? Why would they want me to be there if I didn’t represent some sort of model to them that either helped to fill a void or represented something?
I’ve always taken that seriously. And I’ve always felt that I’m not going to go anywhere without really being prepared to say something that means something-and I refuse to just talk basketball. As John Thompson said, “The air can always be let out of the ball at any moment.”
SLAM: So how did you separate the man from the ballplayer?
ERVING: As much as I reveled in the Dr. J image on the court, off the court I always introduced myself as Julius Erving-and I always had to fight being viewed as the alter ego, the Dr. J. Most of the time, it worked out though, because I could separate the two and I could make demands to be looked at as a man off the court. As time went on, I think the off-the-court persona became dominant, to the point where I’d walk in some doors and basketball wasn’t even an issue. I began to be respected as a man, a black man and as a serious person regarding life and things that are challenging. And I’m very comfortable with that.
SLAM: Do you feel blessed?
ERVING: I feel absolutely blessed, and I also feel that it was made to happen, it didn’t just happen. It was made to happen by demanding it. I think that as an athlete, you have to get to a point where in meeting people they don’t just look at you as a jock. There’s nothing wrong with being a jock, but being looked at as one full-time and that’s your only sphere-there’s something wrong with that. You’ve got to have levels, and you’ve got to make demands.
SLAM: Could you please clear up this Rucker Park story about Joe Hammond droppin’ 50 on you in one half?
ERVING: When I first heard the story, a couple of years ago, I was kinda happy. I was like, guys like Joe, guys like Manigault, give them some play because they really mean a lot to the community. Now the story is that Joe showed up at halftime and scored 50…on me [laughs].
From my perspective, Joe heard about our team and showed up for one of the games. I think his team was the Rucker Pros. It was him, Pee Wee Kirkland, and I can’t remember who their big guys were. Anyway, Joe came at the beginning of the game. He played guard, and he played against Charlie Scott. And Charlie was the best player on our team. Now, he and Charlie got into a kinda shoot-out. They shot the ball every time they came down court, it was like a one-on-one. I think they both scored over 30, 40 points, but they both played the whole game. And my game, I played my game. I basically just played my game that day. I was probably getting 30 points, 20 rebounds every night. We beat them. He showed up for that game and never showed up again. And honestly, that was the only time I saw him.
So the story was more about Joe and Charlie more than it was Joe and me, but I kinda became a bigger name than Charlie, so later on when they started talking about it, I was the guy they picked.
SLAM: Someone’s always testing you, huh?
ERVING: I understand that people have needs. I mean, it doesn’t bring me down-if anything, it brings you up. Like that high school kid that dunked on Michael Jordan in the summer, he’s got something to talk about the rest of his life. I mean, you want things to be valid, but some things you just got to let slide.
SLAM: What don’t you let slide?
ERVING: There was this one time at Rucker, and this big guy got me, low-bridged me. I went in and I hit the ground hard-this is asphalt. The cat kneed me and gave me this snarl; I mean he was like 6-10, two-fi’ty. And I got up and said to myself, the next time I go in something’s gonna happen. I don’t know what it is, but something’s gonna happen.
When I came back the next time, I got the ball on the wing, and I just came in. He stuck his hand in front of the rim, and I just…POW! I just heard his fingers crackin’. He broke like two fingers, and I just threw the ball through the rim hard. After it happened, I said to myself, “You kind of a mean son-of-a-bitch sometimes.”
Right then, I had to make a decision on what type of player I was going to be. And that was like a moment in which I learned something about myself, and I didn’t like myself at that time. I knew from then on I never wanted to be out of control emotionally. But I had to pay him back [laughs].
SLAM: OK, clear this one up for me. Rumor has it that during the practice session of the dunk contest in ’76, you were doing a standing-at-the-free-throw-line dunk.
SLAM: Yeah, I was there and I didn’t see it, but I heard that you could actually stand on the foul line, rock your body, and when you got enough momentum, spring and dunk.
ERVING: Like I said, validation [laughing]. Man, that thing is hard enough to do running. Mike Powell or Carl Lewis couldn’t do that dunk. The actual dunk was standing on the baseline [out-of-bounds, behind the basket], leaping out, and dunking backwards. That’s a dunk.
SLAM: And you did that?
ERVING: Yeah. I had Jerry [Stackhouse] trying to do it, and he couldn’t.
SLAM: Word its that all your strength was in your afro [laughs]. Ice, Steve Jones, all of them have stories about your ‘fro. In all honesty, yours wasn’t that big, but it kind of defined you. I think people made your afro bigger than it actually was.
ERVING: Things get exaggerated. It’s like the fish that got away. It was a six-pound fish, now he was an 18-pound fish, but he got away. [Julius begins to smile.]
Always with pride. I always wore my ‘fro with pride. I think that during that era, it was an important time of self-expression. Now, Darnell Hillman got me into pickin’ out the ‘fro. He had the big rake, and he had the blow drier. I didn’t used to blow my ‘fro out, I used to comb my ‘fro. I started pickin’ it in college and just laid it back. But Darnell was into it! So I kinda followed suit. Mine never got as large as his, but it was in the same league. And when I’d run, it would just go back, almost part itself. It got a little ridiculous, but I had to roll with it.
SLAM: Speaking of blowin’ up, you really blew up by word-of-mouth. When you were doing your thing, there was no television, no marketing, no ESPN. It was just like, before you even stepped into the NBA, everybody knew about you. It was just legendary story after legendary story of the things you were doing that nobody got to see. What do you think would have happened to you if you had all the outlets then that are available to athletes now?
ERVING: In terms of my personality or in terms of the blow-up?
SLAM: As far as the blow-up.
ERVING: Oh, the blow-up would have been a given. Because I go all over the world now, and people know me. So it was there, but it wasn’t out to the masses. It was a different methodology; the global marketing wasn’t like it is now. It was like a cult thing, like you said, word-of-mouth. But not just me, what about Oscar [Robertson] or Jerry West? With the global marketing, how big would they have been? Bigger than life. And now it seems like that’s the criteria: you’re either big or you’re bigger than life.
SLAM: My cousin came by my office one day and brought his 9-year-old son with him. Now, in my office I have a poster of you. I asked little Chris if he knew who that was. He said, “Yeah, that’s Dr. J. My Daddy told me that he was the greatest player ever.” My father used to do the same thing to me with Elgin [Baylor]; he used to say Elgin was the greatest. I told him I thought you were the greatest. It took my pops a long time, but he finally conceded and gave in to you being the best. What’s going to happen to your aura when little Chris tells his Daddy that he thinks Michael Jordan is the best and not Julius Erving? Is it our responsibility to keep your legacy alive?
ERVING: I think basketball is just a game. Let me put it this way: To me, Marvin Gaye is the greatest singer ever. You know what I mean? You listen to Luther and all of these other great singers, but when Marvin comes on, I gotta stop! He moves me. I gotta stop and say, “That’s the man.” Now someone may come along and lay 10 or 20 tracks and get the job done. You know, one of the ages, a classic. But it’s not Marvin, who is the standard for me.
I think sports it the same thing. This is not going to determine whether or not there’s going to be peace and happiness in the world [laughs]; it’s not about life or death. It’s about choices and tastes. Yes I do believe that we need to support the tradition and recognize what others have done, but we don’t need to play one off against the other. Just because Michael comes along doesn’t change anything.
What I’m talking about is how these players make you feel when you see them play? Elgin, Connie, myself, Michael. To know that you are watching something special happen that’s artistic. Something that is profound. Something that is going ot make you sit back and say, “I’m moved.” Why recognize a guy at the expense of another guy? Enjoy it, because there’s only a handful of people that are going to move you.