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Monday, April 13, 2009

Julius Erving Holds Court after Hall of Fame Press Conference

During Julius Erving's playing career, it was well documented that he patiently and articulately answered questions until the last reporter left the locker room. He has that same patience, grace and smooth way with words to this day, as he showed after the Basketball Hall of Fame press conference on Friday February 13; long after every other Hall of Famer and Hall of Fame finalist had left the room, Erving continued to hold court with reporters until that group dwindled from a large crowd to just a single writer. It was a real treat to listen to him talk about a number of different subjects. Here are some highlights from his remarks, beginning with a few questions that I asked him and concluding with his responses to selected questions from various other reporters (the questions have been edited to exclude irrelevant or repetitive information):

Friedman: "Julius, what are your earliest memories of Red Kerr with the Virginia Squires?"

Erving: "Well, I'm saddened to see that Red is in ill health right now (Kerr passed away shortly after All-Star Weekend). When I came out of college, he was one of the first people I met who was involved with the pro game. My first year in Virginia, he was our general manager. He did a great job in terms of explaining the pro game and citing the differences between college basketball and pro basketball, being an amateur and being a professional. He was a guy who had been there (as an NBA player in the 1950s and 1960s). As Jerry Colangelo mentioned, he is a lifer, someone who has devoted his whole life to the sport that he loves and the game that allowed him to have a great lifestyle. He's had a huge impact and I think that he will continue to have a huge impact. I hope that he can recover to the point that he can go back to work and be a happy individual. My prayers go out to him and those memories are something that I will never forget."

Friedman: "Is there a particular thing that he said, perhaps about the difference between being a pro and being an amateur, that really has stuck with you or is it just the general tenor of his advice?"

Erving: "I think that it's more the general tenor. He used to always say, 'Be a professional.' Any time that I saw him he always gave me a big greeting and it was genuine affection because he got me when I was 21. Now guys come into the league at 17, 18--well, 19 is the cutoff now--and Tony Parker started playing pro ball (in Europe) at 15, so you can just imagine being one of the first handful of people to have an influence on an amateur turning professional and he was in that handful of people with (Virginia Coach) Al Bianchi and (team owner) Earl Foreman."

Friedman: "You have mentioned that you don't watch the game so much anymore. Has that been a gradual process for you since you retired from playing? When did you really step back and stop following the game on a day to day basis? You were in management (with Orlando) at one point."

Erving: "Yeah, from 1997 to 2003 I was in management. I found that when I went back in 1997 one of the more difficult things to do was to totally reacquaint myself with the league. I really tried to do it but I had so many other interests. My whole scope had broadened as a person and my tastes and preferences were different. I couldn't have the same type of commitment that I had during those 16 years when I played. I mean, I ate, drank and slept it. I wasn't Pete Rose (who is renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge of baseball past and present) during those years but I still knew my profession--I knew every coach and general manager and the people in the front offices and every player and the trainer on every team. I tried to get back to that over a six year period with Orlando and I could never get there. Now, I am really far away from it. I don't even know if I could name the starting five--I'm probably worse than Barkley when it comes to naming starting fives, because I know that he doesn't know (laughs) and he gets prepped! As you get older, it's not as important to you."

It is interesting to contrast Erving's attitude toward the NBA and how he has adjusted to his status as a retired player with the sentiments that Michael Jordan expressed at his Hall of Fame press conference. Although Erving says that he does not follow the NBA on a day to day basis, he is perhaps being a bit modest because his comments reveal that he not only knows the history of the game but also has a pretty good grasp on what is going on in the league now, particularly in terms of the elite players and teams. When Erving speaks about Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and "passing the torch" you can be sure that he is remembering when he "passed the torch" to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson; Erving understands the nature of that process--from both sides--better than just about anyone else but while Jordan clearly feels a combination of wistfulness and defiance about no longer being the NBA's top player, retirement seems to suit Erving just fine: he has repeatedly demonstrated how adept he is at making smooth transitions, going from college to the pros, from the ABA to the NBA and then going from being the best player in the world to being an All-Star to being an elder statesman and then to being a retired legend.


Q: At one time there was a big gap between the NBA and FIBA basketball. What has happened to narrow that gap?

Erving: "The game has changed. It has evolved. It is more of a wide open game. It is a game of matchups. It's like a jigsaw puzzle but now when you have big guys going outside and shooting three pointers and you've got little guys who can go in and slam dunk you are kind of flipping the script. With the evolution of the sport and the flipping the script it has also opened doors for experimentation and teams are willing to do that. I think if we go back to the teams that first included the international players, Vlade (Divac) coming over and doing a great job with the Lakers and (Drazen Petrovic) with the Nets--those guys coming in and doing a great job opened the door for the rest of the world and that's how the gap has closed. I'm sure that probably 30% of the NBA players now were born outside of the United States."

Q: What do you remember about Drazen Petrovic?

Erving: "An impact player, whose tenure with us was all too short. Toni Kukoc would be another guy who had an impact, a champion with the Bulls. Once the floodgates opened, there is no turning back and that has definitely occurred."

Q: What did you listen to to pump yourself up before games?

Erving: "My favorite was Grover Washington, Jr., because he was a friend and because he composed a song for me surrounding basketball with 'Let it Flow' but Marvin Gaye and Earth, Wind and Fire--you know, certain games were a Marvin Gaye mode, on the road, kind of tired, you need to be a little laid back, you need to listen to 'Let's Get it On.' In other games, playing Boston or New York, Earth, Wind and Fire was the way to go--'Shining star, no matter who you are.'"

Q: What is your take on Kobe Bryant versus LeBron James?

Erving: "I think that what you have is a torch bearing situation. Kobe has the torch and he is destined to pass it on to LeBron. Right now, I think Kobe has it."

Q: What separates Kobe from LeBron?

Erving: "The years of experience, the fact that there is no substitute for that. In terms of his individual ability, he does things in a little bit more of a traditional sense to get it done. LeBron is kind of like a bull in a china shop. He is a fantastic talent. I don't think he knows how good he is. Looking at him coming full speed at 270 pounds, that is like Shaq playing point guard. It's like, 'All you little boys need to move out of my way.' But, the combination of offense and defense, finesse and power, Kobe is the package--and I think that LeBron would probably admit that. Well, maybe because of their egos neither one would admit anything! But, that is part of it, don't give anybody any quarter or do anything that will put you at a disadvantage. Kobe's got the torch now and LeBron is next in line."

Q: Michael Jordan used to complain that people imitate how he played but forget about the fundamentals. Has there been a decline in the fundamentals in favor of highlight reel plays in the wake of Michael Jordan's retirement?

Erving: "Michael continues to be an extraordinary individual away from basketball and when he was playing he reached the highest of highs as a champion, as a spokesman, as an ambassador for the game. The fundamentals were clearly displayed every time he got on the court, very much like Kobe Bryant today excels at both ends of the court and makes declarations; he's like, 'OK, who's the toughest guy out here? I want to play against him. That's my matchup, that's the guy I'm playing tonight. Let's go mano-a-mano.' So, in a team sport when you have that type of individual confidence and you bring that type of intensity and tenacity, fans are drawn to that because it's a showdown. There is sort of a gladiator syndrome. That has always existed in the league. There is a lot of pressure for an individual to take all of the weight. As the league has gotten bigger, the economics have gotten bigger, from a few hundred million (dollars) back in the 1980s to a few billion (dollars) now. Clearly, you take the responsibility away from an individual and it is better to handle it collectively. So now you have a cluster of guys who are the new Michael Jordans. Each generation produces its icon and this generation clearly has one. Shaq just did a little walk through up here and you can't discount the Shaquille O'Neal era. Even though we are nearing the end of that--his best is behind him--he's still here. Tim Duncan is here; he has not gone anywhere. These are guys who deserve their due. I don't look at any extended downtime or down cycle having occurred (in the NBA), unless, I was just asleep at the wheel and removed from the game at that time. I'm not watching the game every day. I got other things to do" (chuckles).

Q: Is there one highlight from your career that sticks out in your mind?

Erving: "My first game was great. I didn't know what was going to happen. The Virginia Squires were playing the Carolina Cougars (Virginia won 118-114 on October 15, 1971; the game was played in Greensboro, N.C.). You might say, 'Who were they?' but that was my first professional basketball game. I was kind of a hot shot collegian, All-American, signed a pro contract after my junior year, played in the summer league and was a hit on all levels during the summer league. Now it's time for my first pro game and I'm sitting back there thinking 'This is when it really counts. This is when my career starts, on this particular day in 1971.' I didn't know what was going to happen but I was very confident that I could rebound the ball because I had been a great rebounder in college. So I just said to myself that every rebound that came off was going to be mine. I had 22 rebounds in my first game and ended up scoring 21 points. I don't remember any of the points but I remember every rebound, because that was what was on my mind. I knew that if I established myself as a rebounder then I could stay on the court. The coach was not going to take me out. So I was the board man that night and at the end of that season my average was 15 (15.7 rpg), (third in the ABA) behind Artis Gilmore, who was 7-2 (and second place finisher Mel Daniels; Erving ranked first in total offensive rebounds and second in total rebounds, trailing only Gilmore in that category). That year, that season and that first game stand out.

Then, of course, the last game (of the NBA Finals) against the Lakers in '83, when we completed the sweep of Los Angeles, and in the last game I had a series in the fourth quarter when I scored seven straight points and we secured our lead and we knew that we were going to win the game after that happened. On the last play, my point guard is coming down and I'm running on the wing--and he always passed me the ball, 10 out of 10 times Maurice Cheeks passed me the ball and the other players said to him 'You have a Dr. J eye, you always find Doc'--and he came down and I'm looking at him and he's looking at me and he went in and dunked the ball. It was the first time that I had seen him dunk after playing with him for all of those seasons. All I could do was stand there and be flabbergasted. Those are two memories that are pretty nice."

Q: What was your reaction when they gave you the nickname "Doc"?

Erving: "I have had that nickname since high school. It was a matter of reciprocity. My friend called me the 'Doctor' and I called him the 'Professor' (Erving explained years ago in a Greatest Sports Legends interview with Ken Howard that his friend used to argue every call so much that 'his arguments turned into lectures by the time they reached my ears, so I started calling him the 'Professor'). We were just high school chums who went to college together. Now we both live in Atlanta, Georgia, so I still see him, so this is something that has lasted for a lifetime."

Q: Magic Johnson told me that when he was trying to decide whether or not to leave school early, he called you for advice. He said that you hosted him at your house for a few days--

Erving: "I had him come to Philadelphia and he spent a day and a half with me, went to our basketball game and we had a long talk. During that time, as during my time when I came out after my junior year, underclassmen going into the pros was very much an individual situation, one that you can't make a choice for other people as a group but in terms of an individual he was doing it the right way He was trying to get different individual opinions, assessing his personal situation and abilities and confidence and his family situation, how it was going to impact his family's life and his basketball history; I told him about when I signed as a junior I was forgoing the opportunity to be an Olympian in 1972. Of course, that team went and lost in Munich, so I'm not going to say I'm taking responsibility for that but if I had been there it might have been a little different (chuckles). You just never know. The individual choices that you have to make always affect your life and sometimes they affect other people's lives and sometimes adversely--just leaving school, think about your teammates and the coach who recruited you, they are counting on you but they have to move on and make individual choices for themselves just like they made the choice to go to that institution and you to have to always focus on the present and the future more so than the past but it doesn't mean that you won't be sensitive to the fact that others are affected by your decision. And he (Magic Johnson) never has, he has never forgotten about his school; he goes back and they love him. I don't know if he has gotten his degree yet but the next time I see him--which will be this afternoon at the game--that will be the first thing that I say to him: 'Did you get your degree yet?'"

Q: He said that one of the things that you told him is that this is not a boys' game, that the season lasts for 82 games--not 27 games--and you better be ready because you think that you are not going to hit the wall but we all hit the wall. Do you remember that part of the conversation?

Erving: "Yeah. I had been a veteran for a few years by that time; I was already an eight year veteran when he came into the league."

Q: "Did he and Greg Kelser stay at your house?"

Erving: "Yeah, they came to Philadelphia and stayed at my house. Greg was a senior, so he was coming out no matter what."

Q: If you were in the Slam Dunk Contest now, what would you do to top what the other players are doing?

Erving: "What comes after the (Superman) tights and the cape? I think that the more that the Slam Dunk Contest resembles the actions of the mascots the more that the crowd loves it. So, it seems to be about playing to the crowd, so I guess if I were 26 and in the Slam Dunk Contest I would do something to play to the crowd but I think that it is a little unfair that the slam dunkers, as talented as they are, have to resort to that to get favor from the judges or from the crowd. I am a little bit of a purist in that regard. I'd rather see no props allowed--or maybe a teammate, because I think playing against opposition brings out the best dunks. I think that my best dunks were when somebody was trying to block my shot. So if you want to put props in terms of resistance, that's one thing, but chairs and ladders and trampolines and all of that have turned it into too much of a sideshow. From a purist's standpoint--and I'm not a player hater or anything, I'm just old school--bring the juice and show me what you've got but do away with the props.

If you go back to the ABA (Slam Dunk Contest), the whole idea of dunking from the foul line came straight from the playgrounds. I did clinics for Converse and all around the world and I would finish my clinics by dunking from the foul line. Well, it used to be from behind the foul line, then it was from on the foul line and now it's well in front of the foul line (chuckles). That was a definitive moment. It's always a big deal if someone can pull that one off and truly plant behind the foul line and soar and score and not end up with any broken bones."

Q: What do you think of Reggie Miller in terms of making the Hall of Fame?

Erving: "I think he is going to be fine. Reggie stayed with one franchise his whole career. He was the man there, a consistent performer, took his team to the Finals. He was a fan favorite. Are there guys who had better careers? Sure, there were plenty, but I think Reggie has his credentials and had so many big games that as a talent as well as a contributor to the game of basketball he is Hall of Fame worthy."

Q: Looking at some of the young guys, could Greg Oden become a really dominant player in this league?

Erving: "Because of his physical stature, his personality and his intelligence he definitely could be. I think that the role that he is going to play with that team might not be as a dominant force. It might be more like Robert Parish with the old Boston Celtics. He has a good cast around him, so he might not have to be the one to do it every night--neutralize or win his matchup and they'll be fine."

Q: Do you think that people expect too much in terms of numbers--that if someone is the number one overall pick then he should be the leading scorer--and they don't look at winning enough?

Erving: "When you say 'people,' there are people who only know scoring and if you don't score they think that you are not a great player. Nothing could be farther from the truth. That is really not a knowledgeable basketball fan if he looks at it purely in terms of scoring."

Q: "What is your feeling about the best players not taking part in the Slam Dunk Contest?"

Erving: "It's not something that a guy has to do year in and year out. Kobe has been there and done that. So, you try it on for size. I don't even know what the nomination process is right now. I don't think that it is a matter of guys raising their hands and saying, 'I'm in,' although if LeBron wanted to do it I'm sure they'd let him in. Usually the guy who is coming to All-Star Weekend for the first time wants to do everything and take in everything but the guys who are established stars understand that there is a risk associated with trying to do too much--you could get hurt. Also, they want to get in some social time; they bring their family and friends and they want to hang loose."

Q: Do you think that the way that the game has changed has made it more difficult for referees to do their jobs? What is your general feeling about the 70s, 80s, 90s and this generation? Do you think that their job is any harder than it was?

Erving: "Fundamentally, no. I don't think so. I think that the multiple rules changes over the years have made it different. I just could not fathom guarding a guy like this (mimics a current NBA player's defensive stance); I was always taught palms up, arms out--that is how you guard people. Now you have to guard people with your arm in, which affects your balance, and you can use a forearm but you can't use your hands. Maybe I'm just too old (chuckles). Some of the rules changes probably have made it more difficult to officiate--whether a zone is allowed or not and so forth. They have more to think about but this is a well paying profession and those guys need to do their homework. You can be an official until you are 65 or 70, so you can make a full life out of being an official, so I think that every official should strive to be the best and understand the craft and execute in terms of doing their job. I don't think that officiating is rocket science by any means, so let's not make it more confusing than it is or than it looks from the outside. The idea is to keep the flow of play going, let the fans enjoy the show, let the players do what they do and as a referee the unfair advantage rule is a big one and the other stuff is fundamental: if a guy travels, call a travel. A lot of stuff that gets talked about makes it sound a lot more complex--they just don't have any home games; it's life on the road--82 road games (chuckles)."

Q: You mentioned flow of the game but isn't part of the reason that traveling became such a popular mode of transportation in the NBA that the league did not want to break the flow of the game?

Erving: "I think that the rule is just like policing the difference between a moving violation and a violation. One carries a greater degree of penalty but they are still both violations. When you say this is a judgment call versus something that is cut and dried on camera then you are allowing human judgment to be put into the mix. You might have a guy making a play and let's say I travel but the reason I travel is because this guy pushed me. I go in and score the basket. The push is a foul, the travel is a travel and the basket is a basket. So, a no-whistle actually works better than a whistle in that situation. If you call a foul, you stop the action and there is no travel; if you call the travel, I'm (upset) that you didn't call the foul and you took away the basket. So, the no call is a judgment by the official and it happens all the time."

Q: What do you think of the young stars in the league? It seems that for the first time in a long time that people are happy with the young stars, the way that they are playing and the way that they are representing themselves.

Erving: "You are right on point. There is something on the paper or on TV about LeBron everyday. Kobe or Wade a little less but clearly they are the three brightest stars in the league. The Celtics are the new kids on the block; it is theirs to win again. They have had some hiccups along the way but everyone is trying to match the standard that they set. The Lakers are doing their part. I'm not even watching it every day but I walk by newstands and LeBron is everywhere. He is not carrying the torch because I think Kobe is still carrying it but LeBron is next in line. Kobe is not going to give it up on a whim. It's like, 'You've got to come and get this.' So, that's kind of nice. You've got a great rivalry. You've got an East-West rivalry. You've got parity between the conferences--before, the East (was terrible) and the West was great and now you look at the teams in the East and their records and their performances against the West and you've got parity again. Hallelujah. David (Stern) has got to be happy. I'm happy and I don't even watch it every week but I have a sense of it and I care about it and I think that you are right about the brightest stars being citizens as well as performers and owning up to responsibility and being driven to challenge the standards from before. Before, I think that there was a little bit of denial--it was like nothing had happened before. Everything is new. 'It's our turn,' that kind of attitude, that type of swagger. Guys are like, 'Don't you know that you are not the first one to do that?' (chuckles) Because you had underclassmen or even high school players leading the charge, they really weren't aware; they were just too young and they hadn't been sensitized and they didn't know the history of the game. Even Shaquille did not know the history of the game and he was leading the charge for real, winning championships. So, now I think that you have more awareness and guys who are more savvy in terms of going online, blogging, that whole thing; they are either doing it individually--Gilbert (Arenas) has been great with that, as you know--or their friends are sharing it with them. They are learning that they are part of something that started a long time ago and that they have an obligation to try to make it better. The ones who are undertaking that challenge can make it better in some places. They are never going to totally rework it but it's not about perfection, it's about having the right attitude and putting forth the effort, and I see the effort with these guys--especially Team USA last year. I saw those guys work out a few times. They went to work. They went to work. Everybody who was a part of that really understands and they have taken that back to their teams. Chris Paul, just to add a little bit about him in there: he is an unsung hero. He is as a good a player as there is in the league. Other guys get a lot more play. I'd hate to see him lost in the shuffle and I don't think that he will be."

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:37 PM



At Tuesday, April 14, 2009 12:31:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for the great read.

Dr.J is pure class!

At Thursday, April 16, 2009 3:34:00 PM, Blogger Shawn Butler said...

Today's athletes fail on so many counts to show the levels of professionalism that were common in the era of true sports legends.

I have to agree with some of Rick Barry's comments about being celebrities versus being professionals and team players.


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