Julius Erving on the Art of Knowing When to Dunk--And When Not to DunkAlthough Julius "Dr. J" Erving is one of the most flamboyant and exciting basketball players ever, his game was very fundamentally sound. As he often put it, he dunked primarily for the "result, not the effect"; for Erving, the dunk was the highest percentage shot available. On page 120 of the excellent book Stuff Good Players Should Know, Dick DeVenzio wrote (emphasis in the original):
It may surprise you to learn that good players don't strive for great plays. Great plays come to them occasionally, but only in the process of concentrating on their job, trying to do all the little things right. Take Dr. J for example. He makes a lot of great plays. But his value, even more important to his team than all those spectacular dunks, is that he doesn't miss many dunks. He is consistent. On the plays where a spectacular dunk has a good chance of missing, Dr. J "happens" not to try it at all. "Ah," say the fans, "he should've dunked that one." But he doesn't dunk every chance he gets. He dunks the ones he can dunk, and he doesn't attempt the ones he can not. If it's 50-50, he doesn't try it. Good players don't like those odds. Good players are not gamblers, they are performers. That is why great plays are not what makes an outstanding player. It is knowing limitations. A good player knows that he doesn't need a slam dunk in the final seconds to be credited with winning the big game. If he can stop his man from scoring and go down the other end and get a good shot, he can win the game just as well--and more often.
When I interviewed Erving a few years ago, I told him about that passage and asked him what he thought about it. Here is his reply:
Erving: "My thoughts are, if you haven’t perfected it, then you shouldn’t be trying it in a game. Good defense forces an offensive player to maybe go outside of their capability a little bit and experiment, but a one-on-none breakaway, trying to do a blindfold or go between the legs—you’ve got to get the two points. You have to go down and get the two points. You have to understand what the priority is. Trying to make the highlight films--that gets into guys like Rodman diving eight rows into the stands just to get on the highlights. That became sort of his thing. There is an identity issue and players are doing more things to try to get recognition outside of sticking with the game plan and sticking with the abilities they are blessed with and the skill training that they put a lot of hours into perfecting. Coaches have their hands tied in terms of what to do. Do I take the guy, bring him over and sit him down or just let him play through it? Do I talk to him in private after the game? I remember Billy Cunningham—you know, Steve Smith used to have this thing, bouncing the ball off the backboard and dunking it. So they’re up like 30 points in a game and he bounces the ball off the backboard and catches it and dunks it on a one-on-none fast break. You know, guys in my generation used to think that was just trying to embarrass the other team and that there shouldn’t be a place for that in professional basketball."
Friedman: "Is that when Smith was with the Miami Heat?"
Erving: "Yes and Billy was in the front office. And right after he (Cunningham) told him (not to do it), he (Smith) did it in the next game."
Friedman: "Sometimes they don’t listen. You tell them, but they don’t listen, right?"
Erving: “He was like, ‘Well, we’re a different generation. In this generation, this is what we do.’ And I guess maybe to a degree you have to accept some of that. There are certain things in the game that do need to be preserved. Putting your second team in when you’re up a lot of points is really what you should do. I mean, those guys want to play, too. To just run it up to 125 so the crowd can get hamburgers or whatever, that’s not good."
Friedman: "That leads me right into my next question when you’re talking about just playing for a stat--"
Erving: "Yeah, putting a guy back in the game so he can get an assist for a triple double or whatever, that’s crass. It’s just crass."
In the 1970s and 1980s, Hall of Famer Red Auerbach and some of the biggest NBA stars filmed a number of instructional features that aired during NBA telecasts. These classic "Red on Roundball" videos are still fun and educational decades after they were first made. Here is a "Round on Roundball" segment during which Erving talks about the slam dunk:
Red on Roundball: Slam Dunk
posted by David Friedman @ 6:41 PM