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Thursday, October 03, 2013

Julius Erving as Viewed by his Contemporaries

When LeBron James recently listed Julius Erving as one of the three greatest basketball players of all-time, some commentators questioned if Erving deserves to be mentioned alongside Michael Jordan and Larry Bird (James' other two top three choices) and ahead of so many other legendary performers. Virtually every outstanding sports figure faces a battle "to the death" (to borrow William Goldman's wonderfully evocative phrase) to preserve his reputation in the eyes of future generations who do not have first hand knowledge of his exploits. It is interesting to examine what one's contemporaries have to say in this regard; although a contemporary observer does not have the contextual benefit of knowing how a player's entire career turned out, a contemporary observer can offer a first hand account of how the player was perceived when the player was at the height of his powers.

Pro Basketball's Super Scorers (published in 1976) by Larry Felser profiles Julius Erving, Rick Barry, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, George McGinnis, Jerry West and Bob McAdoo. Felser noted that the young Erving had already distinguished himself as a great late game performer:

Some players may score more than Erving. A few, but only a few, may be more spectacular. But what makes 6 foot, 7-inch Julius distinctive is his ability to score the big basket when it is needed the most. 

A decade later, Pete Axthelm, in a Newsweek article about Larry Bird, made a similar observation about Erving's propensity to excel in the clutch: "Bird...probably makes as many crucial shots as any recent star except Julius Erving." Today, casual fans may not be old enough to remember and/or savvy enough to know that Erving developed--and deserved--a reputation for making big shots in clutch situations.

Felser described Erving's performance in a March 16, 1974 game when Erving's New York Nets faced the powerful Kentucky Colonels in Kentucky with homecourt advantage in the playoffs potentially on the line as the two squads battled for the Eastern Division title. The Nets had possession of the ball with the score tied and 13 seconds remaining in overtime when Erving received the inbounds pass, drove and lofted a long shot over the outstretched hands of 7-2 shot-blocker Artis Gilmore:

It was a perfect shot, arching high and with just enough power to travel a full 18 feet from the point at which Erving shot it. When it dropped through the net, just one second remained on the scoreboard clock. The Nets had won!

Up in the stands among the spectators, Adolph Rupp, one of the most famous basketball coaches in history when he won championship after championship at the University of Kentucky, watched Erving's game-winning heroics with admiration. 

"I've coached a lot of great players and seen a lot of great ones," said Rupp, "but not all of them wanted to take that last shot, the one which would decide the game. Erving wants to take the shot because he knows he can make it."

Doctor J scored 41 points that night. All but five of them came when the game was at its most hectic stage--in the second half of regulation time and in the overtime period.

The Nets finished 55-29, two games ahead of the Colonels--but if the Colonels had won that encounter, then both teams would have been 54-28 and Kentucky would have won the Eastern Division based on having a better head to head record.

Felser quoted Kevin Loughery, who coached Erving with the Nets for three years, during which time Erving earned three ABA MVPs (one shared with George McGinnis) and led the Nets to two ABA titles:

"I think Julius is the best basketball player I've ever seen," says Loughery. "There is a certain uniqueness to him. He does things on a basketball court that no other player can do. When you watch him every night, you see different things. During the last few weeks of his first season with us, when we had to win every game, he was tremendous. There are very few players in the game of basketball  I would pay to see. He is one of them."

Many longtime observers of pro basketball compare Erving to Elgin Baylor, the great forward for the Los Angeles Lakers who retired several years ago.

"Doctor J is a better all-around player than Baylor ever was," answers Loughery. "He can do everything Baylor could do on offense, and then some. He also plays much better defense."

Felser noted that Kentucky Coach Babe McCarthy agreed with Loughery. After Erving hit another last second shot to beat the Colonels--this time in game three of the 1974 Eastern Division Finals--McCarthy declared, "Unbelievable. More ability than any player I've ever seen. Erving is the best."

A few quotes and anecdotes from the mid-1970s do not conclusively prove anything but they do give an indication about how Erving was perceived as his career unfolded. Erving at his peak was certainly in the greatest player of all-time conversation; that does not mean that he definitively was/is the greatest player of all-time or that other players are not in that conversation, nor does it preclude the possibility that subsequent players exceeded Erving's accomplishments--but the way that Erving was viewed by his contemporaries is worth remembering/considering when the subject of greatest basketball player of all-time is discussed.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:08 AM