Erving, Julius Winfield, II ("Dr. J.")

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ERVING, Julius Winfield, II ("Dr. J.")

(b. 22 February 1950 in Hempstead, New York), professional basketball player whose freestyle, dunking play led the New York Nets to two American Basketball Association (ABA) titles, revitalized the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the late 1970s, and spawned a generation of imitators.

Erving was the second of three children born to Julius Erving and Callie Erving. After his parents separated when he was three, Erving's mother worked as a domestic to support the family. They moved into a housing project in Hempstead, on Long Island, New York, overlooking Campbell Park, where Erving first played basketball. His long arms, large hands, and court sense impressed Park Director Andy Haggerty, who recommended Erving to Don Ryan, the director of the local Salvation Army center's basketball program. By 1961–1962, Erving was the second team's top scorer and most valuable player; the following year, he led the Hempstead Salvation Army squad to a 31–1 record. In 1964, when Erving was fourteen years old, his mother married Dan Lindsay, a sanitation worker, and the family moved into his house in Roosevelt, New York. Erving enrolled at Roosevelt High School that year but did not make the varsity team until his junior season.

Despite a reserve role as a junior, Erving still managed to lead Roosevelt in scoring and rebounding. The summer of 1967, between his junior and senior years of high school, his height hit six feet, three inches. He then became a starting player and led Roosevelt to a share of the conference championship, earning his second straight All-Conference selection. Erving also received the first half of his nickname from teammate Leon Saunders. "I used to call [Leon] Professor because he always wanted to argue," Erving recalled. "After that he started calling me The Doctor." The name stuck when the two attended college together.

College scouts had shown scant interest in Erving until his growth spurt and standout senior season. He considered scholarship offers from such local schools as St. John's and Hofstra but chose to attend the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where the basketball coach, Jack Leaman, was an old friend of his high school coach, Ray Wilson. During the 1968–1969 season Erving grew to six feet, six inches, and he attracted sellout crowds to the Curry Hicks Cage, where he led the freshman team to an undefeated season. Erving joined the varsity squad in the 1969–1970 season and averaged 26.3 points and 20.2 rebounds per game over two seasons.

Despite his popularity in Amherst, Erving was relatively unknown nationally in April 1971, when he chose to forgo his final year of collegiate eligibility to sign a four-year, $500,000 free-agent contract with the Virginia Squires of the ABA. He scored 27.3 points per game as a rookie with the Squires and was selected for the All-ABA Second Team. In the 1972 NBA draft, he was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks but returned to Virginia following legal battles. In the 1972–1973 season he raised his scoring average by 3.9 points per game, earning the first of four consecutive All-ABA First Team selections. Though he gained recognition as a top talent, Erving was hampered by the small-market status of the Squires. In 1973 he began to emerge from relative obscurity when he was traded to the New York Nets. He averaged 27.4 points and 10.7 rebounds per game, leading the Nets to the 1974 ABA title and winning the first of three consecutive league Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards. In February 1974 Erving married Turquoise Brown; they had four children.

In one of the greatest individual performances ever by a basketball player in a championship series, Erving scored 226 points and grabbed 85 rebounds over six games as the Nets beat the Denver Nuggets to win the last-ever ABA championship in 1976. Erving finished his five-year ABA career with two championships, three scoring titles, and three MVP awards. Following the Nets' victory the franchise was absorbed into the NBA, as were the San Antonio Spurs, the Indiana Pacers, and Denver.

Locked in a salary dispute with the Nets, Erving was sold to the Philadelphia 76ers on the eve of the 1976–1977 NBA season when Philadelphia's general manager, Pat Williams, convinced the new owner, Eugene Dixon, to sign "the Babe Ruth of basketball." Erving became "the six-million-dollar man," referring to the $3 million it took to pry him from the Nets plus the $3-million contract he signed with Philadelphia. Nets season ticket holders, who had little interest in watching an Erving-less team, were offered a 10 percent rebate.

Erving was supposed to win a championship for Philadelphia, but each year brought disappointment. Hampered by tendinitis in his knees and the decision to downplay his high-flying act to fit in with his new team, Erving averaged 21.6 points per game his first year with Philadelphia, seven fewer than he had with the Nets. The Sixers reached the NBA Finals that year but blew a 2–0 lead against Bill Walton's Portland Trail Blazers, losing four straight games. The Washington Bullets dominated the eastern division the next two years, with Philadelphia taking a back seat to the team led by Wes Unseld.

Despite Washington's superiority, the Sixers were improving. Erving grew more comfortable in his surroundings, in 1980 becoming one of two active players to be named to the NBA's 35th Anniversary Team. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers was the other active player selected. The two faced off in the NBA Finals that year, with Erving making one of the most incredible shots in NBA history in Game 4. Erving drove past defender Mark Landsberger along the right baseline. He left his feet on that side of the basket, preparing to take a layup. When the seven-foot, two-inch Abdul-Jabbar blocked his path to the basket, Erving brought the ball down and hung in the air, floating behind the backboard. He reached the other side of the rim, where he extended back toward the court, gently flipping up an underhanded scoop for the basket. Erving's legendary baseline move was not enough to propel Philadelphia to victory. The Lakers won Game 5 and then, in Game 6, Magic Johnson filled in for the injured Abdul-Jabbar at center, scoring 42 points to bring Los Angeles to victory.

The following season, 1980–1981, Erving averaged 24.6 points per game and won the NBA's MVP award. But Philadelphia could not protect a 3–1 series lead against the Boston Celtics in the conference finals, losing to Larry Bird's club. In 1981–1982 Erving again averaged over 24 points per game, but one more time, the 76ers lost to the Lakers in the NBA Finals. Realizing they needed a powerful center to compete with Abdul-Jabbar, Williams traded for the Houston Rockets' Moses Malone. The tandem of Erving, who scored 21.4 points per game, and Malone, who averaged 24.5 points, combined to lead Philadelphia to a 65–17 regular season record. For the third time in six seasons the Lakers were the 76ers' opponent in the NBA Finals, but this time Philadelphia overpowered Los Angeles, sweeping the first four games to capture the 1983 championship.

Erving's career gradually declined as he drew more on guile and experience than on the unparalleled physical skills he enjoyed in earlier years. When Erving announced he would retire after the 1986–1987 season, the entire year turned into a farewell tour. In city after city he was honored for his contributions to the game. Needing 36 points in his last home game to become only the third player to score 30,000 points, Erving, who had switched to shooting guard that year, reached the milestone in the first three periods in a performance reminiscent of his ABA days.

After retiring at the age of thirty-seven, Erving pursued various business interests. His Erving Group, established in 1979, flourished, investing in a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Philadelphia and in various television stations. In 1993 the television network NBC hired Erving as a studio analyst for its NBA telecasts. Four years later he joined the Orlando Magic as executive vice president, a position he still held in 2001.

Off the court, Erving has faced tragedy and controversy. In 1962 his father died in an automobile accident. In April 1969, during Erving's junior year at the University of Massachusetts, his younger brother, Marvin, died of lupus at the age of sixteen. In 1999, after published reports suggested he was the father of tennis star Alexandra Stevenson, Erving admitted to an extramarital affair with a Philadelphia sportswriter in 1980 that resulted in Stevenson's birth. The next year Erving's youngest son, Cory, disappeared in late May and was found dead in his car in a pool of water in July.

Erving was named an All-Star in each of his sixteen professional seasons and is the only player to be named MVP in both the NBA and the ABA. He was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993 and was named to the NBA's 50th Anniversary Team in 1996. Erving redefined the forward position with his high-flying, extemporaneous style of play. He was like a jazz musician on the court, improvising in midair and transforming basketball into a form of innovative individual expression that spawned imitators like Dominique Wilkins and Michael Jordan. He popularized the slam dunk, showing that athleticism could soar above size. With his large hands, Erving also turned ball handling into an art form and popularized an open-court, fast-breaking game.

Erving not only transformed basketball, he changed the way people watched and enjoyed the game. When he entered the NBA, two-thirds of the franchises were on the brink of financial collapse and fans were losing interest in the game. "What he did," wrote Frank Deford upon Erving's retirement, "was to alter the perception of the game, and the way people appreciated it." At the same time he was inventing new shots above the rim, Erving was an ambassador for the game both on and off the court. He played basketball with elegance, but just as importantly, conducted himself with class. "There have been some better people off the court," said the former Laker coach, Pat Riley. "Like a few mothers and the pope. But there was only one Dr. J the player."

James Haskins, Dr. J: A Biography of Julius Erving (1975), is a look at Erving's life and early career. Marty Bell, The Legend of Dr. J (1981), examines Erving's influence on basketball. "Last Rounds for the Doctor: As Julius Erving Says Goodbye, Seven Writers Remember," Sports Illustrated (4 May 1987), is a collection of reminiscences on Erving's career. Don Cox, "The Erving Empire," Business News (2 Nov. 1988), looks at Erving's vast business interests. Joe Gergen, "Three of a Kind: Brown, Erving, Yaz Grew Up on Long Island, Then Grew into Legends" is an online article that traces Erving's roots on Long Island, paying specific attention to his early basketball development: www.lihistory.com/specspor/stars.htm.

Danny Massey