Julius Erving named 43rd-greatest athlete of the century

Dr. J operated above the rest
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com

While others played the game of basketball on the ground, Julius Erving performed above it.

When he went up in the air, he stayed there for long periods of time, seemingly an irresistible force of nature as he improvised some acrobatic maneuver. He pushed the envelope of physical probability, soaring to unprecedented heights with a basketball in his size 11 hands. While he scored 30,026 points as a pro, he probably drew at least double that number in oohs and ahs for his in-flight sessions.

 Julius Erving
Dr. J was always the picture of calm and control, both in the air and off the court.
"No one has ever controlled and conquered the air above pro basketball like Julius Erving, the incomparable Dr. J," wrote Pete Axthelm in Newsweek. "The Doctor not only leaps and stays aloft longer than most players dream possible, but he uses his air time to transform his sport into graceful ballet, breath-taking drama or science-fiction fantasy depending upon his mood of the moment and the needs of his team."

Sure, there have been many outstanding leapers in basketball, but only a select few brought the art to a new level in the pros. Erving is a member of an extremely small basketball family. His predecessors in gravity defying were Connie Hawkins and Elgin Baylor, his successor was Michael Jordan.

"When I get a chance to power jump off both legs, I can lean, twist, change directions and decide whether to dunk the ball or pass it to an open man," Erving said. "In other words, I may be committed to the air, but I still have some control over it."

While Erving was in the air so often on the court, his feet were planted firmly on the ground off it. Unlike many athletes, he never got a big head. He was articulate, friendly and uncommonly modest.

"There have been some better people off the court -- like a few mothers and the Pope," said Pat Riley, one of the game's top coaches. "But there was only one Dr. J, the player."

While Dr. J exhibited the flash and style of playground basketball, he displayed the intelligence to direct his skills toward winning, a goal that seems to have been lost on many of today's players. The 6-foot-6½, 200-pound forward put his stamp on the New York Nets' two American Basketball Association titles, and he was instrumental in the Philadelphia 76ers winning an NBA championship.

Erving won four MVP awards, three with the Nets and one with Philadelphia. He is one of only four players to crack 30,000 career points (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Karl Malone are the others). Erving averaged 28.7 points and 12.1 rebounds in his five ABA seasons, winning three scoring titles and being named first-team all-league four times (he was a second-team selection as a rookie). In his 11 seasons with the 76ers, he averaged 22 points and 6.7 rebounds, and was first-team all-NBA five times and second-team twice in his first eight seasons. His 16-year pro averages were 24.2 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists.

While he will be forever Dr. J -- a high-school teammate gave him the nickname Doctor and an ABA teammate added the initial, making it Dr. J -- he was born Julius Winfield Erving Jr. on Feb. 22, 1950 in East Meadow, N.Y. When he was 13, his mother remarried, to a sanitation worker, and the new family moved to Roosevelt, also on Long Island. By the time he was in the sixth grade, he was refining his dunks on an eight-foot-high basket. A year later, he was able to palm the ball. He also worked on his jump shot. "As a kid, I played a lot of one-on-none," Erving said.

Though Erving was the best player on his Roosevelt High team as a junior, the coach started five seniors. Erving didn't complain. Starring as a senior, he earned a scholarship to the University of Massachusetts. As a sophomore and junior (freshmen were ineligible then), he was a model of consistency, recording 51 double-doubles in his 52 games. He averaged 26.3 points and 20.2 rebounds, one of only five players in NCAA history to average 20-20 for a career.

When the Virginia Squires offered him a $500,000, four-year contract after his junior year in 1971, he jumped. With Virginia, his restraints were off. For the previous four years, Erving had been able to dunk only on the playground and in practice, victimized by the no-dunking rule of the NCAA and high schools. As a rookie he averaged 27.3 points and 15.7 rebounds.

Late that season, Erving decided he was underpaid and signed a $2 million contract with the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA. The Squires won their lawsuit to keep their superstar, and the next season Erving won his first scoring title (31.9 points average). However, that summer, the financially troubled Squires dealt Erving to the Nets, getting $1 million and two players in return.

Playing back home on Long Island, and with New York City so close, Erving became more visible to the media and public. His game also took off, with his jump shot and passing improving. He won his three ABA MVPs (sharing it with George McGinnis in 1975) and averaged 27.4, 27.9 and 29.3. At the first-ever slam-dunk competition at halftime of the 1976 All-Star Game, Dr. J made the mother of all dunks -- his famous court-length, take-off-from-the-foul-line showstopper.

The Nets went from 30-53 B.D. (Before Doctor) to 55-29 and the 1974 title. They also won the championship in 1976, with Erving scoring 226 points in six games against Denver in the Finals. "He destroys the adage that I've always been taught -- that one man can't do it alone," said Nuggets defensive standout Bobby Jones, who attempted to guard Erving.

That was it for the red, white and blue basketball. A month later, the NBA absorbed four ABA teams, including the Nets. But because Nets owner Roy Boe was forced to pay an $8 million fee to join, he sold Erving. Philadelphia forked over a reported $6 million, $3 million to Boe and $3 million for a new contract with Erving, who became an instant gate attraction and spokesman for the league.

Three times in Erving's first six seasons, he led the 76ers to the Eastern Conference title. Each time, though, they lost in six games in the Finals, including blowing a 2-0 lead to Portland in Erving's first season in 1977.

But in 1982-83 there was no stopping the popular Erving and the 76ers, who had obtained Moses Malone before the season. Philadelphia had a league-best 65-17 record and swept through the playoffs, winning 12 of 13 games. Erving scored seven straight points in a 98-second span late in Game 4 in the Finals to lead the 76ers to a sweep of the defending champion Lakers.

"You can feel the vibes," he said at the time, "feel the people pulling for you."

Dr. J's only NBA MVP had come two years earlier, in 1981, when he became the first non-center in 17 years to win the award.

Erving retired at 37 in 1987 after averaging 18.1 and 16.8 points in his last two seasons. Not bad production but the only times in his 16-year Hall of Fame career the numbers were lower than 20.

Aside from his broad business interests, Erving was a TV studio analyst for NBA games on NBC from November 1993 to June 1997 when he became an executive vice president of the Orlando Magic.

A final word on Erving comes from Magic president Pat Williams, who as 76ers GM brought Erving to Philadelphia: "You'd have to use words like electrifying, revolutionary. There's never been anybody quite like him, including Michael. If Julius was in his prime now, in this era of intense electronic media, he would be beyond comprehension. He would blow everybody away."