By David Laurell
Although NBC's Burbank studios are less than a mile from my home, my longtime buddy, Marc Blaine, an NBC sports producer, and I both suffer from busy and conflicting schedules that prevent us from getting together as much as we would like.
When we do get the opportunity to hook up, it's always an enjoyable time filled with reminiscings, catching up and doing our share to boost the profits for whatever bar, grill or combination thereof we find ourselves.
When "Blainer" and I recently carved out a few hours to meet for lunch, we decided to meet at a new restaurant called South Street – a chain that boasts it makes "Philly Cheese Steaks with Brotherly Love." South Street is the brainchild of two buds by the name of Mitch and Smitty – Southern California transplants who never lost the passion for their hometown of Philadelphia.
Their restaurants are not just filled with the mouth-watering smell of thinly sliced rib eye steaks and onions being grilled, they are also filled with photos of the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and sports memorabilia from the Eagles, Sixers, Phillies and Flyers.
As I took my first bite into that divine mixture of meat, cheese, onions and bread, I glanced up at the wall and got another tasty treat that reminded me of Philly – a beautiful, autographed photo of Dr. J defying gravity while on his way to making one of his famous slam dunks.
"Mam-I-ustd-ta-lobe-ta-woch-dat-gy-pla," I said.
"What?" a puzzled Blainer replied.
I swallowed, took a gulp of beer, cleared my throat and gestured to the picture above us.
"I said... Man, I used to love to watch that guy play!"
Blaine heartily agreed. "Who didn't!"
Who didn't is right.
Julius "Dr. J" Erving dominated basketball in the late 1970s and early 1980s with court wizardry that was unprecedented. Never before had hoop fans seen a guy make such graceful mid-air spins and whirls that were culminated by powerful slam-dunks. Dr. J truly changed the way the game was played.
Julius Winfield Erving II was born in Hempstead, Long Island. His father walked out on the family when Julius was a toddler leaving his mother to make a living cleaning houses to support her three children. The Erving's lived in a public housing project, and life was a daily grind. As with many underprivileged kids, young Julius turned to the local basketball courts where he first realized he had a knack for playing the game. By the time he was 10, he had signed on with a local Salvation Army team and was averaging eleven points a game.
When Julius was in his early teens, his mother remarried and the family left Hempstead for the nearby town of Roosevelt. It was there, when he enrolled in Roosevelt High, that Julius discovered he was not only proficient on the court, he was also proficient in the classroom. Maintaining an extremely high academic average, he was an instrumental force on his high school basketball team. It was during that time that a teammate tagged him with the nickname "The Doctor" because Erving always called him "The Professor." The name stuck, ultimately being modified to "Dr. J", a moniker that came to define the surgical attack in which Erving "operated" on the court.
Ray Wilson, who coached Dr. J in high school, has said he knew he had something special on his hands with Julius and took it upon himself to introduce his star player to Coach Jack Leaman of the University of Massachusetts. That introduction had a tremendous impact on the young "Doc" who, after high school, entered UM. Ironically, Ray Wilson was hired as UM's assistant coach the following year.
During his freshman year, "The Doctor" went about breaking records for scoring and rebounding while leading his team through an undefeated season. At the end of his sophomore year, he chalked up the second best rebound tally in the country and had joined an NCAA All-Star team that toured Western Europe and the Soviet Union. He was voted the most valuable player on the tour and then returned to Massachusetts for his junior year.
Julius Erving's collegiate career ended prior to the start of his senior year, when the pros came calling. He left the hallowed halls of academia as only one of a handful of collegiate players in the history of NCAA basketball to average over 20 points and 20 rebounds per game.
Having established a reputation as a gracious, dignified, and disciplined young man, the pros were excited about his arrival for two reasons –his performance to be sure – but also because they felt that he would serve as an ideal ambassador for the game.
"Julius was the first to truly take the torch and become the spokesman for the NBA," his former coach Billy Cunningham once said of him. "He understood what his role was and how important it was for him to conduct himself as a representative of the league."
"The Doctor" began his pro career in the American Basketball Association with the Virginia Squires. Although they had gained attention for their red, white and blue basketballs, the ABA was fighting for its very survival during that time and was desperately trying to gain the recognition that was enjoyed by the more established National Basketball Association.
Dr. J, perhaps, did more than anyone else to help win that recognition for the new association. He scored 27.3 points per game as a rookie, ranked sixth in the ABA in scoring and third in rebounding, was selected to the All-ABA Second Team, made the ABA All-Rookie Team and finished second for the ABA Rookie of the Year Award. Virginia finished 45-39 and in second place in the Eastern Division behind the powerful Kentucky Colonels, who dominated the league at 68-16. In the playoffs, Erving scored 33.3 points per game as the Squires beat the Miami Floridians in four straight before falling to the New York Nets in the Eastern Division Finals.
The following year, "Doc" led the ABA in scoring, averaging 31.9 points per game and then, in 1973, attempted to sign on with the Hawks of the NBA. That attempt placed him smack dab in the middle of a complicated legal battle. The Squires claimed he was still under contract with them, the Milwaukee Bucks claimed draft rights to him under NBA rules, and his management sued him for damaging their reputation by trying to break the Squires contract. The affair was finally settled out of court and while Dr. J did change teams, it wasn't for an NBA team, but rather, another ABA team — the New York Nets.
With the Nets, the Doc again led the league in scoring and helped his team win an ABA championship, winning four-out of-four games against the Utah Stars. During the 1974 season, Dr. J needed the help of a "real" doc due to the excruciating knees pains he was suffering. He was forced to wear special knee braces that did nothing to hinder his performance.
Although the ABA was basketball's ugly stepchild, the league did have its share of excellent players. And even though he was surrounded by some of the best payers of the day, Dr. J was a standout. He had become a dominating force from the small forward spot with the swoop dunks he generously rendered. He was the first player to couple an extended hang time with grace and power and clearly reigned as the ABA's top superstar.
His success in New York sealed his reputation as one of the most exciting players of the era, especially when he led the Nets to a 55-29 regular-season record. In post season play, after claiming the Eastern Division by two games, New York beat Virginia in five playoff contests and then wiped out Kentucky in four straight to reach the ABA Finals. Utah was the opponent, and the Nets dropped the Stars in five games for the Championship.
Along with a Championship ring, "The Doctor" pulled off a repeat as the league's scoring champ with an average of 27.4 points per game. He ranked sixth in the league in assists and third in both steals and blocked shots – stats that gave him his first of what would ultimately be three consecutive ABA Most Valuable Player Awards.
Although the ABA was generating some excitement, the league was still extremely volatile. Players were erratically jumping back and forth from the ABA to the NBA, teams were in flux and the powers-that-be were talking about a merger. Amongst that insecurity and turmoil, the Nets met the Denver Nuggets in what would be the last ABA Finals, and "Doc" led New York to its second title in three seasons.
In the postseason, he averaged 34.7 points and was named Most Valuable Player of the playoffs. For the third time in four seasons, he claimed the scoring crown, averaging 29.3 points and was honored with his third consecutive MVP trophy. In his five ABA seasons, Erving had won two championships, three MVP trophies and three scoring titles. When the ABA-NBA merger actually happened in 1976, Dr. J was given much of the credit as having been the catalyst.
With the ABA era over, the Nets, San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, and Indiana Pacers were absorbed into the NBA with the rest of the ABA players dispersed in a draft.
And as the 1976-77 season geared up, Dr. J was embroiled in a salary dispute with the Nets. A day before the regular season began, both sides threw up their hands in frustration and New York sold the "The Doc" for $3 million to the Philadelphia 76ers.
By that time, Dr. J was a well matured, 6' 7", 210-pound forward who was ready to come into his own. In his first season as a Sixer, "Doc" scored 21.6 points per game, leading his team to a 50-32 record and the Atlantic Division title. The playoffs, however, were a struggle. Philly had to go seven games to do away with the powerful Boston Celtics and it took them six games to get past the Houston Rockets. In the NBA Finals against Portland, the Sixers won the first two games before the Trail Blazers, led by Bill Walton, slammed them in four straight to claim the Championship.
During the off-season, Philadelphia's front office came to terms with the fact that instead of relying so heavily on the Dr. J alone they had to build a team of players who could complement him. During the next two seasons, Sixers General Manager Pat Williams rebuilt the team by acquiring such talent as Bobby Jones and Maurice Cheeks. And while the Sixers spent 1978 and 1979 in the shadows of the Washington Bullets, the team was getting better.
As much as the team was improving, Dr. J was also still finding room for improvement. In 1980, he was one of only two active players named to the NBA 35th Anniversary All-Time Team (Abdul-Jabbar being the other.) And, during the 1979-80 season, he averaged 26.9 points, his highest NBA scoring average.
The early 1980s also marked the time that the Sixers began what would be a four-year assault on the NBA. After a 59-23 regular season, Philly easily blew through Washington, Atlanta, and Boston to take the Eastern Conference crown. At the culmination of that season, the NBA Finals would see the Sixers go up against the legendary Los Angeles Lakers and split the first four games.
In Game 4, Dr. J made what would become his legendary "baseline move" by driving past defender Mark Landsberger along the right baseline with a lay-up in mind. His route to the rim was blocked by Abdul-Jabbar's outstretched arms, but Dr. J brought the ball back down and just continued to float past the backboard. He finally saw his way clear to the other side of the hoop, reached back in toward the court and put up a perfectly executed underhanded scoop for the score.
"Here I was, trying to win a championship, and my mouth just dropped open," then-Laker rookie Magic Johnson has said of that move. "He actually did that! I thought, 'What should we do? Should we take the ball out or should we ask him to do it again?'"
While Dr. J may have stunned Magic, it would be Magic who would leave everyone stunned before that series was over. The Lakers won Game 5 to take a one-game lead in the series and in Game 6 Magic was called in at center when Abdul-Jabbar was injured. Magic scored 42 points to help helped the Lakers seal the deal on the title.
The following season would prove to be Dr. J's greatest individual year. He was named NBA Most Valuable Player after scoring 24.6 points per game while chalking up career highs with 364 assists and 173 steals. Philadelphia and Boston chalked up identical 62-20 records during the regular season. In the Eastern Conference Finals against the Beantown boys, Dr. J took the Sixers to a 3-1 lead before the tide turned and the Celtics stormed back to win three straight and the NBA title.
By the1981-82 season, Dr. J was again hungering for a big win. He scored 24.4 points per game and earned another spot on the All-NBA First Team. It had been pretty much taken for granted that the Sixers would do well in the regular season. But many still wondered just how far they could advance in post-season play.
In the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals, the Sixers again met the Celtics. Philly once again built a two-game lead to eliminate Boston, but again the Celtics fought back to force a seventh game. The Sixers prevailed, winning Game 7, 120-106, to move on to the NBA Finals where the Lakers trounced them in six games for their second Championship in three seasons.
Philadelphia management knew that they had a winning team, but they also knew they lacked one important element – a dominant center to combat Abdul-Jabbar. With that in mind, Caldwell Jones was traded to the Houston Rockets for Moses Malone who had been the NBA's Most Valuable Player in the 1981-82 season. With that acquisition, Philly believed it had what it would take to get past the Lakers.
The Sixers went 65-17 in the next regular season. Both Malone and Dr. J were named to the All-NBA First Team, and Malone once again garnered the NBA's Most Valuable Player trophy. Then came the post-season. The Sixers breezed through the 1983 Playoffs, winning eight of nine preliminary-round games to meet a familiar foe in the Finals. For the third time in four years, the Sixers and the Lakers met to decide the NBA Championship. While many felt that this meeting lacked the drama of the previous two, Philadelphia fans were overjoyed to see their boys overpower Los Angeles in four straight, giving the Doctor his first NBA championship ring.
In the wake of that championship season, Dr. J was beginning to feel the effects of his age. He believed he was still playing well but he also knew he was relying more on his intelligence than on the physical prowess of his youth.
As Dr. J's career wound down, so did the Sixers. After being a dominating force in the league for the better part of a decade, the team was in transition, with younger players such as Charles Barkley arriving on the scene. It was during that time that Dr. J decided he would call it quits at the end of the season. After making that announcement, the remainder of the Sixers season became the Julius Erving farewell tour. He was honored in every NBA arena, as fans showed their appreciation and admiration for one of the greatest players to ever take to the court.
At the age of 37, as Dr. J left the court for the final time, he had scored more than 30,000 points in his combined ABA and NBA career; chalked up a legacy of 22.0 points per game in his 11 NBA seasons with Philadelphia, and 28.7 points per game in his five ABA seasons.
After retiring from play, the Doctor forged a successful business career. He bought a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Philadelphia and cable television stations in New York and New Jersey. He worked as an analyst for NBC and in 1993 was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Dr. J also returned to basketball in 1994, joining the Orlando Magic's front office staff as an Executive Vice President. He even tried his hand at acting by appearing in the feature film The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.
Today, Dr. J still remains one of only three players in pro basketball history to score more than 30,000 career points. He is still remembered in Philly, and throughout the United States for his "airborne/above the rim" play. He was a player that exhibited style and grace, on the court as well as off.
For those of us who were fortunate enough to see him play, he will always be a legend who, during his 16 seasons, redefined the forward position. His play was poetic – his offensive power was immense. He played "in-your-face" basketball that to this day leaves me wanting more.
As I sat with Blainer at South Street, playing some serious "in-my-face" action with that Philly cheese steak, I thought about how addictive these tasty sandwiches were. I also thought back on how addictive it was to watch Dr. J play.
Oh well, at least we still have one of those tasty pleasures to enjoy – although the one that remains it truly playing havoc with my waistline!
When it comes to Dr. J's cards, it is obviously the rookie offering that is most prized with collectors, and the only recognized Julius Erving rookie card is the 1972 Topps # 195.
While material from the 1970s has yet to become the valued treasures of the previous decade and before, Dr. J's rookie card has proven to be both the key card to the '72 Topps set and one of the most all around sought-after basketball cards of the era. The card's great desirability, coupled with the plethora of printing problems Topps cards experienced during those runs, makes it a challenge to find in the highest grades.
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