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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Imagining the Young Julius Erving Playing in Today's NBA

"You had to see the man and hear the music." John Papanek, attempting to explain Julius Erving's greatness

I respect greatness from any era, so this article should not be interpreted as a shot at today's top players--but can you imagine a young Julius Erving playing under today's no hand-checking rules, let alone in an era that emphasizes the value of three point shots, layups and free throws above all other kinds of shots? Erving was a capable three point shooter (his career three point shooting percentage is artificially deflated by half court heaves, because during most of his era the three point shot was not used as a regular weapon). Everyone knows that Erving could attack the hoop for layups and to draw fouls. In today's game, Erving could be a prototype point forward, driving to the hoop and either finishing or kicking the ball to open shooters; he possessed the necessary ballhandling and passing skills to fill that role but the teams for which he played and the era during which he played placed him in a different role most of the time, though he provided glimpses of those aforementioned skills.

The sad reality is that even most so-called basketball experts have no clue about Erving's complete skill set; there is precious little footage of his three years with the New York Nets (during which he won three regular season MVPs, two Finals MVPs, two scoring titles and two championships) and even less footage of his two seasons with the Virginia Squires, when he put up some incredible numbers--especially in the playoffs, including a 33.3 ppg, 20.4 rpg and 6.5 apg stat line as a rookie in the 1972 ABA playoffs. How extraordinary is that trifecta? Forgive me for quoting myself to answer my own question: "The only other player in ABA/NBA history who averaged at least 30 ppg and at least 20 rpg in the same postseason is Wilt Chamberlain (1960-62, 64); the only other players who led the NBA or ABA in playoff scoring average and playoff rebounding average during the same postseason are George Mikan (1952 NBA), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1977 NBA), Hakeem Olajuwon (1988 NBA) and Shaquille O'Neal (2000 NBA). None of those four players came close to matching Erving's 6.5 apg average."

Triple doubles are the talk of the NBA this season. Erving was more of a double-double threat than a triple double threat but as a rookie he had a playoff game with 26 points, 20 rebounds and 15 assists. My research uncovered no other game in pro basketball history during which a player matched Erving's production in all three of those categories.

Erving never played for stats or for glory; in his 16 year career, the only milestone that he openly pursued was trying to reach the 30,000 point club during the final games of his last season. At the time (and for some time afterward), only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain had scored at least 30,000 points, so Erving was the only "mid-size" player to cross that threshold.

Check out this video snippet from the 1972 ABA-NBA All-Star Game, played shortly after the conclusion of Erving's rookie campaign; he looks like a modern player teleported five decades into the past, almost like the old Scottie Pippen commercial depicting Pippen dunking against 1950s era players--except Erving was not taking on chumps or patsies here: the NBA roster was stacked with nine future Hall of Famers, including Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson. In the video, Erving puts his entire skill set on display: devastating defense (watch him fly out of nowhere to block a shot, catch the ball and then fire a great outlet pass), rebounding in traffic, post up moves and some dazzling dribbling sequences (including a right to left between the legs crossover dribble that is under control, deceptively quick and did not require palming/carrying the ball):

Notice that Erving did not find it necessary to draw attention to himself with any antics after he made a great move; he let his game do his talking for him. Also notice that Erving was not showing off; he did a crossover move or a reverse pivot because those moves were necessary to beat the defense and because he knew that even though those moves might look flashy they were not high risk maneuvers for him because he had worked on his craft.

Sadly, no known footage exists of Erving's most spectacular move from that game; in the fourth quarter, he stole the ball from Paul Silas, dribbled downcourt, took off from the free throw line (you read that correctly) and dunked over Oscar Robertson AND Archie Clark (who, by the way, was regularly executing a devastating crossover dribble move in the NBA before Tim Hardaway or Allen Iverson were even born). I read about this dunk when I was a kid and I always dreamed about (1) seeing it and/or (2) learning the full story. Seeing it may never happen but I was blessed with the opportunity to interview Erving, Silas and several other players from that game. I told their stories in my oral history of the two ABA-NBA All-Star Games.

That was one of the first pieces that I wrote as a credentialed NBA writer (as opposed to a freelancer who did not cover games). I formulated my questions very carefully; when I asked about Erving's dunk I just said something to the effect of, "I understand that Erving made a great play in the fourth quarter. What do you remember about it?" The thing that struck me is that everyone who I interviewed essentially told the same basic story, even though the interviews were conducted separately. It sounds like an urban legend to say that Erving jumped from the free throw line and dunked under game conditions but that is what was reported at the time and that is how the participants still remember the play.

There is a lot of talk about LeBron James perhaps being the greatest athlete in pro basketball history. James is a tremendous athlete and a wonderful basketball player; I have covered and praised his exploits since he entered the league--but I wish that the commentators who are granted the most air time and bandwidth cared enough about their craft to do some research and understand that Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were Olympic-caliber track and field athletes in addition to being dominant basketball players and that Erving could match any comparably sized modern player in terms of speed and jumping ability, while also possessing solid basketball fundamentals (Erving played three years of college ball and was praised by his coaches at all levels for his high basketball IQ).

I enjoy watching today's great players. I predicted and documented Russell Westbrook's ascension nearly three years ago, at a time when many "experts" questioned his ability and/or willingness to play the point guard position properly; Westbrook is having a historic 2016-17 season and is making a case to be considered a Pantheon-level player, but he probably will not win the MVP because the media voters will hold his team's record against him even though it is obvious how much he has elevated a weak supporting cast. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard are four other great players who are having wonderful seasons--but in our collective rush to praise those players and with the natural human tendency to think that whatever is happening right now must be the greatest thing ever, we should not forget that some athletes and competitors have skill sets that transcend any particular era. Julius Erving is one of those players.

The John Papanek quote that serves as the epigraph for this article may be my favorite quote about Erving. Before writing that line, Papanek recited a litany of Erving's numbers and concluded that the numbers don't fully tell the story. The numbers can always be manipulated based on the alleged overall competitiveness of a particular era or based on "pace" or based on a host of supposedly objective factors but Papanek understood the deeper truth: to appreciate Erving's greatness you "had to see the man and hear the music."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:03 AM