Julius Erving's Poetic Perspective on Basketball GreatnessJulius "Dr. J" Erving is my all-time favorite player and George "Iceman" Gervin ranks very highly on my personal list as well. After Erving's rookie season with the Virginia Squires in 1971-72, he jumped to the NBA's Atlanta Hawks to join forces with Pete Maravich and the two young superstars played one-on-one games after practice. Maravich felt that this was the best way for them to learn about each other's games and develop camaraderie. Erving carried that idea with him when a court ruling forced him to return to the Squires; the Squires signed Gervin in the second half of the season and Erving played one-on-one against him. Gervin later modestly claimed that he never won a single game against Erving but more important than the results of those encounters is the idea of playing for the love of the game, playing for a challenge and playing to make each other better.
Erving and Gervin later faced each other in a pair of high scoring seven game playoff series, with Erving's New York Nets prevailing over Gervin's San Antonio Spurs in the 1976 ABA playoffs and Gervin's Spurs defeating Erving's Philadelphia 76ers in the 1979 playoffs. By 1976, the slender Gervin had shifted from forward to guard so the two players did not often face each other one-on-one in those series but in 1985-86--Erving's second to last season and Gervin's final season--both players were starting guards; Gervin had taken the place of the injured Michael Jordan for the Chicago Bulls, while Erving had moved to the backcourt in the wake of injuries to Andrew Toney and Sedale Threatt.
Prior to Erving's 76ers playing Gervin's Bulls in Chicago, Erving offered a wonderful quote about Gervin (as published in Bob Sakamoto's January 17, 1986 Chicago Tribune article): "He personifies being at one with certain elements in the universe that, at least theoretically, are supposed to have a certain effect. When I see him play, sometimes it makes me think about the psychic side of the sport, abstract things that can be introduced to the sport and explained through his motion. It really is a tribute to him that he can trigger this in me, because I`ve seen a lot of players come and go, and he's probably my favorite."
Few athletes performed with the grace and style of Erving and Gervin--and few athletes speak about the game of basketball as lovingly and poetically as Erving, someone who understands that you play the game not only to win but also to create something that is memorable and inspirational for the fans. I love Erving's description of how he felt when he played against Larry Bird:
When I get the ball in my hands and when you turn and you face him, when you take the initiative to aggressively face him, then he has to react. He may not react physically but his heart jumps if you turn and you really look at him like you mean business. His heart might even stop for a second, especially if you are good. This is when you start playing the game as you were when you were a kid, because this is when you are playing basketball and you are not working. To me this has always been a beautiful experience because I can look in a guy's eye and I can also tell if he means business and I can also feel whether my heart stops or stands still or not. If I'm looking at him and he's looking at me and we have got the same thing in mind--playing basketball and playing it the way that nobody else in the world plays it--then I think we create something beautiful.
That joyful spirit of "playing the game as you were when you were a kid" is precious and fleeting--both for the athlete in his prime and for the fans enjoying that athlete's artistry. It is more than 30 years since Erving spoke those words but they still resonate and I can still see him in my mind's eye soaring to the hoop over Bird.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:35 AM