It is appropriate that Dr. J, the new autobiography of Julius Erving, begins with these three words: “Rise. I jump.” Above all, often literally, Julius Erving was known for the way he seemed to hang in the air as gravity pulled all the other basketball players toward the floor.
Julius Erving guided teams to championships in the ABA and NBA and is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. Now 63 years old, Erving joined Bill Littlefield on Only A Game to discuss his life on and off the court.
Highlights from Bill’s Conversation with Julius Erving
BL: It’s intriguing that you describe your very young basketball self — growing up on Long Island in New York — as “the most coachable kid” on the team because aren’t most people who saw you play as a pro likely to remember you as the ultimate freelancer?
JE: Yeah, but freelancing within a system. Ultimately, I think that my skills as a basketball player led my coaches to give me a green light. Once you’re green-lit, it’s like back to the playground. I would revel in that. I used to love it. It was like the chains being taken off.
BL: When did it first occur to you that you could fly?
JE: [Laughs] Probably when I went to high school and I dunked the ball in a basketball game as a junior. I was one of the players who was coming off the bench and I became a starter shortly after that. But there was a play coming down court — and nobody really dunked the ball except for the over-sized guys in warm-ups — and I left from inside the foul line and I actually jumped to kind of finger roll the ball into the basket. And I found myself over the rim when I got to the basket and all I could do was throw it down. It was my momentum that forced this play, so it was more like an act of God or something.
It wasn’t something that I planned cause you know I knew if it was something that I planned and I missed, I was coming out of the game. The crowd gave a sign of approval and that was probably the first time I felt like I had flown.
BL: You are candid in the book about your relationships with women. At one point you say of your failure to be faithful to your college girlfriend, “It depletes my soul, this philandering.” But it doesn’t stop, this philandering, for quite a while after you offer that observation. Why not?
JE: I think you go back to the beginnings. I mean, my first encounter with intimacy with the opposite sex happened during my elementary school years. I was sort of persuaded by the girl and later in [my] early teens another situation like that occurred. And maybe mom, playing mother and father, left that part out in terms of really having that frank discussion. And in the 50’s and the 60’s I’m not sure that parents talked to their children a whole lot about sex and put you on the right path in terms of really appreciating the opposite sex, you know, for what they were and how they should be appreciated.
So, I think when you get on the wrong path early, it’s hard to get on the right path. For me, it’s one of those difficulties that I admit for the sake of helping others, to encourage others and advise others to really get a keen understanding before you deal with intimacy with the opposite sex about feelings, and certainly about responsibility and about consequences.
BL: Given that you played against Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan and with Moses Malone, it’s fascinating that in the autobiography you say Pete Maravich is the most skilled basketball player you’ve ever seen. Make the case for Maravich.
JE: The long, skinny kid with the floppy socks who just had the ball in his hand like a yo-yo, on a string and there was no string there. In terms of passing, nobody could thread the needle better. Nobody could see the court better and deliver a pass whether it’s orthodox or unorthodox. But when Pete was scoring 44 points a night at LSU and even with the Atlanta Hawks and the New Orleans Jazz, he could step inside of half court and let it go, and you better believe most of ‘em were going to go in.
BL: In addition to your two ABA titles with the Nets, you went on to win an NBA championship with the 76ers back in ‘83. Larry Bird has spoken often about how he felt he and his Celtics teammates should have won more titles given the composition of that team. Looking back, I wonder, do you feel the same way about the Philadelphia teams of that era?
JE: Absolutely. At least one [more title]. The initial team that we had in Philadelphia, if that team had stayed intact, because the team in its first year together had the best record in the league, went all the way through the playoffs then lost 4-2 to Portland [in the finals] with them winning the last four games after we won the first two. So fixing that team and maybe even staying with the coach — ’cause he got fired the next season — would have given us a chance to redeem ourselves. And it was like starting new. And we ended up making the finals three times in the first six years that I was in Philadelphia and losing all three times. So, I think that at least one of those times, we probably could have secured a championship.
BL: It must have been a gigantic relief to finally win that one in Philadelphia, though.
JE: Yeah, it’s year seven [with the Sixers] and to have that happen was a tremendous relief. I had really felt a lot of pressure and even made some statements that I have no thoughts of retiring, I’ll play as long as I can, as long as I have to, you know, to bring a championship to Philadelphia.
Even those statements now, in looking back on them, really for basketball championships to be won, it’s really not about me or just the individuals looking in the mirror and figuring out what they could do differently. It’s really about the team and that was the lesson of all of that.
Bill’s Thoughts on Dr. J: The AutobiographyAt the height of his celebrity, Julius Erving felt pretty good about himself and his wife, Turquoise. Good enough so that in describing those days in Dr. J: The Autobiography, he wrote: “We are the Bonnie and Clyde of black and sexy, the JFK and Jackie of African-American cool.”
Or maybe the fellow Julius Erving wrote the book “with,” Karl Taro Greenfeld, came up with that line and ran it by the doctor. (“Hey, Julius. How about something like this!?”)
Anyway, the book provides an entertaining tour through the career of one of the most spectacular players ever to have left the rim far below. He won championships in both the ABA and the NBA, was a consistent presence on the All-Star Team, and accumulated enough awards, trophies, and commendations so that when he auctioned them, the loot fetched $4 million.
Oh, and he could fly.
Dr. J: The Autobiography also gives us some sense of the troubles and tragedies that have beset Erving, the family man. His stepson has spent enough time locked up for various offenses to have told Erving at one point that he was comfortable with the prison routine. Erving and his first wife lost another son to an accident when the young man was only 19.
Erving is candid in discussing his evolving attitude toward women, and he acknowledges that he foolishly allowed others to take advantage of him in business matters, but he is proud of the husband, father, and businessman he has become.