Dr. J was Air before Jordan
By Larry Schwartz

"I'd go through the middle - make the ball disappear, switch hands - do something magical with it. The guy who was announcing the game kept calling me a lot of different nicknames, like Houdini or Little Hawk - all kinds of stuff. So I said, if you're going to call me anything, just call me the Doctor."
-- says Julius Erving on ESPN's SportsCentury show.

Erving, one of only four players to score 30,000 points as a pro, was voted No. 43 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.

Signature game
May 31, 1983 -- After the 76ers lost the 1977 Finals to Portland, management responded by telling the city of Philadelphia, "We Owe You One." The ill-fated campaign was still out there after the 76ers lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980 and 1982 Finals.

In Game 4 against the Lakers tonight, the promise was finally fulfilled. While at 33 Erving no longer was the main offensive cog on this Philadelphia powerhouse, he still was a significant force. In the final minutes, Dr. J took charge, scoring seven points in a 98-second span.

With the 76ers trailing by two with little more than two minutes left, Erving turned around the game with three superb plays. First, he intercepted a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar pass and drove down the court, finishing with a dunk to tie the game 106-106. A minute later, Erving's three-point play off a drive gave the 76ers a 109-107 lead.

After a foul shot by Abdul-Jabbar cut the 76ers' lead to one, Erving put a dagger through the Lakers' hearts with an 18-foot jumper with 24 seconds left. The 76ers went on to win 115-108, with Erving scoring 21 points, to complete the sweep of the Lakers. Center Moses Malone had made a "fo, fo, fo" playoff prediction, but he and his teammates were delighted with their 12-1 performance.

At last, Erving had his NBA title to go along with the two he helped deliver for the New York Nets in the ABA.

"This was for the Doc," said Malone, the regular season and Finals MVP. "I wanted to be able to say that I played on a world championship team with Dr. J."

Odds and ends

When Erving was a 19-year-old freshman at UMass, his brother Marvin, three years younger, died of Lupus in April 1969. "I went to the cemetery for three straight days and cried," Erving said.

Though Erving averaged 27.3 points and 15.7 rebounds in his first season with the Virginia Squires, Kentucky center Artis Gilmore (23.8 points, 17.8 rebounds, 422 blocks) won ABA Rookie of the Year.

After Erving was traded to the Nets in 1973, he signed a seven-year contract for $1.6 million plus $200,000 in deferred payments.

His career-high was 63 points (25-of-46 from the field) in a four-overtime 176-166 Nets' loss in San Diego in 1975.

In leading the Nets to the 1976 ABA title, Dr. J scored 45 points against Denver in the opening game of the finals, including the winning basket with a second left, and 48 in the second game. His reverse left-handed layup with about 30 seconds left in Game 3 broke a tie and propelled the Nets to victory.

Dr. J: "Once I get into the lane it's history. I'm like a jazzman. When it's my turn to solo, I'm not about to play the same old riff."

If not for Erving, the NBA probably wouldn't have absorbed four ABA teams on June 17, 1976. "Plenty of guys have been 'The Franchise.' For us, Dr. J is 'The League,' " said then-ABA Commissioner Dave DeBusschere.

In his first nine NBA seasons, Erving averaged between 20 and 26.9 points each year.

Erving started for the East in the All-Star Game in all 11 of his NBA seasons. He was named MVP twice - his first appearance in 1977 when he scored 30 points in 30 minutes and in 1983 when he scored 25 points in 28 minutes.

Erving and Boston's Larry Bird, who had been viewed as friendly adversaries, took their rivalry to an unexpected low on Nov. 9, 1984 when they exchanged words, shoves and punches, precipitating a bench-clearing brawl. Both players were fined $7,500. Erving said he was embarrassed by the incident and that the fight did not help his image or that of the sport.

Needing 36 points in his final regular-season home game to reach 30,000 as a pro, Erving scored a season-high 38 on April 17, 1987 in Philadelphia.

Though Erving left UMass after his junior season, he resumed his college studies in the eighties, completing 50 credits of independent work, and in 1986 received his bachelor's degree in leadership and administration from the school.

Erving was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.

He married his wife Turquoise in 1974 and they have four children.