Julius Erving never played the role that Babe Ruth did, the savior of his sport. Nor was he ever a pioneer, as Jackie Robinson and Billie Jean King were. And certainly he was no revolutionary; no Ali he, no Curt Flood. A commissioner of the ABA once said that "Julius isn't the franchise; he's the league," but history will show that two other players—Rick Barry, for jumping leagues; Spencer Haywood, for signing as an undergraduate—were the principals most responsible for sewing the ABA together out of scraps and rags of superfluidity and disinterest. Dr. J wasn't Broadway Joe.
Erving wasn't an original in quite the same way that Ruth was, or Bill Russell, or Bobby Orr or Pele. However distinctive his style, Erving owed a tremendous debt to Elgin Baylor, and lesser amounts to Bob Cousy, Connie Hawkins and all the Globetrotters, Gus Johnson and Earl Monroe. He wasn't even the first great leaper; when Erving was a child on Long Island, Jumpin' Jackie Jackson was already a playground legend, able, the breathless tales went, to rocket so high that he could "take a quarter off the top of the backboard and make change on the way down."
It is also possible, that, of all the people who have played games in the 20th century, perhaps two or three have been nicer human beings than Julius Winfield Erving II.
Still, for all that Dr. J wasn't, what he was, in sum, was significant. Each part of him was nearly consummate, so that, taken as a whole, he may well have been more whole than any other athlete of his era.
Like one of his dunks from the free-throw line, when time and gravity are put on hold, it is an eon that Erving has passed through. Consider the moment when he arrived in pro basketball, a UFO from the Yankee Conference, to join a team known as the Virginia Squires. The Knicks ruled the game, and pro basketball had suddenly become fashionable, that year's Baby Jane Holzer. For all America, pro basketball was touted as "the sport of the 70s."
By the end of that decade, when Erving was becoming a folk hero, he had been drafted by Milwaukee, played a couple of exhibitions for Atlanta, been peddled to the New York Nets and then dealt to Philadelphia, where the roof was wont to blow off the arena in high winds. The sport of the '70s was lucky just to get through the decade alive. Franchises could not be given away.
But now, as Erving troops the line for the last time, pro basketball is the one sport whose TV ratings have been constant, with record attendance and marketable assets and petitioners from Florida to Minnesota willing to pay $32.5 million apiece for franchises. Meanwhile, Erving has settled comfortably into a suburban squire's life in Philadelphia where he is a noted father, an honored citizen and a captain of industry.
In other words, Dr. J can take his leave now because he has tended to the business very well.
An athlete's personality and deportment always count, of course, but they shouldn't matter. In Erving's case, though, it was important that he was so exemplary a person. First of all, although it isn't fair, it is a fact that the black athlete suffers greater scrutiny than his white colleague. Also, by chance, Erving's years of greatest ability and visibility coincided, roughly, with a time when professional basketball was being criticized for being too black, and when black basketball players were easy targets: selfish, greedy, filthy rich. Critics wrote off the pro game as repetitive and jejune and altogether too black for a world of mostly white ticket buyers and television commercial watchers.
Just by being himself, Erving—as the premiere player, exhibit A—made it more difficult for whites to generalize negatively. In this, there was resonance of the young Joe Louis.
From the first, Erving was more than charming and cooperative; he was mature, levelheaded and bright. The only people who ever found fault with him were a captious few who simply could not believe that anyone could be so endearing without putting it on. But then, anybody who ever saw Dr. J play knew he was much too spontaneous to affect false airs (let alone to pull it off for 16 years). A few months ago The Denver Post conducted an informal poll of sportswriters and sports-casters across the country, trying to identify the "nicest" people in sports. Erving's name appeared on by far the largest number of ballots.
A man named Bill Daniels once owned a team in the ABA known as the Utah Stars. Daniels made the effort one day simply to write Erving, who was then with the Nets, an unadulterated fan letter. "What class you have!" it began, and went on from there. Daniels made a point of sending a copy to every other owner in the league, an extraordinary encomium from a rival, probably unique in sport.
At the same time that Erving was establishing his singular reputation, basketball aficionados were beginning to recognize him as the best player in the world. This was not altogether a universal acclaim, though. Erving had played college ball at Massachusetts as a nobody, and, performing in the ABA was the athletic equivalent of joining Peter Pan's lost boys. The league was, for all intents and purposes, never on television, and its outposts were scattered hither and yon. Colette, the French novelist, once wrote: "Shakespeare worked without knowing that he would become Shakespeare." Erving hadn't yet been formally introduced to Dr. J.
Somehow, the ABA managed to achieve the worst of both worlds. It was no competition for the NBA (as the AFL had been for the NFL), yet it sent salaries skyrocketing for both leagues. It's all very nice for myopic New Yorkers to look back fondly now and sob about how Dr. J deserved to have spent his years in New York, but the fact is that—in spite of all those alleged basketball connoisseurs in New York—there weren't enough Nets fans to sell out a single regular-season game in the three years Erving played on Long Island.
When, in 1976, what was left of the ABA was finally bagged as a take-out order for the NBA, Erving was employed primarily as leverage to get the Knicks to share their market. Roy Boe, the Nets' owner, desperately in debt, tried first to sell Erving to the Knicks for admission to the big league. Michael Burke, the Knicks president, who died a couple of months ago, politely turned Boe down. "Roy, that just isn't what we're up to here," Burke replied, in what may have been the last noble moment in the sports business. Later, when Boe had the Nets safely in the NBA, he dished Erving off to the 76ers. Philadelphia has been a respectable contender ever since, as Dr. J's fame quickly caught up with his underground reputation.
Still, if Erving had merely been the best player in the world; if he had merely been the best player in the world who was also the nicest guy in the world—if he were simply that, his departure from the game would not be treated in the extraordinary manner that it has been. There is always a prettiest girl, a fastest gun, a best player, a nicest guy. No, for all his talent and humanity, what has set Julius Erving apart is the way he combined excellence and entertainment in sports.
Baylor had done it, too, but somehow he was lost in the shadows; perhaps people were not quite ready to understand Baylor. They were when Dr. J came along. He didn't break any records; he didn't force any rule changes. But what he did was to alter the perception of the game, and the way people appreciated it. Surely, that is the rarest accomplishment for any athlete.
For comparison, think of the two indisputably great athletes who were Erving's contemporaries on Broad Street: Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton. Both have been as accomplished at playing baseball as Erving has been at basketball. Yet for all their strikeouts and wins and homers and MVP trophies, baseball is no different because of them.
More than any single player, though, Erving transformed what had been a horizontal game (with occasional parabolas) into a vertical exercise. Basketball is now a much more artistic game than it was before—than any game was before—because of Julius Erving. The slam, before the Doctor, was essentially an act of power—a stuff is what it was usually called—as great giants jammed the ball through the hoop. Erving transformed the stuff into the dunk, and made what had been brutal and a product of size into something beautiful and a measure of creativity.
Because of Dr. J there is no longer the bias that a spectacular athlete cannot also be an accomplished one. Indeed, in basketball, there is a high correlation between dazzle and talent—and that is the legacy of Julius Erving. When the Harlem Globetrotters were a legitimately fine team, they would occasionally halt their comic antics (say, against the College All-Stars) to engage in what was pointedly referred to as "serious basketball." Today, such performers as Michael Jordan or Dominique Wilkins—leading members of the Erving School—or Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, of different academies, are at their very best precisely when they are also at their most entertaining.
It is interesting that all the plays on words about Erving's nickname have, invariably, accepted doctor as physician. So we have: The Doctor cut up the opposition. He operated. He showed a surgeon's skill. And so forth. But, in the final analysis, the Doctor was more like a Ph.D, one who studied and learned, and then passed on his knowledge. The Doctor's gift was that he added to the game and helped us to enjoy it so much more.
The Doctor was a teacher, a professor; the Doctor was a gentleman and a scholar.