The Good Doctor
From helping keep the ABA afloat to keeping himself in the air, Julius “Doctor J” Erving was the man.
Today marks Dr. J’s 62nd birthday and what better way to commemorate than to run a classic SLAM piece featuring the Good Doctor? This piece, featured in SLAM 116, chronicles the career and unbelievable athleticism of Julius Erving; from his ABA career to his incredible Dunk Contest exploits to, finally, his time spent with the 76ers. Senior writer Alan Paul got the chance to talk with those who spent time with Dr. J throughout his illustrious career, and the results are online for the first time ever. Enjoy. —Ed.
by Alan Paul / @AlPaul
No player in any sport has ever defined his league quite the way Julius Erving did for the ABA. Dr. J was the ABA. His presence alone probably kept the league afloat for the last two years of its existence and definitely played a huge role in the NBA’s decision to merge with the ABA in 1976, absorbing four of their rival’s strongest squads, including Doc’s New York Nets.
It was a reflection of not only how great Doc was, but how different, special and dominant he was. Great players come along every year, but true difference makers are much more rare, appearing a few times in each generation. They become milestones and you can measure basketball in terms of their arrival, dividing the sport into pre and post-eras.
Julius Winfield Erving II was one of those players. He changed the way the game is played, forever leaving behind the old floor-bound chess match for a new paradigm that was more athletic and graceful—a mid-air ballet punctuated by violent dunks.
Even while Doc ushered in the modern era of hoops, he was also one of the last creatures of the past epoch. In today’s hype-filled world where the best players risk overexposure before they turn 18, it’s hard to imagine that Dr. J was actually underexposed. His fiercest, most creative, wild and athletic play—the stuff that really revolutionized basketball, merging the playground and the arena into one streamlined game—took place in the final years of the teetering American Basketball Association. The league lacked TV deals and played many games before small crowds in rickety arenas far off the beaten path. Tales of exploits spread the old fashioned way—by word of mouth, with true believers screaming out his praises. Word moved through the hoops world that a new heir to Elgin Baylor and Connie Hawkins was taking skywalking to new heights.
A Long Island native, Doc was not highly recruited out of Roosevelt HS and he enrolled at the University of Massachusetts in 1968. He averaged 26.3 ppg and 20.2 rpg in two varsity seasons before leaving to join the ABA’s Virginia Squires. Doc had a eureka moment in his very first game, when he drove to the rim and was challenged by the Kentucky Colonels’ 7-2 Artis Gilmore and 6-9 Dan Issel.
“I went in between both of them and just hung there and waited for them to come down. Then I dunked on them so hard I fell on my back,” Erving once told the Boston Globe. “Just doing that made me confident to go after anyone, anytime, anywhere, without any fear.” And so he did.
As a rookie, Doc went for 27 ppg and 15 rpg and was Second Team All-League. At the end of that season, eager to get some more shine, Erving decided to switch to the NBA. He signed with the Atlanta Hawks, only to have the case taken to court, where a judge ruled he remained Squires’ property.
Rather than pouting, Doc returned to the ABA and led the league with 31.9 ppg, while still playing in relative obscurity, his exploits visible only to the lucky few who made it to a game. His visibility received a boost after the season when the Squires traded him to the Nets. There he averaged 27.4 ppg, led the team to a title and was named both regular season and playoff MVP. Still, his profile was relatively low; the Nets were at the bottom of the New York sports totem pole and they didn’t sell out a single regular season game.
The entire ABA was on shaky legs by then, but crowds would fill arenas to see Doc play and his open court theatrics could turn even the most rabid bunch against the home team. When he was coaching the Kentucky Colonels, Hubie Brown feared such turncoat cheering so much that all payers were ordered to foul Erving if he got into the open court—even if he were 20 feet from the basket. Those who failed to do so and allowed a dunk were fined $50.
“Historically…the only other player in the same class [as Doc] is Michael Jordan,” broadcaster Steve Jones, an opponent of Erving’s in the ABA said in the book Loose Balls, a history of the ABA. Jones noted that Jordan’s jumper was better than Erving’s. But, he added, “Julius played higher above the rim and he was a far better rebounder than Michael.”