With extraordinary body control, a supernatural ability to hang in the air, long arms and steel-springed legs, Julius Erving illustrated an array of ways to dunk over 7-footers and spin in layups, even when he was pinned between the baseline and a defender or two. He floated in the air, waiting for an opening to glide through, stretch his long arms and descend toward the rim like a plane landing.
Starting in the ABA, and then with the Philadelphia 76ers, Dr. J would swoop to the basket with the ball resting at the end of his fully extended arm and size 11 hand, hanging in the air, contorting his body at ungodly, impossible positions. He played the game in a different dimension, swiftly dribbling and running and leaping to create miraculous shots that only the imagination could conceive.
Perhaps his greatest, most gravity-defying moment came in closing minutes of a closely contested Game 4 of the 1980 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers in Philadelphia.
Erving receives the ball on the right side of the court, and he beats Mark Landsberger to the baseline. Cradling the ball, he rises toward the rim. Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar moves quickly to block Erving's path, looking to slam the shot away, alter it, or at least foul Erving and send him to the line.
But Erving keeps gliding in midair, sliding beyond Abdul-Jabaar and improvising as he goes. He carries himself to the other side of the rim, the left corner of the backboard, from where he can reach his long right arm back toward the basket and then he somehow, someway, flip in a reverse layup. The move stuns everyone in the arena and ultimately helps the Sixers knock off L.A., 105-103.
"I couldn't believe my eyes," says Lakers guard Magic Johnson, whose mouth actually dropped after witnessing Erving's basket. "It's still the greatest move I've ever seen in a basketball game, the all-time greatest."
Before MJ, there was Dr. J.
Julius Erving transformed the game into a vertical showcase of expression and creativity. Through Erving, the game became one of midair artistry, sheer beauty.
Before Julius, there was "the stuff," a basket made by the NBA's big men who simply and easily jammed the ball through the net, an act of average force that didn't require any grace whatsoever. Just height. But through Erving, "the stuff" was transformed into "the slam dunk," universally changing a shot into a strikingly beautiful acrobatic act of ballet-like beauty and grace. Just like his shot against the Lakers in Game 4 of the '80 Finals, a shot that lives forever in NBA history.