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Saturday, February 04, 2012

Greatest Sports Legends: Julius Erving

Before ESPN and before the internet, sports fans had simpler--yet, in many ways, just as fulfilling--ways to learn more about their favorite players. The syndicated program Greatest Sports Legends--created by Berl Rotfeld and later produced by his son Steve Rotfeld--profiled over 200 athletes from 1973 to 1993. I enjoyed all of those shows but regular visitors to this site will not be surprised that my favorite episode featured Julius "Dr. J" Erving:

This episode includes a clip of Grover Washington's "Let it Flow," a classic song that Washington composed as a tribute to Erving's incomparable playing style.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:12 PM



At Saturday, February 04, 2012 5:21:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

I'm not sure if you already posted it, but I'm more curious about your first-hand observations of Dr. J playing.

Most of my observations come from brief and scattered glimpses in the 80's (didn't watch anything until 1986 Finals), and retrospective shows like this in the 90's.

At Saturday, February 04, 2012 6:38:00 PM, Blogger Matt said...

My uncle had a VHS of this which I watched ad nauseam. It was the first time I'd ever seen footage of Dr. J. Back then, my favorite part was the montage with this song : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEKK3GVd150

At Sunday, February 05, 2012 3:11:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


That GSL Erving video is one of the first VHS videos I ever got and I still have it! Like you, I loved that Sixers anthem.

At Sunday, February 05, 2012 3:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Awet M:

Unfortunately, I never saw Erving play in person (I did not grow up in a town that had an NBA team). I followed most of Erving's 76ers career on TV (though of course fewer games were televised in the 1970s and 1980s than are televised now) and I also have seen a number of tapes of his ABA exploits.

The ABA Dr. J was one of the most explosive players in pro basketball history; his speed and effectiveness in open court situations were simply breathtaking (I have seen glimpses of that version of Dr. J in tapes from his Virginia Squires days, including his performance in the second ABA-NBA All-Star Game, which I wrote about in an October 2004 Basketball Digest article). The ABA Dr. J is very underrated for his versatility; he annually ranked among the league leaders not just in scoring but also in rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots. The young Dr. J was a fearsome defensive force, though his coaches sometimes tried to conserve Dr. J's energy at that end of the court because he was called upon to do so many other things (Dr. J's Nets could exert intense full court defensive pressure with Dr. J getting many steals and blocks but they used that pressure selectively after the players told Coach Kevin Loughery that pressing all the time would wear them down even more than it wore down their opponents).

Erving's performance in the 1976 ABA Finals ranks as one of the greatest achievements in pro basketball history; he led both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots as the undermanned Nets defeated a strong Denver Nuggets team that had a Hall of Fame Coach (Larry Brown), two Hall of Fame players (David Thompson and Dan Issel) and the best defensive forward in either league at the time (Bobby Jones). Since the shrinking ABA did not have enough teams to form two conferences that season, the 1976 ABA All-Star Game consisted of the league-leading Nuggets playing against an All-Star team from the rest of the teams--and the Nuggets won! That gives you an idea of how good the Nuggets were because during that era All-Star games were much more fiercely contested than they are now.

After the ABA-NBA merger, the cash-strapped Nets were forced to sell Erving and he ended up on a talented 76ers team that already had two All-Stars, George McGinnis and Doug Collins. The 76ers told Erving that they felt that a team with three 20 ppg scorers would be more deadly than a team with one 30 ppg scorer, so Erving willingly sublimated his scoring and the 76ers made it to the 1977 NBA Finals, where they lost to a Portland team that could have become a dynasty if Bill Walton had stayed healthy.

After Billy Cunningham became Philly's coach, the 76ers changed their philosophy a bit and NBA fans got a glimpse of the ABA Dr. J when Erving averaged 26.9 ppg in 1979-80. Dr. J won the NBA MVP in 1980-81, breaking the nearly two decades-long streak during which only centers captured that honor. During that era, most championship teams had a dominant center, but Dr. J had never played alongside a dominant center up to that point in his career; after the 76ers acquired Moses Malone they rolled to the 1983 title but the 76ers were too old to build a dynasty by that point and the ensuing years belonged to the younger and deeper teams from Boston and L.A.

Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were the only active players selected to the NBA's 35th Anniversary Team; this elite 11 player squad was chosen in October 1980--prior to Erving winning an NBA MVP or an NBA title--and that honor indicates how highly he was regarded as an all-time great.


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