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Monday, June 30, 2008

Julius Erving on the Art of Knowing When to Dunk--And When Not to Dunk

Although Julius "Dr. J" Erving is one of the most flamboyant and exciting basketball players ever, his game was very fundamentally sound. As he often put it, he dunked primarily for the "result, not the effect"; for Erving, the dunk was the highest percentage shot available. On page 120 of the excellent book Stuff Good Players Should Know, Dick DeVenzio wrote (emphasis in the original):

It may surprise you to learn that good players don't strive for great plays. Great plays come to them occasionally, but only in the process of concentrating on their job, trying to do all the little things right. Take Dr. J for example. He makes a lot of great plays. But his value, even more important to his team than all those spectacular dunks, is that he doesn't miss many dunks. He is consistent. On the plays where a spectacular dunk has a good chance of missing, Dr. J "happens" not to try it at all. "Ah," say the fans, "he should've dunked that one." But he doesn't dunk every chance he gets. He dunks the ones he can dunk, and he doesn't attempt the ones he can not. If it's 50-50, he doesn't try it. Good players don't like those odds. Good players are not gamblers, they are performers. That is why great plays are not what makes an outstanding player. It is knowing limitations. A good player knows that he doesn't need a slam dunk in the final seconds to be credited with winning the big game. If he can stop his man from scoring and go down the other end and get a good shot, he can win the game just as well--and more often.

When I interviewed Erving a few years ago, I told him about that passage and asked him what he thought about it. Here is his reply:

Erving: "My thoughts are, if you haven’t perfected it, then you shouldn’t be trying it in a game. Good defense forces an offensive player to maybe go outside of their capability a little bit and experiment, but a one-on-none breakaway, trying to do a blindfold or go between the legs—you’ve got to get the two points. You have to go down and get the two points. You have to understand what the priority is. Trying to make the highlight films--that gets into guys like Rodman diving eight rows into the stands just to get on the highlights. That became sort of his thing. There is an identity issue and players are doing more things to try to get recognition outside of sticking with the game plan and sticking with the abilities they are blessed with and the skill training that they put a lot of hours into perfecting. Coaches have their hands tied in terms of what to do. Do I take the guy, bring him over and sit him down or just let him play through it? Do I talk to him in private after the game? I remember Billy Cunningham—you know, Steve Smith used to have this thing, bouncing the ball off the backboard and dunking it. So they’re up like 30 points in a game and he bounces the ball off the backboard and catches it and dunks it on a one-on-none fast break. You know, guys in my generation used to think that was just trying to embarrass the other team and that there shouldn’t be a place for that in professional basketball."

Friedman: "Is that when Smith was with the Miami Heat?"

Erving: "Yes and Billy was in the front office. And right after he (Cunningham) told him (not to do it), he (Smith) did it in the next game."

Friedman: "Sometimes they don’t listen. You tell them, but they don’t listen, right?"

Erving: “He was like, ‘Well, we’re a different generation. In this generation, this is what we do.’ And I guess maybe to a degree you have to accept some of that. There are certain things in the game that do need to be preserved. Putting your second team in when you’re up a lot of points is really what you should do. I mean, those guys want to play, too. To just run it up to 125 so the crowd can get hamburgers or whatever, that’s not good."

Friedman: "That leads me right into my next question when you’re talking about just playing for a stat--"

Erving: "Yeah, putting a guy back in the game so he can get an assist for a triple double or whatever, that’s crass. It’s just crass."

In the 1970s and 1980s, Hall of Famer Red Auerbach and some of the biggest NBA stars filmed a number of instructional features that aired during NBA telecasts. These classic "Red on Roundball" videos are still fun and educational decades after they were first made. Here is a "Round on Roundball" segment during which Erving talks about the slam dunk:

Red on Roundball: Slam Dunk

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:41 PM



At Monday, June 30, 2008 8:00:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

David, don't Erving's comments about how the second unit should play during the ends of blowouts conflict with some of your opinions of certain teams (like the New England Patriots of last year) admirably playing with a killer instinct every minute? Where do you draw the line between being "classy" (and resting starters during the ends of games or during meaningless games towards the end of the regular season) and having a legendary killer instinct or need to win?

At Monday, June 30, 2008 8:46:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know it's not related to the topic, but which book would you advise people to purchase, the original copy which was published in 1983, or the more recent version, which was published two years ago?

At Monday, June 30, 2008 11:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The three main things that Erving objected to in those comments were (1) players attempting shots/moves that are not high percentage shots/moves based on their skill sets, (2) players making hot dog moves (like Smith's) when the score is lopsided, (3) keeping players in the game primarily to run up the score for free promotions or to reach statistical milestones (like a triple double).

What I praised the Patriots for (over at Best Ever Sports Talk, my other website) was playing hard all the time and trying to perfect their craft. Belichick certainly does not coach his players to hot dog or try low percentage moves. Football has more of a platoon system in which a large number of players (other than perhaps the backup quarterback) get to play, if not in regular situations than at least on special teams. Players 9-10-11-12 on NBA teams work really hard in practice but their only chance to play is during a blowout, so Erving's point is that instead of playing the starters all the way to the end in a 25-30 point game that the team should empty its bench in those last few minutes.

For example, Larry Bird scored his regular season high 60 points in a blowout win over Atlanta. Not only was he still playing long past when the outcome was decided, the Celtics repeatedly fouled the Hawks to get the ball back just so Bird could shoot. Erving never did anything like that to set a personal scoring high and I'm sure that he would say that what Bird and the Celtics did was "crass." Erving did whatever he could to help his team win and he may have been less interested in personal stats than just about any other player of comparable greatness; he was the same way in high school and college, as demonstrated by various anecdotes in Marty Bell's book "The Legend of Dr. J." As a kid rooting for Dr. J, I always wanted him to shoot more and score more but I've grown to understand that those types of things were not what motivated him. Sure, when the Nets needed him to score a lot he did it but when the Sixers told him that they would rather have three guys average 20 ppg than one guy average 30 ppg he had no problem with that. I have no doubt that Erving could have averaged 30 ppg in 1976-77; three years later, when the Sixers asked him to score more he averaged 26.9 ppg, so he certainly could have exceeded that number when he was younger and even more athletic.

Erving did not say anything about resting starters for most or all of a game, like the Colts did in their finale versus the Titans. What I objected to from the Colts is that they threw a million short passes to Wayne to reach his statistical milestone and then they not only took out virtually all of their good players but they did not even really try to win (i.e., not using up all of their timeouts at the end to force the Titans' hand in the final seconds). There is a big difference between taking out NBA starters when you have a 25 point lead with three minutes to go and taking out NFL starters early in a game that either team could win.

At Monday, June 30, 2008 11:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

S. Tiku:

I read the 1983 edition when it came out and I later bought the 1994 edition. I have not seen any other editions. As far as I know, the 1994 edition is essentially the same as the 1983 one, other than some minor changes such as a new dedication page. I would recommend that anyone who is interested in really understanding basketball as a fan, player or coach buy any edition of that book that is available and read it from cover to cover.

At Tuesday, July 01, 2008 4:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

larry bird was of the most unselfish players in basketball history because of one game to say he was selfish is ridicoulous it is a career to be selfish maybe two game not when you play 12 years like he did david juluis eving was all time great top 10 bird was top 5 i love dr j, i seen david robinson score 73 in a blowout game vs the clippers just to win the scoreing title that game was long decided as well. george gervin scored 71 in a last game effort ricky davis got a triple double he threw he got the last couple rbounds by throwing the ball off the rim well after the game was deided. i see kobe after the game was decided vs sonics in the midst of 8 straight 40 point games after the game was decided jacking up shots too ry to get to 40 points so badly evrybody does what bird does at time to break records.

At Tuesday, July 01, 2008 5:08:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

anonynmous reggie -

Where does it say that Larry Bird is selfish? David never used that characterization.

As far as Kobe is concerned, the times he has been up for records, he's been coached by Phil Jackson and they have both made sure to use discretion when it comes to statistical record breaking. Kobe did not play the fourth quarter of the game after outscoring Dallas through three quarters. Kobe did not play the last quarter and more of a game against Memphis in which he had 56 points.

Get your facts straight.

And for the record, Bird was not selfish, he was crass in his attempt to score 60 points.

At Tuesday, July 01, 2008 5:13:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I didn't say that Bird was not a great player or that he was a selfish player overall but Bird was a lot more caught up in his personal numbers than Erving was. Bird used to ask what the scoring record was in certain arenas so he'd know how many points to score that night. Perhaps that was his way of motivating himself or keeping the game interesting during a long season but Erving never did stuff like that. The game that I cited was not the only one in which Bird did something like that. Also, it is one thing to stay in the game and keep shooting--like David Robinson did--and it is another thing to start fouling the losing team in a blowout just so you can get more opportunities to score points.

Gervin had 63 points to win the 1978 scoring title by .07 ppg; David Thompson scored 73 points earlier that day, seemingly clinching the title before Gervin had his big game. In both cases their teammates were feeding them the ball in the last game of the regular season in contests that had no effect on playoff positioning.

Ricky Davis' attempt to fake a triple double was not rewarded in the box score; he shot at the wrong basket so he could get his 10th rebound but intentionally shooting at the wrong basket is a violation. Davis' Cavs were up by 25 at the time. As David Aldridge wrote at the time, "To shoot at his own basket unveils a whole new level of bush previously undiscovered by the world's top archaeologists."

In 1996, the Magic were blowing out Doug Collins' Pistons and Orlando's Anthony Bowie called a timeout with just a couple seconds left in order to try to get the last assist that he needed for a triple double. In disgust, Collins ordered his players off of the court.

What Davis and Bowie did is completely bush league. What the Celtics did in Bird's 60 point game is hardly much better. Shooting the ball is part of the context of the game--there is a 24 second clock, so you can't just sit on the ball like a football team that has a big lead. However, committing fouls to get the ball back and/or calling timeouts in a blowout just to get records/milestones is bush league.

At Wednesday, July 02, 2008 12:25:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

i agree it it was bush league bird and davis and bowie i never new the whole bowie and davis story. robinson and kobe was too to keep on shooting in a blowout when the other team has gave in already is bush league 81 point game by kobe was legit and 62 three quaters and 56 in 3 in 02 aginst mephis was legit that sonic game and robinson clipper game wasnt legit it didnt come in the flow of the game they were intentionnally trying to do it like bird but i agree bird was even worse.

allen go look at the sonic game in 03 and then your facts will be straighten clearly you dont know much about the game i wasnt talking about those two games.

i agree that stuff was bush league like some of the patriot games.

At Wednesday, July 02, 2008 7:59:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't have the Robinson play by play in front of me and I did not see that game but I don't think that the Spurs were fouling to get the ball back and doing antics like that.

In the Seattle game Kobe probably forced some shots at the end but I still say that forcing shots is not the same thing as fouling to get the ball back during a blowout or shooting at the wrong basket or calling a timeout to get a bogus triple double.

What the Patriots did is different in a couple ways. One, teams have come back from large deficits in the NFL, so who is to say what a safe lead is? We've all seen teams score, get an onside kick and score again in a short period of time. The Oilers blew a 35 point lead in a playoff game. Also, the Patriots have a pass oriented offense, so it's not like they are a running team that started throwing the ball when they got a big lead; they just kept playing their normal way. A lot of people just don't like Belichick, so no matter what he does they will find fault with it. For different reasons, Belichick, Kobe and Terrell Owens are in the same boat in that regard.


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