Quotes from Legends Roundtable Featuring Julius Erving, Bob Lanier, Bill Russell and Bill WaltonOn Friday January 14, NBA TV aired a "Legends Roundtable" featuring Julius Erving, Bob Lanier, Bill Russell and Bill Walton. Erving was the star of the show, both in terms of how much time he spent talking and in terms of how much the other three said about him.
The show's introduction featured highlights of the four players, with one of the voiceovers (George McGinnis, Erving's ABA rival and NBA teammate) declaring of Erving, "Without question, without any doubt, the absolute greatest forward that has ever put on a pair of basketball shoes."
Erving explained that the person who had the most impact on his basketball career during his formative years was Don Ryan, a then-19 year old Salvation Army coach from Hempstead, New York who mentored the then-nine year old Erving; Erving felt so strongly about Ryan's effect on him that when Erving was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Hall asked Erving what kind of banner/display Erving wanted Erving asked for a Hempstead Salvation Army banner and made sure that Ryan was there for the ceremony.
While Russell, Walton and, to a lesser extent, Lanier became nationally known stars as collegians, the young Julius Erving was putting up 27 ppg-20 rpg averages for the University of Massachusetts in the obscure (and now defunct) Yankee Conference. Erving received an invitation to the Olympic Development camp in 1970 but did not make the cut as one of the 40 best players; Erving said that this shook his confidence and that he returned home to coach at the local recreation center during the summer. However, Erving had been selected as one of four alternates, so when a player went down because of injury Erving was invited back to Colorado Springs to join the Olympic Development tour. Erving recalled that the other players on the tour--including future All-Star/current Sacramento Coach Paul Westphal--openly spoke about becoming pro basketball players, something that Erving had never seriously considered at that time. Erving proved to be the best player on the tour and that is when he first realized that playing professionally was not a distant dream but rather a likely possibility. That story is a powerful reminder that even the most talented people need the right opportunities in order to build their confidence and reach their full potential. "I didn't even have the mentality of thinking that I was going to be a pro, period, or a Hall of Famer," Erving remembered, "until after that camp, because once we got out (there) and we started playing and I performed as well or better than all the other guys there I said, 'If they're going to make it, I've got a pretty good chance of making it.'"
Walton declared, "The minute that Dr. J started floating over that court with the hair and the beard--he would just come at you and it was exhilarating." Erving added, "(Hall of Fame Coach) Lou Carnesecca used to talk about with certain athletes it's just like taking a blank canvas and when that player performs they are actually painting a picture. George Gervin and Tiny Archibald--that's what comes to mind for me when you watch them play: there's the arena and there is what this guy is doing. There are a handful of guys who painted pictures for people and those pictures made indelible impressions that they will have for the rest of their lives."
Walton said, "Dr. J had the responsibility and the pressure of everybody wanting something spectacular every single night. How did you deal with that responsibility?"
Erving replied, "I wanted to undertake the challenge of daring to be great. It's like, 'Nothing ventured, nothing gained' and 'No risk, no reward,' so I would hold that in my heart that I was not going to be afraid to dare to be great and to do something that maybe nobody had ever seen before. It's an individual expression and it's rooted in taking that up as a challenge." Erving spoke those words over the highlight clip for the "No Way Even for Dr. J Reverse Layup."
Erving also said that he adopted the motto of his college coach Jack Leaman: "Attitude is altitude"; Rod Thorn and Bobby Jones are just two of the many people who have raved about how great Erving was as a teammate: Erving explained, "I always brought a certain attitude to practice and to games because I knew it would take things to the next level if I had a positive attitude as the leader of the team."
Erving is a role model for the class and dignity with which all athletes should conduct themselves. He said that he was guided by this thought: "I always wanted to win without boasting and lose without crying. If you chew on that one, it's going to keep you in a good place that helps you maintain your sanity while all the madness is going on around you."
Russell said, "I thought that what distinguishes a great player is his presence. When he goes on to the court, his presence dominates the atmosphere." As Erving looked at Russell and listened intently, Walton delivered a knowing smile and pointed at Erving as if to say, "Dr. J embodied that trait to the fullest." Russell concluded, "It's like, if you're in the game and Doc's playing, everybody is watching him warm up." That sentiment echoes what a scout recently said to me about how everyone on the court knows that Kobe Bryant is the best player and defers to his greatness. As the saying goes, "game recognizes game"--players know who is great, who is good and who is just taking up space, whether the "game" is basketball, chess or writing: strip away the hype, strip away the nonsense and true greatness always shines through.
Lanier lamented that he was the only player on the panel who never won a championship and he asked the other three players what made their championship teams special. Erving replied, "Let me just set the record straight, too, because sometimes I am a little offended when the championship discussion comes about because I did not have an opportunity to win NBA championships or be a part of the NBA championship experience my first five years--but I wasn't just sitting around picking my nose: I was playing five years in the formidable ABA and I was part of two championship experiences there." That is a crucial historical point that I have made several times, including a 2001 article that I wrote for Basketball Digest about ABA statistics, a 2007 article that I wrote for NBCSports.com about the ABA's legacy and my Pantheon series article about Erving. Erving's performance in the 1976 ABA Finals--culminating in a classic 31 point, 19 rebound, five assist, five steal, four blocked shot effort in the decisive game six--has been described as "the greatest individual performance by a basketball player at any level anywhere--ABA, NBA, BAA or UCLA."
Erving then talked about his NBA Finals experiences: "In my first seven years in the NBA we were part of four championship experiences, three of which we did not win: one compliments of Bill (Walton) and two compliments of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers. So I had multiple opportunities to be in the championship arena, went to the Finals six times in 16 years--something that I am very individually proud of and also something that I am proud of for the Nets and 76ers organizations and for my teammates...Each of those times, succeed or fail, what it takes to get there is at the foundation and the core of it all. And that is the sense of setting a goal, being able to focus on it and then going through that process of trying to accomplish that goal. Even in the times when you come up short...I certainly did not feel at the end of the season, being the second place team, that it was all over. I actually felt more determined about coming back the next year because I knew that we probably could get back there again, until 1983 with the Sixers when I felt that the window was closing up after that--I didn't feel like the next few years that I played that I was ever on a team that had enough to accomplish what had already been accomplished in those previous 12 seasons, which was six attempts for the title and winning three times."
Lanier concluded the show by echoing a sentiment that he expressed to me in an interview almost six years ago: the most meaningful part of his NBA experience is that it has enabled him to have a positive impact on other people's lives.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:32 PM