The Good Doctor
From helping keep the ABA afloat to keeping himself in the air, Julius “Doctor J” Erving was the man.
The ABA was on the verge of collapse in 1976. One team folded in training camp and two more died early in the season, so the league was down to seven teams and one division by the time of the All Star Game, to be held at Denver’s McNichols Arena. Desperate to generate interest, someone came up with the then-wacky idea of a halftime slam dunk contest. To save money, contestants were limited to players in the game or playing for Denver, which still left them with a great five-man field: Doc, David Thompson, Artis Gilmore, Larry Kenon and George Gervin.
Everyone knew the real battle was between Doc and Thompson, who seemed to be Erving’s heir apparent before his career was tragically derailed by drug problems. Thompson raised the bar high with two dunks: a 360 launched from the corner (the same corner that Erving himself later called his favorite), and a ferocious reverse dunk from a standstill position. But he missed the throwdown when he threw himself a pass off the backboard. This left the door open for Dr. J to seal the win with one of the most famous dunks in hoops history.
“Julius went to the foul line, turned and started pacing off away from the basket,” former Nuggets GM Carl Scheer recalled in Loose Balls. The crowd screamed until Doc stopped, about three quarters court, and turned to face the basket. “There was silence,” Scheer said. “The crowd knew it was going to see something special.”
Doc took off with several long, graceful strides, until he reached the foul line. Then he soared into the air, holding the ball behind him, high above his head, before bringing it down with a thunderous but somehow still smooth slam. You can easily find all of these dunks on YouTube, and watching them what is most striking about all of Doc’s dunks is the ease, grace and fluidity. He truly made the remarkable look effortless.
A few months later, in the last ABA Finals, the Nets met the Nuggets and Doc led New York to its second title in three seasons, averaging 34.7 ppg in the Playoffs to be named MVP. He also won his third scoring title in four years, with 29.3 ppg and, of course, picked up his third straight MVP award. In five NBA seasons, Erving won two championships, three MVP trophies and three scoring titles.
The NBA took on the Nets, Spurs, Pacers and Nuggets, with the rest of the players dispersed through a draft. Erving was a key figure in the merger, but as the ’76-77 season approached, the Nets were locked in a salary dispute with him. Rather than move mountains to retain the game’s greatest player, the Nets sold him to the 76ers for $3 million only 24 hours before the start of the season. The boneheaded move cast a pall—maybe even a curse—over the franchise that would take 25 years and Jason Kidd to remove.
In Philly, Erving joined George McGinnis, another high-scoring former ABA star, as well as gunning guards Lloyd Free (later World B. Free) and Doug Collins. In this company, Doc kept himself under check and swallowed some of his theatrics for the good of the team. But anyone who thought Erving couldn’t match his ABA brilliance in the NBA was proven woefully wrong in the ’77 All-Star Game.
He walked off with the MVP trophy after dropping 30 points, 12 boards and 4 steals, solidifying the fact that, at least this once, you could believe the hype. Doc quickly became one of the first NBA stars known outside of the circle of hoops heads. He had been a Converse endorsee since ’75, but now his “One Stars” were becoming the shoes to have.
Terry Porter, a two-time All-Star who played 17 years and overlapped with Erving for two years, recalls his own joy at getting a pair of One Stars, a gift from his big brother and basketball mentor. “He told me he had a surprise waiting for me when I made the varsity team,” says Porter, now a Pistons assistant. “I came home filled with excitement when I made the team and he handed me a leather pair of One Star Docs—and they were a big step up from my canvas Pro Keds. They were the coolest shoes out.”
No wonder that years later when he himself made it to the League, Doc was the only fellow player to leave him star struck.
“I went to the All-Star Game and I got onto a hotel elevator and Doc was standing there and I felt like a 12 year-old kid, just thinking about the way my dad and brother loved him so much,” Porter recalls with a laugh. “I asked him for his autograph. He reached out and shook my hand with his giant hands engulfing mine.”
For a decade, Doc kept the Sixers amongst the League’s elite teams, earning a ring with the help of Moses Malone and the rest of a great team in 1983. All the while and for years after, his influence remained vast.
Dr. J retired in 1987, when Rasheed Wallace was 13. Still, Sheed chortles and looks cockeyed at the questioner when asked if Doc was a big influence on him coming up in Philly. “What do you think?” Sheed asks, rhetorically. “He was not only the best player in my city, but the best player in the League. Doc was the man!”