Erving, Julius 1950–
Julius Erving 1950–
Professional basketball player, sports administrator
So much has been written and said about Julius Erving over the years that it is difficult to say what is most important about him. He will go down in history as one of the basketball pioneers who took a sport that had been traditionally played on a wooden floor and changed it so that it was played in mid-air, and he popularized a form of scoring known as the dunk. He was a legendary figure that very few people saw play in his early professional years in the American Basketball Association, and his reputation probably forced the more established National Basketball Association to merge with that league. He was the consummate team player, who won championships in both professional leagues. He was a perfect gentleman and an ambassador for the game at a time when its popularity was at a low ebb, and he will be remembered forever as “Dr. J.”
Julius Winfield Erving II was born February 22, 1950 in Roosevelt, New York. He and his brother were raised by their mother, Callie. His father, Julius, was absent much of the time, and when young Julius was seven his dad was hit and killed by a car. “I never really had a father, but then the possibility that I ever would was removed,” he told Esquire. He attended Roosevelt High School, where he was a fine student and an even better basketball player. He made the all-county and All-Long Island teams in high school.
Julius was a natural at basketball as a youngster, both in school and on the playground. Erving told Esquire, “I’ve never felt particularly unique. Even within the context of basketball, I honestly never imagined myself as anything special. I remember back home, when I first started playing, at nine, ten, I had a two-hand shot. Then by twelve-and-a-half, 13, I had a one-hand shot. Always went to the basket, that was my way, that pattern was set by then.” “Actually, I don’t think I’ve changed much as a player since then,” he continued. “Back then, before I was physically able, I felt these different things within me, certain moves, ways to dunk. I realized all I had to do was be patient and they would come. So I wasn’t particularly surprised when they did, they were part of me for so long. I didn’t find anything particularly special about them. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I was a good player, that I could play, I just assumed everyone could do these things if they tried.”
Erving parlayed his good grades and basketball success
Born Julius Winfield Erving II, February 22, 1950 in Roosevelt, New York; son of Julius Erving and Callie (Erving) Lindsey. Married to Turquoise; four children (Cheo, Julius III, Jazmin and Cory). Education: Attended University of Massachusetts.
Selected awards: ABA Most Valuable Player (1974, 1976); ABA co-Most Valuable Player (1975); ABA All Star First Team (1973-76); ABA All-Star Second Team (1972); ABA All-Defensive Team (1976); ABA AII-Rookie Team (1972); Member of ABA championship teams (1974, 1976); NBA Most Valuable Player (1981); All-NBA First Team (1978, 1980-83); All-NBA Second Team (1977, 1984); Member of NBA championship team (1983); elected to Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (1993); member NBA 35th Anniversary All-Time Team and 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.
Addresses: Office –Orlando Magic, One Magic Place, Orlando Arena, Orlando, Florida, 32801-3479.
into a college career at the University of Massachusetts. He planned on becoming a doctor, and it wasn’t until he found himself among the nation’s scoring leaders that it occurred to him that he could make the move from the traditionally weak basketball school to a pro career. He got a break when he was invited to play some exhibition games for an Olympic development squad—those being the days when a college All-Star team also comprised the U.S. Olympic basketball team—and his reputation began to grow with pro scouts. His mother suffered some medical problems during Julius’ college days, and he skipped his senior season to play in the American Basketball Association (ABA), which had a hardship rule that allowed college underclassmen to enter the league. Erving signed with the Virginia Squires as a free agent.
Erving enjoyed success immediately in the ABA. During his rookie season he played 84 games, averaged over 27 points and 15 rebounds a game, and led the Squires on a strong playoff run. He was named to the league’s All-Rookie Team and the All-Star Second Team. It was also during Erving’s rookie year with Virginia that a strong part of his identity was born. “The Doctor” had been a handle placed on Erving since grade school, when he announced in front of his class he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. It became a playground moniker when his high school teammate, Leon Saunders, and Erving began referring to each other as “The Doctor” and “The Professor.” During that season in Virginia, Squire Fatty Taylor began sticking the “J” onto Erving’s name, and the nickname “Dr. J” was born.
In 1972-73 Erving had another strong season, leading the league with 31.9 points-per-game (PPG). That year he also made the league’s All-Star First Team, but he still faced the problem of his budding career being played in obscurity. The ABA was almost never on television, and the Squires hardly played in a major market. Erving had tried to jump to the NBA, signing a contract with the Atlanta Hawks after his rookie season, but a judge ruled that he was the property of the Squires and had to return to that team. At the end of his second season the Squires gave Erving a bit of a boost toward the big-time when they traded him to the league’s Big Apple franchise, the New York Nets.
In his first season with the Nets Erving helped that team to the league championship, leading the league with a 27.4 scoring average and increasing that average to 27.9 over 14 playoff games. He was named both the league’s regular season most valuable player (MVP) and the playoff MVP. Erving had now won a league championship in the biggest market in the country, but still relatively few people had seen him play. The league still did not have a network television contract, and the Nets were low in the pecking order of New York Sports teams, never selling out a regular season game.
In his second season with the Nets Erving won the league’s MVP award with a 27.9 PPG average and 10.9 rebounds per game. Despite his averaging 27.4 points in the playoffs, the Nets lost in the first round. The following year, however, Erving again led the league with 29.3 points per game, and led the Nets in a charmed season all the way to the league championship series.
During this season Erving’s reputation reached almost legendary status. It cannot be said that he invented the airborne style of basketball, often referred to as “playing above the rim.” Others had preceded him in that style, most notably Connie Hawkins and Elgin Baylor. But Erving, while not really reinventing the sport, had upped the ante by being just a little bit faster, jumping just a little bit further, being just a little bit more spectacular than anyone ever had before. While the ABA’s games still were not often broadcast for a national audience, the media began to do more features on the amazing basketball player playing for the New York team in that other league. Another key point came during the ABA’s 1976 All-Star Game, when the first-ever slam dunk contest was held. Erving won it, due in large part to his final dunk, on which he gripped the ball in one hand, ran the length of the floor, took off in flight at the free throw line and dunked before coming down. Several other players have done the identical dunk since, but at the time it seemed as if Erving had done the impossible. Footage of the dunk received widespread television exposure, and Erving became a national phenomenon.
That season Erving capped his ABA career, and the history of the league, with a sensational final series against the Denver Nuggets. The Nets beat the Nuggets four games to two, and Erving was so instrumental and spectacular in both the wins and the losses, that it was sometimes easy to forget there were nine other players on the floor. Erving scored 45, 48, 31, 34, 37 and 31 points in the six games, and led the Nets back from 22 points down in the final game at Nassau Coliseum. It was the last game in the history of the ABA.
Before the 1976-77 basketball season, the ABA folded in triumph, with four of its teams, including the Nets, being accepted into the older, more established, more conservative NBA. Although history has not recorded definitively that Julius Erving was the primary or possibly the only reason the NBA agreed to the merger, that likelihood has been suggested and a strong case for it can be made. At any rate, Julius Erving was finally about to showcase his talents on the biggest basketball stage in the world.
As some had predicted, Erving found a bit more resistance to his freewheeling style of play in the older league. The day before his first season in that league was to begin, the Nets traded him to the Philadelphia 76ers. His scoring average dropped about 25 percent with Philadelphia compared to what it been in New York, to about 21.8 points per game his first season. He did help the Sixers to the league championship series that year, but their loss to the Portland Trailblazers was considered such a disappointment that the team felt it had to live down the loss for years afterward. The highlight of the season for Erving may have been the Ali-Star Game, in which he had 30 points and 12 rebounds, and won the game’s Most Valuable Player award.
That started a long string of seasons in which Erving was considered the best player in the league who had never won a championship. Through the late 1970s and early 1980s his image was that of a spectacular player, certainly one of the best in the league, but the question remained as to whether he would ever win a championship. He didn’t dominate the NBA as he had the ABA, although he played in the All-Star Game every year, was named to either the league’s post-season first or second All-Star team every year except 1979, and even won the league’s Most Valuable Player award in 1981. But it seemed every year either the Boston Celtics or Los Angeles Lakers beat the 76ers and left them waiting.
The year Erving and the 76ers were waiting for finally came during the 1982-83 season. That year he won the All-Star Game MVP for the second time, even though his scoring that season was at its second-lowest point since he came into the NBA, only 21.4 points per game. But the 76ers had acquired a strong inside force that season in Moses Malone and they proved unstoppable in the playoffs, steamrolling into the finals, where they met the Lakers, to whom they had lost tough final series in 1980 and 1982. Erving’s scoring average was down for the playoffs, as well, to under 20 points per game, and Malone was the standout as the 76ers won the first three games from the Lakers. Erving saved his magic for the final clinching game, making a shot from the top of the key in the closing seconds to give Philadelphia a three-point lead and clinch the championship. It was also during this series that Erving made a shot that will probably be repeated on highlight reels forever, a reverse windmill layup from behind the backboard. Erving, who by this was wearing his trademark Afro short and with some flecks of gray, had his most memorable shot and his first NBA championship.
It also turned out to be his last NBA championship. Although the 76ers continued to be a strong team, and made the playoffs every year—Erving never missed the playoffs in his ABA or NBA careers—he never made it back to the NBA finals. Erving still averaged over 20 points a game for the 1983-84 and 1984-85 seasons, then saw his PPG drop below that mark for the first time in his professional career for his last two seasons.
But while Erving’s game may have fallen off a bit in his late 30s, he had another reputation that became even stronger in those late seasons. He was known as one of the true gentlemen of professional basketball, and was universally admired by opponents, and sportswriters and broadcasters. He was never seen to be short-tempered or rude with reporters or fans, a difficult task considering the constant demands placed on a basketball star of his stature. Erving had entered the league at a time when its popularity was at a low ebb, with two-thirds of the league’s teams in serious financial trouble. While the subsequent arrival of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and later Michael Jordan, had more to do with the ascent of the game’s stature in the 1980s, Erving served an important role in keeping the game afloat and bolstering its reputation. “I’ve never heard anybody knock him or express jealousy,” Dominique Wilkins of the Atlanta Hawks said during Erving’s final season. “Never one negative word. I can’t name you one other player who has that status.”
Also in those final seasons, Erving began to make the transition from his playing days to his retirement years by making shrewd business investments. In 1983 he purchased shares in the New York Coca-Cola Bottling Company, and three years later he turned that investment into an outright purchase of the larger Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Company, the 15th largest bottling facility in the world. As a result, he and his partner, Bruce Llewellyn, shared one of the largest black-owned businesses in the world. He also started up a shoe store—dress shoes, not basketball shoes—which failed, and a television station and a cable television company in New York State.
When Erving announced that 1986-87 would be his last NBA season, he received an honor that is reserved for only the elite athletes: he was honored with special ceremonies not just in Philadelphia, but in each of the other arenas on his last visit. Accolades and souvenirs were showered on him on his farewell tour, as the league thanked Erving for what he had done for the game. In Los Angeles, Lakers coach Pat Riley told the crowd, “There may have been some better people off the court. Like a few mothers and the pope. But there was only one Dr. J the player.”
Awards continued to be bestowed on Erving even after his playing days were over. In 1993 he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame, and in 1994, as part of its 40th anniversary, Sports Illustrated named him to a list of its 40 most important athletes. In 1996, as the NBA celebrated its 50th anniversary, Erving was an easy choice for one of the top 50 players in the history of the league.
Erving found plenty to keep him busy in his retirement. He continued to work with his business enterprises and charitable causes, and did some work in the 1990s for NBC TV’s NBA broadcasts. In 1997 the Orlando Magic hired Erving as its executive vice-president, widely defining his duties as concerning both basketball and business aspects of the operation.
Also in 1997 the legend of Dr. J was revived when Converse, a sneaker company which had seen its market share fall off dramatically since the mid-1980s, made Erving, along with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the staple of a new marketing campaign. Although Erving had by then not played basketball professionally in a decade, the company saw a dramatic turn in fortune, with sales up substantially.
While history may remember Erving for his statistics, or the championships he won, or the leagues he made profitable, it is more likely that most of the people who watched him play will remember him for other reasons. Long after he played fans still swapped stories about the spectacular dunks and other moves they saw Erving make. Upon Erving’s retirement, Frank DeFord of Sports Illustrated wrote, “More than any single player, Erving transformed what had been a horizontal game (with occasional parabolas) into a vertical exercise. Basketball is now a much more artistic game than it was before—than any game was before—because of Julius Erving. The slam, before the Doctor, was essentially an act of power—a stuff is what it was usually called—as great giants jammed the ball through the hoop. Erving transformed the stuff into the dunk, and made what had been brutal and the product of size into something beautiful and a measure of creativity.”
African-American Sports Greats: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by David L. Porter, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995, p. 84.
Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, Volume Two, edited by Jack Salzman, David Lionel Smith and Cornel West, New York, NY: Macmillan Library Reference, 1996, p. 915.
Orlando Magic 1997-98 Media Guide.
Black Enterprise, March 1986, p. 13.
Esquire, February 1985, p. 112.
Jet, June 23, 1997, p. 48.
New York Times, March 26, 1997, p, D3.
Sports Illustrated, May 4, 1987, p. 74; September 19, 1994, p. 146.
American basketball player
Julius Erving, commonly referred to as Dr. J, made his mark in the National Basketball Association (NBA) with the grace he displayed on and off the court and by playing an instrumental role in the creation of the league as it's known today. As the lone superstar of the ABA, the professional basketball league in direct competition with the more established NBA during the 1970s, his presence was a major factor in the decision to merge the two leagues. He is also credited with putting the slam in slam dunk and being one of the games great ambassadors who, along with superstars such as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird , elevated the game's popularity in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Although he was originally recognized for his flamboyant play and oversized afro, it was his reserved manner and generous spirit that endeared him to the public and his peers.
In the Beginning
Born Julius Winfield Erving II on February 22, 1950, in Roosevelt, New York, his father abandoned the family when he was only three. At the age of seven his father was hit and killed by a car, forever erasing any possibility of having a father figure in his life. His mother raised her three kids on her own working as a house cleaner. Erving was withdrawn as a child but did well in school and athletics. He picked up basketball at the age of nine and was immediately successful on the court. At the age of ten, he led his team to the Inter-County Basketball Association championship. It was during these early years in his New York neighborhood that Erving was first called the Doctor, a name that would stick with him for the rest of his life. "Whether basketball chose me, or I chose it, I still don't know," he later recalled. "I think it's the former—it chose me."
After graduating high school he was offered many basketball scholarships and eventually decided to attend the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In his first year, he broke the school's records for scoring and rebounding for a freshman and led his team to an undefeated season. After his junior season, Erving decided to turn professional. He made the controversial decision in 1971 after being lured by lucrative offers from the American Basketball Association (ABA). Signing with the Virginia Squires for $500,000, he would stay with the team for two years before moving to the New York Nets.
In his first season with the Nets, the young Erving won his second straight league scoring championship, averaging 27.4 points per game, and led his team to the championship against the Utah Stars. After that championship season, the Nets would struggle while their star's popularity continued to swell. In the less recognized league, Erving's presence would draw a crowd no matter where his team would play. ABA commissioner, and Hall of Fame forward, Dave DeBusschere once commented, "Plenty of guys have been 'The Franchise.' For us, Dr. J is 'The League.'"
The Greatest Game in Basketball History
It became increasingly more evident that the two competing leagues would merge by the 1975-76 season, but not before Erving played what is commonly considered one of the greatest games in basketball history. The ABA's final championship series between the New York Nets and the Denver Nuggets would come down to a final game in which the Nets would trail by twenty points but come back due in large part to the individual performance of Erving. Erving averaged 37.7 points in that championship series which would serve as his farewell to the ABA and his introduction to the newly expanded NBA. He won the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award for the season and ranked first in scoring, fifth in rebounding, seventh in assists, third in steals and seventh in blocked shots. In short, Erving did it all, even becoming the first player to win a league wide slam dunk contest that year.
Offered a contract with the Nets, Erving turned it down and held out for a better offer before landing in Philadelphia with the 76ers. The 76ers were a talented team full of self-serving egos and little regard for team play. In his first year there, Philadelphia would go to the finals and lose to the Portland Trailblazers after winning the first two games of the series. It was after two disappointing seasons that the 76ers' management decided to unload their highly priced stars and build the team around Erving.
|1950||Born February 22 in Roosevelt, New York|
|1967||Named All-Conference at Roosevelt High|
|1968||Enrolled at University of Massachusetts|
|1970||Scores career high 37 points twice in one season|
|1970||Named All-America and All-Yankee Conference|
|1971||Decides to turn professional|
|1971||Joins the Virginia Squires|
|1971||Leads ABA in playoff scoring with a 33 point average per game|
|1972||Marries wife Turqouise|
|1973||Moves to the New York Nets of the ABA|
|1974||Named the ABA's MVP|
|1974||Wins first ABA championship with the Nets|
|1975||Scores career high 63 points in a game for the Nets|
|1976||Named ABA's MVP again|
|1976||Wins second ABA championship with the Nets|
|1976||Joins Philadelphia 76ers|
|1977||Named All-star Game MVP|
|1978||Named to the All-NBA First Team|
|1980||Named to NBA's 35th Anniversary All-time Team|
|1981||Named NBA MVP|
|1983||Awarded Walter J. Kennedy Citizenship Award|
|1983||Wins NBA championship with 76ers|
|1984||Scores 34 points in All-star Game|
|1987||Retires from basketball|
|1993||Enshrined in Basketball Hall of Fame|
|1996||Named to NBA's 50th Anniversary All-time Team|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1974, 1976||ABA Most Valuable Player|
|1974, 1976||ABA championship|
|1975||ABA co-Most Valuable Player|
|1977, 1983||Named All-Star Game Most Valuable Player|
|1981||NBA Most Valuable Player|
|1983||Wins NBA championship with the 76ers|
|1983||Named to NBA 35th Anniversary Team|
|1983||Walter J. Kennedy Citizenship Award|
|1983||Jackie Robinson Award from Ebony Magazine|
|1985||American Express Man of the Year|
|1993||Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame|
|1996||Named to NBA 50th Anniversary Team|
The NBA Championship
Very shortly afterward, the 76ers would become perennial contenders on a heartbreaking streak of near misses and no championships. Although Erving was continually recognized for his artistic play and gravity defying moves, he was ultimately concerned with winning an NBA championship. After losing repeatedly in the playoffs and finals to NBA powerhouses, Boston and Los Angeles, the 76ers signed Moses Malone for the 1982-83 season. He provided the missing link and Erving and the 76ers won their first and last NBA title together against the Los Angeles Lakers. During his career, Erving was in the finals four times total with this the one and only NBA championship for the superstar.
Erving retired from basketball in 1987 after becoming only the third player to score 30,000 career points. His feat would go largely unnoticed because he played in the less recognized ABA and their statistics are not included in the NBA record books. Erving, along with the rest of the former ABA players, quietly accept this fact while privately feeling that their accomplishments deserve equal billing in the history of professional basketball.
Retirement and Beyond
After basketball, however, he would go on to become a successful business man and analyst with NBC sports. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993 and recognized as one of the forty greatest athletes of all time by Sports Illustrated the following year. In 1997, he was named executive vice-president of the NBA's Orlando Magic.
Married to Turquoise Erving since 1972, with four children, his reputation was slightly tarnished in 1999 when it was revealed he fathered a child in 1980 with a freelance writer who covered the 76ers in their heyday. The daughter he fathered out of wedlock turned out a surprising prospect in the world of women's tennis, taking Wimbledon by storm in 1999. In 2000, Erving's youngest son Cory went missing and was tragically found drowned in his car in a pond only a mile away from his family's Florida home.
|NYN: New York Nets; Phil: Philadel phia 76ers; VA: Vir ginia S quires.|
Dr. J: Getting Straight to the Point
Erving's nickname, "Dr. J," is a nom de guerre more widely recognized than any other in sport. Picked up years ago in the macho games of his youth, "Dr. J" has become the code word for a certain thunderous, awesome elegance on the basketball court.
Such is the distinction with which Erving … plays the game. Even his own teammates have been known to pause in wonderment at his airborne exploits. Many players nowadays can dunk the ball. Few, if any, can do so with Erving's flair. With hands so large they seem to reduce the basketball to grapefruit size, he can leave his feet far from the basket and float, angling as he goes, to jam the ball through the hoop.
Source: Barry Jacobs, Saturday Evening Post, November 1983, p. 64.
Erving continues to be one of the games most recognized personalities because of his role in creating the modern game. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Erving. and his peers brought the league new popularity with their grace, improvisation and high-flying technique. So well known for his fluidity on the court he was granted an honorary doctorate in dance from Temple University, Erving is also considered a gentleman and ambassador of the game. "He's got one of the most beautiful hearts in the world," said former player Gene Banks. "He's what the NBA is all about."
Contemporary Black Biography, Vol. 18. Detroit: Gale, 1998.
Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 1998.
St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture Detroit: St. James Press, 2000.
"Dr. J: Getting Straight to the Point."Saturday Evening Post (November, 1983): 64.
"Dr. J's Daughter, Alexandra Stevenson, Speaks Out for First Time in ABC-TV Interview."Jet (August 16, 1999): 51.
"Julius Erving."Sports Illustrated (September 19, 1994): 146.
"Julius Erving: Doctor of Fillosophy in Hoops." Philadelphia Daily News (February 7, 2002).
"No Turning Back: The Slam Dunk."European Intelligence Wire (October 13, 2002).
"Preliminary Findings Suggest No Foul Play in Death of Erving's Son."Miami Herald (July 7, 2000).
"Previous Lakers-Sixers Showdowns Ran the Full Spectrum of Drama."Philadelphia Inquirer (June 4, 2001).
"Pro Basketball's Five-Tool Players."Basketball Digest (February, 2002): 30.
"Smashing Debut: Found: Mr. Mystery, the Dad Behind Wimbledon Star Alexandra Stevenson."People (July 19, 1999): 73.
"The Doctor's Daughter: An 18-Year-Old Tennis Phenom Turns Out to Have a Most Spectacular Athletic Bloodline."Time (July 12, 1999): 62.
Sketch by Aric Karpinski