Q+A: Julius Erving


by Doobie Okon | Photos courtesy of Converse

Julius Erving and Converse were simply a perfect match in the ‘70s. Each court he stepped on, he subsequently flew off of. Dr. J was a true dunking magician, with the iconic big hair for a top hat and a pair of Pro Leather kicks for a wand.

And almost four decades later, they still look damn good together.

Erving made a special guest appearance at two Converse events held in Philadelphia last weekend, including the intimate Pro Leather retail launch party at the Ubiq store in the center city on Friday night. And I’ll tell you what—Converse puts together a gem of a sneaker and a hell of a party. Even before Dr. J made his red-carpet entrance into the store, the drinks were flowing, the food looked toothsome, and people were rocking out to Young Guru on the turntables upstairs.

The walls honored Erving, Philadelphia and the timelessness of Converse.

Along with the reissued Pro Leather line that was being launched, the renowned brand had many other sneakers and Philly-specific shirts for sale. My favorite: “I (heart) Whiz Wit”, with the Converse symbol for a heart.

Along the middle of the wall downstairs laid a long, colorful mural that caught my interest. Philly is known for its eye-popping murals, especially in the rougher neighborhoods of the city where the huge pieces of art often represent hope. This particular one’s author is Yis “NoseGo” Goodwin, a distinctive Philly-based street artist. Although I’m sure Converse did so in the other stops on the Block Party tour, it celebrated this particular city with class all weekend.

But after all, why wouldn’t Converse specifically honor Philadelphia? One of Converse’s faces over its history has been Julius Erving, and he made his mark both on the brand and this city in the same exact uniform. They’re tied together. And that’s why the Doctor received, and deserved, such a grand, limousine-chauffeured, Oscar-like entrance—he was walking into a place where he was truly loved by two entities: Converse and Philadelphia. And as he finally made his way through all the cameras, handshakes and craziness to the stage upstairs, he briefly and poignantly spoke to the crowd about both:

“I’d like to thank the Ubiq family, our gracious hosts. I’d like to thank Young Guru for rocking it up here, keeping it smooth, keeping it smooth. It’s good to be back in Philly. It’s such a special place in my heart, Philadelphia. I’m very fortunate in the game of basketball to establish a name for myself, and there were a lot of components to that. Being recruited here by the 76ers in a trade—they put a uniform on me. Changed my number from 32 to 6. So one of my heroes was a guy named Bill Russell, he wore No. 6. And now there’s another guy out there wearing No. 6… We’re still trying to figure out why he’s wearing No. 6. I won’t go no further than that.

(Gotta love it… the crowd laughed.)

“And with my uniform, I had on sneakers. Sneakers when I played. Sneakers when I practiced. Sometimes sneakers when I was out there shoveling snow. And each and every time I had on my sneakers, I had on my Converse. Back in ’76, when they started with the Pro Leathers, I was wearing them, and Larry Bird was wearing them, and Magic Johnson was wearing them. We helped to establish it as a great shoe and a great product. And since then when I was with the 76ers, before many of you were even born, the product has evolved on the court, off the court, in the playgrounds and also on the street. So we’re having a little celebration going on here, for the Pro Leather and the fact that it’s had staying power for so long and it’s been such a powerful force on and off the court. Converse truly is a shoe that has a personality.”

As Stalley made his way to the stage following Erving’s speech, we left the ensuing performance and followed the Hall of Famer to the back room where I would get the chance to sit down, one-on-one, with him for a few minutes. The opportunity of a lifetime with the singular Dr. J.

SLAM: What has Converse meant to you personally over the years?

Julius Erving: Well, you know, before my teenage years, I wore the Canvas Converse religiously. I had a paper route in order to buy my first pair. It might’ve been $5 for a pair. Maybe $7 when I was in high school, but I think my first pair was like $5. There were only two stores in my village that sold ’em over in Hempstead, Long Island. So when I got my first pair of Cons, they were special. And I never really looked back. It’s been a lifetime affair of having Converse shoes on my feet and it looks like it’s never gonna end. And I don’t really want it to end. I think it’s been a great match and you know when you’re consistent in wearing a product, it gives you credibility and gives your product credibility. So I want to represent that.

SLAM: And it should never end. Now I love the original Pro Leathers. I’m usually always for the retro, but the reissue with the new horween leather is damn nice. Which do you prefer? Or do you prefer another Converse shoe?

Dr. J: Well, actually, the Canvas shoes. I’m still always wearing some low-cut Canvas shoes. I’m also wearing some low-cut tennis-version shoes that I used to work out in. Then, of course I have my high-tops, my Pro Leather, which I love. And a version of the ‘weapons’ that I play ball with my kids in. So I’m in the gym maybe two, three times a month with my 13-year-old and my 10-year-old playing full court, half court, whatever. In those instances, I’m always trying to protect my ankles. Otherwise, I’m walking around in my low-cuts.

SLAM: All Converse, all the time.

Dr. J: Oh yeah. People see me in and around Atlanta and walking around with the Cons, they say, “You still rocking those shoes?” I’m like, Damn right.

SLAM: Well I’m gonna be around the stadium this year, so I’m holding you to that Doc!

Dr. J: Oh no doubt. We’ll have plenty of casual nights where I can wear ’em.

SLAM: So, onto the Sixers. You’re going to be a strategic advisor to Adam Aron (GM) and Josh Harris (Owner). Will you have a similar role as World B. Free does or are you actually giving day-to-day advice and consult?

Dr. J: I won’t be as visible as World B. Free because he does community relations. He’s there at every game. My role will be chiming in, mostly over the phone with Adam. Sometimes with Josh. Sometimes meeting with Josh in New York. And then sometimes coming to games and bringing my presence there when I have an agenda.

SLAM: What do you think about the team this year? Losing Lou Will and Elton is big, right?

Dr. J: Team’s making some changes, obviously. It’s definitely big to lose them. You have a chemistry issue. You have a talent issue. But I think they’re relying a lot on the young talent to maybe overachieve. You just don’t know. [Evan] Turner is going to be better. [Spencer] Hawes is gonna have full-time responsibility in the middle without Elton there to hold his hand. Gotta have a guy in that position who can go out and give you 38-42 minutes on certain nights. So we’ll see, but I think the progress has been good. And also, endearing the fans to the team and the stadium gets butts in the seats. And that’s the goal: keep them interested in the team. Keep them interested in the organization. Get some butts in the seats and continue to win games.

SLAM: Exactly, and a big part of the future success depends on the fans staying behind this team. As far as when you were playing, what was your favorite part about the fans?

Dr. J: When I first came over, we knew we were gonna have a poor amount of fans there. There were a lot of games that we didn’t sell out, unless it was against Boston, New York or L.A. or whatever. So that was definitely disappointing, especially when you would go to other cities and sell out other arenas. But when they’re behind you, they’re so passionate. They’re very diverse—they like to be selective in how they spend their entertainment dollar, and they want nothing but the best from their sports teams. So the team needs to be at its best in order to compete and sell out.

SLAM: As far as the NBA goes, what’s your view of the ‘super-team’ era? Has the League changed for better or worse since you played?

Dr. J: The League has gotten better. It’s big. It’s expanded. It’s a bigger business, a bigger corporation. The athletes are better, top to bottom. The stars are still the stars—it’s still a star-driven League. When you get past the stars, I definitely think there are role players who can do amazing things and are better than role players in the past.

SLAM: Do you think the Sixers need a star player, or need to just keep building through the Draft?

Dr. J: I think they have a leader in Iguodala. He really was the one to lead them to the seventh game in the second round of the Playoffs. He’s an Olympian, so maybe he’ll start getting some respect.

SLAM: And last one: I know there’s a lot of fuss that’s been made about this in the media… but Olympics, ’92 vs ’12, who ya got?

Dr. J: Well I take the ’92 team because they were the 11 very best players in the League. But now you have no Dwight Howard, no Derrick Rose, no Dwyane Wade. If you had them, it might be a standoff. But they’re not there, so I gotta give the edge to ’92. They had the very best in the world. Now you have 12 of the top 20, or even 12 of the top 15, but you don’t have the top 12.