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Friday, February 22, 2013

Dr. J is 63 Years Old

Much has been made of Michael Jordan's 50th birthday but another all-time great midsize player also has a February birthday: Julius Erving turns 63 today. This is not a "milestone" birthday for Dr. J but it is still a good time to reflect on his remarkable journey from Roosevelt High School to the literal (four MVPs, three championships) and figurative (1976 ABA Slam Dunk title, countless memorable aerial displays) top of the basketball world.

Erving averaged 26.3 ppg and 20.2 rpg for UMass in the now-defunct Yankee Conference but he was not viewed as an elite pro prospect until after he was the MVP of the 1970 U.S. Olympic Development Tour. In Quotes from Legends Roundtable Featuring Julius Erving, Bob Lanier, Bill Russell and Bill Walton, Erving explained how that experience changed his mindset::

Erving received an invitation to the Olympic Development camp in 1970 but did not make the cut as one of the 40 best players; Erving said that this shook his confidence and that he returned home to coach at the local recreation center during the summer. However, Erving had been selected as one of four alternates, so when a player went down because of injury Erving was invited back to Colorado Springs to join the Olympic Development tour. Erving recalled that the other players on the tour--including future All-Star/current Sacramento Coach Paul Westphal--openly spoke about becoming pro basketball players, something that Erving had never seriously considered at that time. Erving proved to be the best player on the tour and that is when he first realized that playing professionally was not a distant dream but rather a likely possibility. That story is a powerful reminder that even the most talented people need the right opportunities in order to build their confidence and reach their full potential. "I didn't even have the mentality of thinking that I was going to be a pro, period, or a Hall of Famer," Erving remembered, "until after that camp, because once we got out (there) and we started playing and I performed as well or better than all the other guys there I said, 'If they're going to make it, I've got a pretty good chance of making it.'"

Footage from that Olympic Development Tour is hard to find but 90 Years of Estonian Basketball provides a glimpse of Erving playing for the United States against Estonia (fast forward to the 22 minute mark to see Erving; hat tip to Greg from DrJStuff for providing this link). Erving did not participate in the fateful 1972 Olympics--when Team USA lost for the first time, falling to the Soviet Union in a still-controversial gold medal game--because he jumped to the ABA after his junior season at UMass. In his five ABA seasons, Erving won three regular season MVPs, three scoring titles, two championships and two Playoff MVPs;  Erving led both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg) as his New York Nets defeated the Denver Nuggets in the 1976 ABA Finals, prompting Newsweek's Pete Axthelm to offer high praise to the sport's highest flyer: "No one has ever controlled and conquered the air above pro basketball like Julius Erving, the incomparable Dr. J of the New York Nets. The Doctor not only leaps higher and stays aloft longer than most players dream possible, but he uses his air time to transform his sport into graceful ballet, breathtaking drama or science fiction fantasy--depending upon his mood of the moment and the needs of his team. At 26, Erving has established himself as the most exciting offensive player in basketball. And last week as he led the Nets to their second American Basketball Association title in three years, the Doctor persuaded many people that he may be the greatest player of all time."

After the ABA-NBA merger, Erving landed in Philadelphia with tremendous hype and very lofty expectations. He performed at an elite level, leading the 76ers to three NBA Finals in his first six seasons with the team and becoming the first non-center to win the NBA regular season MVP since Oscar Robertson, but the NBA championship eluded Erving's grasp as the 76ers repeatedly fell to teams featuring Hall of Fame centers. That frustration ended in 1982-83 after the 76ers acquired Moses Malone: Malone and Erving, along with All-Star backcourt duo Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney plus sixth man extraordinaire Bobby Jones, led the 76ers to a 65-17 record and a glorious 12-1 playoff run capped by a 4-0 sweep of the defending champion L.A. Lakers. The 76ers were too old to create a dynasty but that 1983 squad is as good as any single season team in pro basketball history.

Erving smoothly shifted to an elder statesman role but he could still play: he made the All-NBA Second Team in 1983-84 as a 34 year old and he earned a spot on the All-Star team in each of his 16 professional seasons. It is unfortunate that the NBA refuses to officially acknowledge ABA statistics, because Erving's name should be mentioned and his accomplishments should be celebrated when current players join the 25,000 point club or reach other milestones that have only been surpassed by a select group of all-time greats.

Further Reading:

Happy 60th Birthday, Dr. J! 

Happy 62nd Birthday, Julius Erving!

Julius Erving's Playoff Career, Part I: Yes, Virginia, There is a Man Who Can Fly 

Julius Erving's Playoff Career, Part II: Two Championships in Three Years with the Nets

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:23 AM



At Friday, March 01, 2013 4:35:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You must have heard about the Dr. J autobiography that is scheduled to come out in May:


I recall you having doubts that he'd ever write an autobiography due to his private nature. It will be interesting to see how detailed and candid it is, and if we learn anything new.


At Saturday, March 02, 2013 6:08:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, I have heard about the book. I am a little surprised that Dr. J has chosen to tell his story--including, apparently, some of the details about his personal life--but perhaps he needed the $1 million deal in light of his well-publicized financial setbacks.


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