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Monday, December 23, 2013

Julius Erving Offers Thoughtful, Moving Reflections in his Autobiography

Dr. J--Julius Erving's autobiography, written with the assistance of Karl Taro Greenfeld--is a candid, unflinching look at the life of an American sports icon. Erving's rise, literally and figuratively, is described in a captivating, evocative manner; the reader learns how Erving emerged from a single-parent home to become not just one of the greatest basketball players of all-time but also a dignified, highly respected man who has positively influenced many lives. Erving flew to the hoop with grace and power but he never put on airs.

Erving's parents divorced when he was three years old and he only saw his father--Julius Winfield Erving Sr.--a few times before the elder Erving died from injuries that he suffered in a traffic accident. Young Erving was raised by his mother Callie Mae Abney alongside older sister Alexis Alfreda (known as Freda) and younger brother Marvin (who was nicknamed Marky). The family lived in public housing in a racially mixed neighborhood in Hempstead, Long Island. Erving did not face much overt racism in Long Island but he experienced culture shock as a youngster when he, his mother and his siblings visited their relatives in the Deep South. A sign declaring "WELCOME TO KLAN COUNTRY" greeted them when they drove into North Carolina and Erving's cousin Bobby told him, "White people are devils"--but Erving's mother told her son, "All people are the same. Black. White. We're all the same. There's good and bad people among white and black. You remember that."

Erving's character formed early, shaped by his mother's wisdom and his own internal moral compass; Erving would always be a leader but not a radical, a free thinker but not a revolutionary, a man who followed the rules but was never afraid to improvise when necessary (p. 28):

Mom says if I do my homework first, then I can play. I have to keep quiet in class. I must go to school. I should respect my elders.

I stand by the rules, move with care and respect and wariness, and agree to abide by the penalties of failure and rewards of success. Despite what I have seen in the Jim Crow South, the injustice that makes Bobby hate, and even the violence of our own Parkside Gardens, when even as a child I can get a sense that some lives just aren't as highly valued as others, I seek shelter in the security of rules, the snugness of being tucked into a line, of being a number in a column rather than a soul out of place, alone.

Early in his life, Erving dealt with death, loss and suffering. His father was not much of a presence in his life before passing away, cousin Bobby drowned as a young child and Erving suffered a serious knee injury playing street football; for a while it seemed questionable if he would ever walk without a limp, let alone resume being the fastest running/highest jumping kid in his peer group. Erving wore a cast on his leg for three months, during which time he watched basketball both in the neighborhood park and on TV, where he caught his first glimpses of Elgin Baylor--and began to form a vision of how the game could be played artistically (p.35): "For the first time, I have this idea that certain ways of playing basketball are more beautiful than other ways. That there is scoring, putting the ball in the basket, but also the artistry of how that scoring is done. This is a new idea, an idea I have never heard spoken aloud: that some basketball players look better than other basketball players because of the way they play."

Erving resumed playing various sports after his leg healed and his streetball exploits attracted the attention of Don Ryan, a 19 year old Salvation Army basketball coach. Ryan invited Erving and Erving's friend Archie Rogers to become the first black players on the local Salvation Army team. Erving won the MVP award in his first season of organized basketball and his squad dominated the local teams. Ryan taught the kids more than just how to play basketball; Erving remembered that Ryan insisted that his players "win without bragging and lose without crying."

After Erving's mother married Dan Lindsay, the family moved to Roosevelt, Long Island and Erving came under the guidance of high school coaches Earl Mosley and Ray Wilson, two men who picked up where Ryan had left off both in terms of coaching basketball on the court and also setting an example for how to act off of the court.

Erving came of age during the 1960s, an era scarred by war, assassinations and civil unrest, but his faith in the American ideal never wavered. He believed in the United States, despite her shortcomings: "It is a force for good. It is the greatest nation. And if I work to the best of my abilities, then I will be rewarded" (p. 123).

The dreadful day that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, a group of black kids--eager to exact revenge against any white person they can find--gathered menacingly around Stephanie, one of Erving's white classmates. Erving went into the middle of the crowd, insisted that they stop harassing Stephanie and then he walked her home: "This is our hope, as a nation, I think, that two kids--the little black boys and little white girls of Dr. King's speech--can just walk together, and share their dreams, and in sharing somehow give strength and validity to each other's dreams. Teachers, our parents, Ray Wilson, Earl Mosley, Don Ryan, they keep telling us we are American's future. Adults repeat the sentiment so much it becomes a platitude, as meaningless as a car advertising jingle, but now, at this moment, as Stephanie thanks me for walking her home, it becomes real" (p. 128).

No one is flawless and the one aspect of Erving's life that has surprised and disappointed some of his fans is his infidelity to Turquoise Brown, his first wife and the woman with whom he had three children (at the time that she wed Erving, Turquoise also had a son from a previous relationship). In Dr. J, Erving frankly describes his attitude toward women and sex; his first sexual experience came at the hands of an older step-cousin who, essentially, molested/assaulted him when he was 13 years old. By the time he reached college and had attained a certain status as a big man on campus, Erving's attitude about sex had been set: "Perhaps it is a product of the impersonal manner in which I was introduced to sex, but I divide women into two categories. There are those who I  consider relationship material, who I view as good girls, and then there are those who I see more as objects, as bad girls. I know that's simplistic and even offensive to many women, and that among the so-called good girls there are plenty of bad people and vice versa, but I am mired in that kind of patriarchal thinking on the subject and it will take years for me to break out of it. My struggle to respect women and to see them all as God's creatures is one of the ways I've had to rise above my own circumstances and perhaps the cultural norms of when and where I was raised" (pp. 158-159).

While Erving wrestled with temptation off of the court, he literally rose above the crowd on the court. He earned a slot as an alternate for the 1970 U.S. Olympic Development camp; the camp consisted of a pool of 40 players from which the 1972 U.S. Olympic Basketball team would be selected. After a player got injured, Erving came to the camp one week into the proceedings, made the squad and earned team MVP honors during a European exhibition tour. He also excelled at the University of Massachusetts; Erving is one of just five players who averaged at least 20 ppg and at least 20 rpg during an NCAA career.

Most fans probably think of Erving as a dunker and/or a flashy scorer but Erving's game was always well-grounded in the sport's fundamentals. Early in his career, he made his name primarily as a rebounder, though he also was an excellent scorer, passer and defender. Erving's big hands, outstanding leaping ability and impeccable timing enabled him to outduel bigger and stronger players on the boards. Erving attracted the attention of the ABA's Virginia Squires, who signed him to a five year contract after his junior season.

Erving made a quick adjustment to the professional game on the court, averaging 27.3 ppg, 15.7 rpg and 4.0 apg as a rookie in the 1971-72 season. He elevated those numbers to 33.3 ppg, 20.4 rpg and 6.5 apg in the playoffs, a tremendous beginning to a very underrated postseason career. Off of the court, Erving experienced some of the challenges typically encountered by young men who achieve fame and fortune very quickly; Erving and a fellow University of Massachusetts student named Carol developed a serious relationship before Erving turned pro but after Erving joined the ABA he enjoyed the company of many different sexual partners. In his book, Erving does not attempt to justify his behavior (he misled Carol to believe that they were still in a committed, monogamous relationship) but he explains his mindset/shortcomings: "But I'm still a young man, just twenty-two now, and while the idea of fidelity to one woman seems the righteous and moral thing to do, I know enough about my own failings to recognize it's not realistic" (p. 219). After his rookie season, Erving traveled back to Amherst (Carol was still enrolled in college) and--without admitting that he had already cheated on her--suggested to Carol that they have an "open relationship," telling her that only after they have had other partners could they truly know if they were meant to be together. She is understandably skeptical of such an arrangement and Erving recalls thinking at that time, "I may have negotiated away the best thing I ever had" (p. 221).

During the summer of 1972, Erving jumped to the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, teaming up with the incomparable Pete Maravich. Erving only spent part of the preseason with the Hawks before a court order forced him to rejoin the Squires but Maravich left an indelible impression on Erving: "One of the things that makes Pete so great is his hang time, and no one talks about that. He can leave the floor and sort of stay up there long enough to fake one way and then pass another...Pete Maravich is the most skilled basketball player I have ever seen" (pp. 226-227).

Erving had already sold his Virginia residence, so when he returned to the Squires he stayed at the home of team owner Earl Foreman;  Foreman spent most of his time at his Washington, D.C. home. Erving entertained various young ladies at Foreman's place but then he met Turquoise Brown. Erving knew that he had, as he put it in the book, "problems with fidelity" but he quickly felt a powerful attraction to Brown, who he married early in 1974. By that time, Erving had been traded to the New York Nets. He celebrated his homecoming by winning the first of his four regular season MVPs en route to leading the Nets to the 1974 ABA title.

Erving's Nets fell short in the 1975 playoffs but bounced back to claim the 1976 championship in the final season before the ABA/NBA merger. In the 1976 ABA Finals versus the powerful Denver Nuggets, Erving operated at the highest possible level, leading both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg) as the Nets prevailed four games to two. Erving could have justifiably devoted a whole chapter to that series alone and a strong argument can be made that this was the greatest single-series performance in pro basketball history but Dr. J describes the series in just two pages.

The financially strapped Nets sold Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers. Erving led the 76ers to the NBA Finals four times in 11 seasons but it took the acquisition of Moses Malone in 1982 to push the team over the hump; the 76ers had long needed an elite big man to match up with Hall of Fame centers like Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish. Walton's Portland Trailblazers defeated the 76ers in the 1977 NBA Finals, while Abdul-Jabbar teamed with Magic Johnson to knock off the 76ers in the 1980 and 1982 NBA Finals.

Erving is justifiably proud of his 1981 NBA regular season MVP,  noting that he was the first non-center to win the NBA MVP since Oscar Robertson (1964): "I am contributing to this transformation of the game, in that the most exciting players are now playing facing the basket instead of with their backs to it. I feel like this is some vindication of my style, of the game played on the rise and above the rim" (p. 338). Throughout the book, Erving points out that each era has its own context, making it difficult to fairly compare players from different eras; for instance, during Erving's career star players tended to not question the coaches and many coaches favored using a balanced attack--but more recent superstars such as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have the power to get coaches fired and do not hesitate to demand (in word or simply by the way that they play) to fire up more than 20 field goal attempts per game (a level that Erving regularly reached in the ABA but that he only topped once in his NBA career while adhering to the guidelines of coaches Gene Shue, Billy Cunningham and Matt Guokas).

Erving filled the last blank space on his basketball resume when the 76ers claimed the 1983 NBA championship. Erving does not discuss that magical title run in great detail, concluding, "No matter how old I get, no matter what I accomplish, I still see a lanky fifteen-year-old staring back at me. I'm still Mom's son and Marky's brother. I'm still Junior" (p. 379).

Erving later adds, "Basketball doesn't recede in importance. Perhaps it was simply never as meaningful as it seems. It is why you know me,  know my name, but it is not me. It is my profession, what I do--it's a strange profession in that those who become very good at it also become famous. Great dentists and accountants are unremarked upon when they enter a restaurant. Great basketball players are never unnoticed" (p. 389).

During various media appearances to promote Dr. J, Erving has stressed that his autobiography is not primarily a basketball book and this is true; Erving focuses much more on his upbringing, his internal thought processes about non-basketball situations and his off court life than he does on his basketball career, though he clearly--and quite correctly--expresses the opinion that his basketball accomplishments have not been given their full due.

However, Erving makes a point of mentioning that he does not appreciate Larry Bird saying that Michael Jordan was the best player he ever faced: "...I find that a little disrespectful. We beat them up pretty bad in some playoffs, and they got the better of us in others, but those are the toughest matchups for both of us. I don't think it's fair for Larry to say that Michael is the best based on one great playoff game, the 63-point performance in Boston Garden. But then, Larry is always playing mind games, so he's probably trying to psych out Magic and me" (p. 325). Erving and Bird shared a tremendous rivalry, a rivalry that has sadly been forgotten by far too many commentators and fans. Erving is right to insist that this rivalry should be remembered and respected. Later in the book, he declares that Philadelphia's game seven win against Boston in the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals "may have been the most important game in my career. Back then, those Sixer-Celtic series felt bigger than championship finals, or certainly more emotional. Those games are tougher and more mentally draining than any others I've ever played" (p. 356). As for his infamous fight with Bird in November 1984, Erving is not proud of what happened and he notes that neither he nor Bird will autograph photos of them fighting. Erving also says that he considered it "office politics, the squabbles of men at work" and that it never affected their personal or business relationships.

The 1982-83 76ers set a record (since broken by the 2000-01 Lakers) by going 12-1 in the playoffs but their core players were too old to establish a dynasty; the 76ers failed to defend their title, losing in the first round of the 1984 playoffs. Erving attributes the 76ers' decline to the accumulated wear and tear of the previous several extended postseason runs, noting that Bird's Celtics were swept in the 1983 playoffs and that Erving's 76ers swept Johnson's Lakers in the 1983 playoffs: "Long playoff runs tire out a team, as we are forced to return again and again to our emotional and spiritual wells" (p. 390). During the 76ers' 1984 first round loss to the Nets, Erving realized that his days at the top of the sport were numbered: "My knees are sore and my groin injury has recurred throughout that series, so I'm hobbled, feeling my age and playing through pain, averaging over 18 a game but never exerting my will the way I have in playoffs past" (p. 390).

Ultimately, though, Erving is much more focused on larger issues than he is on his basketball career or anyone else's basketball career. The death of his sister Freda before the age of 40 as a result of colon cancer reminds Erving again of the fragility of life and the mysteries of existence: "I don't understand God's will. I don't understand His plan. The universe sometimes seems arbitrary to me, its cruelty as unthinking as a mousetrap. When Marky passed, I forced myself to keep moving forward, as I did with Bobby, Tonk, and Wendell, but when I go with Mom and Freda to Marky's grave in Rockville Centre, I think again about the substance of this life, about the extinguishing of the body and the mysteries of the soul. I always believe that Marky travels with me, and I sometimes feel him there, but I also know that this is the story I tell myself in order to soften the harsh truth of his being gone" (p. 363; Tonk was his father's nickname, while Wendell refers to Wendell Ladner, a New York teammate who died in a plane crash).

Erving feels like he entered pro basketball through the "side door," so it was very important to him to leave the sport through the "front door," to retire at a time of his choosing when he still could perform at a high level. His 1986-87 Farewell Tour featured an amazing outpouring of love and respect from across the country and around the world. 

Erving briefly worked as an analyst for NBC's NBA coverage but he was never comfortable on camera: "It takes a certain knack, a quickness of mind, and an ability to say nothing while sounding like I am saying something. I have to learn to speak while a producer is talking into my ear, giving me some statistics that I can use in support of a vacuous thesis about the first half of a basketball game that will be forgotten tomorrow...I find the analyses numbing. It is remarkable to me how we can fill hours, days even, of television talking about basketball, and yet I always feel that we are failing to communicate the truth of the game. Even here, in this book, I worry that I am not up to the task of explaining the essence of basketball as it is played at the highest levels. I feel that it is like trying to explain music through words or to describe a painting through text. You can give a feeling of the work, or compare it to something else, but you can't re-create the actual feeling of being on the court, or making that move, imposing your will, of the precise moment that you realize you can reach the front of the rim" (pp. 402-403). 

Erving's life since retiring from the NBA has not been easy; he has weathered the death of his son Cory, the death of his mother and a divorce from Turquoise. An associate ripped off Erving for several million dollars in a golf course deal and--though Erving denied it at the time--Erving's financial troubles contributed to his decision to sell off over 100 pieces from his personal memorabilia collection, including championship rings and MVP trophies.

It is a natural human tendency to downplay and/or excuse one's own flaws and shortcomings but Erving is very candid and blunt about his personal failures. Many people were shocked about the 1999 revelation that Erving was the father of young tennis star Alexandra Stevenson, who had been raised by her mother Samantha, a sportswriter who had an affair with Erving: "Samantha obviously did a fantastic job as a single mom raising her daughter, and I have nothing but praise and admiration for both of them. As I said, there are facets of my life that are less than heroic. This is an area where I wish I could have done it differently...There is no villain here, though I would say--and this is my book--that there is one person who is more at fault in this affair than the rest, and I raise my hand" (p. 408). Erving later had a second child out of wedlock with a different woman, to whom he is now married and with whom he is raising a family: "Whatever shame I feel at having sired children out of wedlock is balanced by the fierce pride I take in them, all of them...As I say, mine is an American life, fully lived, and I am not above reproach for my shortcomings. I hear my mother's stern voice and still feel her disappointment" (p. 418).

Dr. J tells Erving's story articulately and passionately; the book provides great insight into Erving's life.

Postscript:

Erving spoke with Keith Olbermann about his life and his philosophy:



The entire interview is tremendous but Erving's comments about basketball and aesthetics struck a particular chord with me and they echo my feelings about the sport. I quoted the passage (from page 35) in which Erving described his first thoughts/visions about playing basketball beautifully and artistically; Erving told Olbermann that George Gervin possessed that artistic quality and that Kevin Durant is the active player who most embodies this trait.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:39 PM

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