Years before Julius Erving became the iconic Dr. J and one of basketball’s all-time legends, he established a friendship with Bob Nash that has lasted for decades.
Before Erving began his collegiate career at the University of Massachusetts, and before Nash attended San Jacinto College, a two-year school in Texas, the future pros first squared off in the spring of 1968.
They met in upstate New York in the Schoolboy Basketball Classic, an annual event featuring teams from the Empire State and the New York City metropolitan region, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Nash, who’s from Hartford, competed for the Connecticut squad; Erving, out of Roosevelt, New York, on Long Island, suited up for the NYC area squad.
“All I know is that I played extremely well in the tournament and I did what I did back then, which was rebound and run the floor for layups,” Nash said by telephone from Toyama last week.
“We were both about the same level at the time,” added Nash, who completed his third season as head coach of the bj-league’s Toyama Grouses earlier this month. “We were just very competitive. The whole high school scene was very competitive.”
This, however, remains Nash’s initial impression of Erving, the fifth all-time leading scorer (30,026 points) in combined ABA/NBA history: “He was just long and athletic and had big hands, he jumped out of the gym, could dunk. He could do everything. . . . He was just a phenomenal basketball player.”
By 1970, the budding collegiate stars had progressed as players.
The 203-cm Nash had completed his two years in Texas and moved on to the University of Hawaii, where he became a famed part of the school’s Fabulous Five teams of 1970-72, along with John Penebacker, Al Davis, Jerome Freeman and Dwight Holiday, that went 47-8 in that span, including the Rainbows’ first-ever NIT and NCAA tournament appearances, and popularized basketball in the Aloha State. (An impressionable young boy named Barack Obama was among UH’s captivated fans at that time.)
The 198-cm Erving couldn’t play varsity ball in the 1968-69 season due to NCAA rules at the time. But his 1969-70 sophomore season was a harbinger of things to come. He averaged 25.7 points and 20.9 rebounds for UMass.
That summer, Erving and Nash reunited in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for the U.S. Olympic basketball development team camp. As noted in “Dr. J: The Autobiography,” written with Karl Taro Greenfield and published in 2013, Erving was only selected as an alternate for the team’s camp, but was so impressive that he made the team for the European tour.
“We spent almost three weeks in Colorado Springs preparing for the development team,” Nash, who turns 65 in August, recalled. “During that time, we got to know each other very well.”
Since then, their friendship has continued.
“I run into him at certain events here and there,” Nash stated, “but we don’t speak once a month or anything like that. It’s just chance meetings, that kind of thing, not anything regular or planned.”
The 1970 development squad’s roster included future NBA players Paul Westphal, Tom McMillen (a future U.S. Congressman), Ricky Sobers and James Brown, who became a high-profile sports announcer. John Bach, now 90, one of Phil Jackson’s deputies during the Chicago Bulls’ first three-peat, was the assistant coach and James Gudger the head coach.
More than 40 players tried out for the team before the final 12 were picked.
“It was just a very competitive month of basketball,” Nash said.
And then, in August, they embarked on their journey to Europe, where the Americans posted a 10-4 record with games in the Soviet Union, Estonia, Poland and Finland.
Dr. J’s teammates voted him MVP of the tour. This, of course, became something the 1993 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee grew accustomed to in the years to come. A five-time ABA All-Star and 11-time NBA All-Star, Erving was selected three times as an ABA MVP and was the NBA MVP for the 1980-81 season.
For Nash, that trip boosted his confidence.
“I always felt that I had skills and being able to compete with some of the college players at that time, it was special for me,” he says now. “And then to make the team over some of the players was really a big momentum boost for me going forward and having two more years of college to play.”
It was, he added, “a great summer of basketball for me, being able to compete every day. You were graded out every day. . . . It was a grind, but I’ve never been afraid of hard work and dedicated myself to make the team.”
Erving wore the No. 6 jersey for the Olympic development team; Nash donned No. 7.
A natural showman in the years to come with gravity-defying moves and above-the-rim antics that thrilled spectators in the upstart ABA, Erving was more low key on the trip to Europe. Or as Nash put it: “It wasn’t necessarily individual. It was all about trying to get the job done as best as we could.”
Nash and Erving both began their pro careers before the 1972 Munich Summer Games, and, thus, were not a part of the team, the seven-time defending and never-before-beaten Olympic champions, who lost the gold-medal game, 51-50, to the Soviet Union in controversial fashion, with the final 3 seconds being re-added to the scoreboard twice. The American players famously refused to accept their silver medals, which remain in a Munich bank vault to this day.
Erving’s cousin Jeff Halliburton, a future Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers player, was one of Nash’s San Jacinto teammates. As a college student, Nash returned to the East Coast during the summers. He stayed on Long Island, competing in pickups games against Erving, Halliburton, Al Skinner and other future pros.
It was a test of will and skill.
“Certainly, whenever I played against Julius I always tried to do my very best,” Nash told Hoop Scoop, “because I felt like he was one of the best players of our time, and so I always wanted to measure myself against who was thought to be the best player and I always worked extremely hard against him, and some nights you had success and some nights you didn’t.
“But I certainly learned a lot from him and when he went on to the NBA, we battled. (But) when you know someone you know their moves, you know what they like to do, you just try to take away from them or just try to limit them as much as you can, and whenever I played him, that’s what I tried to do — limit some of the things that he was capable of doing. At the time, don’t let him drive; make him shoot jump shots and those kind of things, which at that point was a little bit of his weaknesses.”
Erving started his pro career as an undrafted free agent with the ABA’s Virginia Squires after his outstanding junior season at UMass (26.9 points, 19.5 rebounds). The rookie made an instant impact for the Squires, averaging 27.3 points as they reached the Eastern Division finals.
In the 1972 NBA Draft in April, Nash was selected No. 9 overall by the Detroit Pistons, while Erving was chosen 12th by the Milwaukee Bucks. Dr. J also spent the 1972-73 season with the Squires instead of joining a Milwaukee squad with Oscar “Big O” Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), but not before a three-game preseason stint with the rival NBA’s Hawks before lawyers stepped in and the legal proceedings sent him back to Virginia. By then, Erving was already at the height of his powers, scoring a league-high 31.9 ppg.
Dr. J’s remarkable accomplishments with the New York Nets (1973-76), which featured a pair of ABA titles including the final one, brought indisputable contributions to the game. While reflecting on the sport’s development, which traces its showmanship roots from Elgin Baylor and Erving to modern era stars like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, Nash recognizes Erving’s special place in basketball history.
“When the NBA and the ABA merged (in 1976) and the NBA recognized the showmanship, the dunks … the flair, the 3-point shot, all those things were very exciting, and so they adopted some of that when they merged and brought guys like Julius over,” Nash said.
“Guys like Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel, George McGinnis, all those players were coming into the league and bringing a different type of flair and an open run-and-gun type of basketball, and the scores started going through the roof. So I think it was exciting and certainly Julius had a lot to do with that because he was the big name. He was in the mecca of basketball in New York . . . and his game just kept elevating and elevating. He just kept proving he’s getting better and better and just became a global icon.
“It was him, it was Connie Hawkins that were really flashy and finesse and power all mixed into one, and then following them was George Gervin . . . and it just became a very exciting game.”
In the early 1970s, Erving’s hoop exploits captivated New York City during his annual summer forays to the Rucker Tournament in Harlem.
During the ’72 tournament, Nash made his Rucker debut for the Celtics, who were led by star guard Nate “Tiny” Archibald. In a game against Erving’s West Siders squad, Archibald had a 32-point game and the Celtics downed their foe 140-132 on an electric Saturday in June.
Erving poured in 56 points that day, and Nash recalled having a 28-point outing.
“I felt like I was half as good as he was,” Nash quipped.
“He was just a heck of a talent, and when you play at the Rucker and people are on top of buildings and the traffic is jammed, kids in trees and it seems like thousands of people pouring in an asphalt park … and you are going out there competing and it’s just back and forth and people will let you know if you don’t have game,” said Nash, who went up against Erving in the ABA when he played for the San Diego Conquistadors (1974-75), and then in the NBA while with the Kansas City Kings (1977-79).
“And we were competing and you just looked up and he was at a whole ‘nother level at that point when he was at the Rucker.”
The Rucker competition was fierce and pride was on the line. Those were the traditions and Erving was in his element.
“We’re talking about first-round picks from all over going into New York and competing and that was his home court,” Nash pointed out. “And when he stepped onto the court everybody came to the see the Doctor operate, and he did it.”
Competing against Erving was the ultimate measuring stick.
Said Nash: “Whenever you played against him, you always wanted to play against the best . . . whether I played good or played bad, it was a test for me to see if I made any improvement.”
Near the end of Erving’s career with the Sixers, Nash had already firmly established his coaching career at Hawaii, a 23-year run as an assistant, followed by a three-year stint as bench boss until 2010. At that time, the Doc made a shoe-company sponsored visit to Hawaii. This included a hoop clinic and a packed auditorium.
“It was supposed to be a 15-minute conversation and it took almost an hour,” Nash recounted. “He just captivated the audience.”
Nash mentioned former NBA stars Erving, Dave Bing, Bob Lanier and Tiny Archibald as visible role models who have used their celebrity status as a springboard for making positive changes in their communities.
“Those are the type of people I try to emulate or be like,” Nash said. “They set the right example for the future generations of players and people.”
He added: “The game of basketball is a bridge to a lot of different people and certainly it’s been a bridge to my friendship with Julius and some of the older NBA players I still stay pretty well connected with. So it’s been a good bridge.”
Despite the massive attention in the Big Apple during his heyday as a player and in later years with the 76ers (1976-87), Erving remains true to his roots.
“He always maintained the same demeanor as a person,” said Nash. “He never introduced himself as Dr. J. He was always Julius. He was just a regular guy.”
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