CHICAGO – Everyone who knew Julius Erving has a story, and they all were about the same. I had one as well.
Erving, the famed Dr. J who celebrated the 30th anniversary of his only NBA championship at the end of May, is regarded as likely the most famous and spectacular dunker in basketball history. NBA-TV aired a 90-minute documentary on his life and career on Monday night.
His foul line dunk in the first dunk contest, which was in the 1976 American Basketball Association All-Star Game, his swooping behind the basket dunk in the 1980 Finals against the Lakers, his rock the cradle dunk in the 1983 finals, they were the templates that all famous dunks have been measured against.
Erving’s massive hands, extra long arms and graceful athleticism in many respects defined the art of pro basketball showmanship. There were performers who came before, like Elgin Baylor and Earl Monroe. And many who followed, like Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
But there was never anyone quite like the Doctor, as everyone around basketball has known him.
But when you ask anyone who knows Erving, they will tell you about kindness and concern before basketball moves.
He’s never exactly been the warmest person. Friendly, sure. Reassuring, yes. But not particularly revealing.
He has suffered losses that hardened him, his younger brother to lupus when Julius was 19, his sister to cancer when he was 34 and his son to drowning in 2000. The tragedies, perhaps, served to separate Erving from revealing too much of his inner self.
But he always believed in his role and being the proper and appropriate representative of his loves in life, his family who raised him and the game he wrapped himself in.
I had arranged an interview with Erving, which was much easier back then than now with walls of agents and representatives between players and media and fans. I had contacted the 76ers and they said they wouldd give the message to Erving.
He didn’t know me well. I had been around some of his games and playoff series, but I lived in Chicago and covered the Bulls.
But Julius was the NBA in many respects, and like with Jordan later and LeBron now, what he said towered above most everything else even in the era of Magic and Bird.
The 76ers asked when and I just said 2 p.m. It didn’t much matter. They said they would give Doc the message.
Now, remember, this was when he was perhaps the elite star of all American sports, the holder of the mythical torch of responsibility for the game.
There really was no such thing until Doc came along. But then it became something symbolically to be handed down. You were the one responsible for the good of the game even if you didn’t control it. You merged dignity with excitement and you carried that forward in the game.
I was there in Erving’s last season when he met Jordan before a game in the old Chicago Stadium and their handshake was an acknowledgement it was Michael’s league then.
Michael would then pass it off to Kobe, albeit reluctantly, and Kobe to LeBron similarly. Everyone knew who represented the game, and Doc was truly the first who was the symbol that everyone recognized as the game.
So it was just after 2 p.m. and the phone rang.
Sorry, Julius was saying, for calling a few minutes late. He got tied up in traffic and had gotten off the road. He was at a phone booth just off the highway (check an old encyclopedia if you don’t know what a phone booth was).
I could hear the traffic whizzing by.
And off Erving went answering every one and all of my questions until I apologetically was talked out.
Sure you have got enough? Erving asked.
Then he went back to his car and continued on his journey.
It’s been a classic journey for Erving, representative of what Americans like to believe is their spirit even if it often gets denied to African-Americans. But Julius Erving was the American success story.
He was born to a poor family on Long Island, which essentially is a suburb of New York City. His father left the family early and died when Julius was three.
He was shy, not regarded as a star athlete as much for his desire not to show up or embarrass opponents unlike so many players today. No trash talking for Julius.
He wasn’t much recruited from high school, but through a recommendation did get a scholarship to the University of Massachusetts, which was hardly a basketball powerhouse.
His game grew there, but the legend came in the famous New York City playgrounds, where he could unbutton his coat of civility and let the emotions of his game flow.
The NBA at the time was not accepting players unless they went to college four years. So with a working mother making little money, he signed with the fledgling and underdog ABA and became its star and symbol.
His success as much as anything saved the league and led to the merger with the NBA in 1976. One of the provisions of the merger was to get Erving on an NBA team, and he was sold by the ABA New York Nets to the Philadelphia 76ers.
He would finally win that elusive title with the 76ers in 1983 once they added center Moses Malone to play with him.
Doc wasn’t one of the 10 best ever to play in the NBA. Not as good as Michael or Kobe or Lebron because he lacked that jump shot, the all-around perimeter player combined with the amazing interior skills and explosiveness.
So his title list is shorter. But his legend is as great as any.
If you are around an American sports fan and talk about having seen the doctor, you will be asked about dunks and not disease.
There was no one like Dr. J.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”