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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Julius Erving Visits the Inside the NBA Set

"It was like ballet, the way he flew through the air, the way he moved."--Dominique Wilkins

"He was more than a basketball player. He was an artist."--Marc Iavaroni

"When greatness meets class, that's what God created in Dr. J."--Magic Johnson

"Someone reached out to take--they called me Junior Erving then--Junior Erving off the corner and extended their hand to me. I accepted it. With the acceptance of that came a tremendous, tremendous responsibility to complete the cycle. When someone gives something to you...you don't just take it and run with it. You take it and you digest it. You take it as a gift."--Julius Erving

There have been many great pro basketball players but few of them are true icons and they are all known by an instantly recognized name, whether that name is a first name, a last name or a nickname: Wilt, Russell, Bird, Magic, Michael, Kobe, LeBron. Julius Erving--also known as Dr. J, the Doctor or simply Doc--is my all-time favorite basketball player and he always will be; I cannot say definitively that he is the greatest player of all-time--though he deserves more consideration for that title than he often gets--but he has a unique combination of gifts: Doc combines style, flair and cool with a deep understanding of the right way to play the game. He is not a flawless man but he is a gentleman.

Erving visited TNT's Inside the NBA set prior to, during and after game four of the Eastern Conference Finals (my analysis of Indiana's 99-92 win over Miami will appear in a subsequent article). He is the subject of an NBA TV documentary titled "The Doctor," premiering on June 10:

I love the George Gervin quote: "Life is tough sometimes and life is about recovery." That reminds me of the old cliche--and something only becomes a cliche if it contains an element of truth--that tough times don't last but tough people do. Erving lost his biological father at a young age, his beloved younger brother Marvin died of lupus when Erving was 19 and in recent years Erving has had to bury a son in additional to dealing with various personal and financial problems. Life is brutal, no one is perfect and none of us is getting out of here alive, so the best thing to do--the only thing to do--is make the most of the time that you have, make each day your masterpiece.

Also, if you think that LeBron James invented the so-called chase down block then check out the footage around the 2:27 mark; Erving not only made that particular play many times but he blocked shots at a much higher rate than James: Erving's career low 82 blocks at the age of 36 in his second to last season would rank as the second highest total of James' 10 year career (James tallied his career high of 93 at the age of 24). 

After TNT showed some Erving highlights, Kenny Smith said that Erving is the only player he can recall seeing who could pick up the ball off of the dribble with one hand to make a play, but Erving gently corrected Smith by pointing out that Connie Hawkins also did this. That is so typical of Erving: he both deflected praise directed toward himself and he had the knowledge--and grace--in that moment to recognize/acknowledge the history of the game. Erving also said with a laugh that the reason most players cannot--and should not--try to make such plays is that unless you have a large enough hand you will not be able to pull back a one handed pass if someone jumps in the passing lane; Erving and Hawkins had large enough hands to control a basketball as if it were a softball.

Ernie Johnson asked Erving what he thinks of LeBron James' evolution. Erving made a very interesting comparison, likening James' prodigious abilities to those of Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson, two athletes who Erving said possibly had the necessary skills to turn pro while they were still in high school. Erving noted that James has "had that man child aspect for a long time."

Johnson wondered how Erving would rank James' development on a scale of one to 10 and Erving responded that compared to other players James is a 10 but that compared to his potential James is a seven or eight, probably closer to eight. Erving believes that the next step in James' development involves learning how to manage his energy in games and in practices, because even a star player needs some rest so that he can go all out when necessary.

Erving does not answer in 10 second soundbites, which probably explains why he no longer has a job as a TV analyst; he is too intelligent and too thoughtful to give superficial replies or to say something bombastic just to boost ratings/create controversy. There are some intelligent basketball analysts on television, including Hubie Brown, Jeff Van Gundy and Kenny Smith, but Hubie Brown is probably the only one who has been permitted to stay on air without creating some kind of shtick--and Brown is no longer the top ESPN/ABC analyst, a role that now belongs to Van Gundy. Craig Carton thinks that straight sports commentary is boring and will not generate high ratings--and he may be right about the ratings--but I prefer intelligence/insight to mindless banter; Inside the NBA has a pretty good balance between the two--and some of their shtick is laugh out loud hilarious, particularly Shaqtin' a Fool--but the ESPN studio show tries too hard to generate laughs and is far too often neither funny nor insightful.

Erving suggested that the Indiana Pacers should put someone other than Paul George on LeBron James so that George could have enough energy to break out offensively. Historical minded basketball fans will recall that Erving had a similar thought process during the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals when his Coach Billy Cunningham wanted Erving to check the bigger Larry Bird while also serving as the main offensive weapon; Erving felt that chasing Bird around for most of the game took away from his own offense and Erving averaged fewer than 20 ppg in a series for the first time in his career as his Philadelphia 76ers built a 3-1 lead only to wear down and lose 4-3 to Bird's Boston Celtics.

Erving also said that the Pacers should force James to go to the middle when he posts up on the left block even though that would let James use his right hand; the middle is where the traffic is, so James would be forced to do something other than just make a left hand layup.

Kenny Smith joked that Erving had traveled in one of the highlight dunks shown on TNT, before realizing (after the camera panned further back in the shot) that this particular highlight came from a slam dunk contest; Erving said, "It's a dunk contest, not a dribbling contest" and he added that some of the current players mess up their timing when they try to dribble during dunk contests.

During the postgame show, Erving said that the San Antonio Spurs are his favorite team other than the Philadelphia 76ers (for whom Erving played 11 seasons); Erving has always expressed fondness for the four surviving ABA teams, though it is surprising that he did not mention the Nets, who he led to two ABA titles. Erving is a big Tim Duncan fan, which makes sense because Duncan's serious demeanor is very similar to Erving's: "Tim Duncan has been my favorite player since George Gervin retired--just the way he takes care of his business night in and night out."

In response to a question from Johnson, Erving reminisced about playing one on one after practice with Pistol Pete Maravich, a story that I heard firsthand from Erving and wrote about in the October 2004 issue of Basketball Digest

Smith eloquently described how Erving positively influenced so many people: "You taught us as basketball players how to act as people, without knowing it, because of the way you carried yourself on the court and off of the court. That is difficult to do in any era...We would always say, 'He's a distinguished gentleman' and that's what we always tried to be."

Shaquille O'Neal mentioned that many players look up to Erving and he wondered who Erving looked up to in terms of playing style and "swag." Erving said that he did not pay attention to "swagger" but, in terms of playing style, "For me, Elgin Baylor was the guy." Erving loved the way that Baylor would grab a rebound and go coast to coast, either scoring or dishing to a teammate for a score. Erving also grew up admiring Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson. Erving borrowed the finger roll and some other moves from Chamberlain but he knew that he was not going to be seven feet tall so he could not model his whole game based on Chamberlain's game.

The subject of personal influences is very important to Erving--and not just in the basketball sense. Erving explained that a major reason he participated in the NBA TV documentary is to "pay homage" to his family history because his parents, his siblings, his aunts, his uncles and his cousins shaped the man he became. He feels indebted to them and he wants to publicly recognize them. Erving said that his mother was one of 14 siblings and that only one of those siblings--his 90 year old Aunt Chloe--is still living.

I remember watching the 1987 Julius Erving retirement tribute on the "George Michael Sports Machine"; Michael asked Erving what he would say to his grandson in 30 years about his career and Erving replied, "I hope the story holds up for 30 years, because it's taken a long time to make it happen. I don't know, I would enjoy hearing that from a grandson, needless to say. I would tell him that I played for the fun of it, I played a style that flowed from me, allowed me to be creative and every now and then brought a few fans out of their seats."

It is almost 30 years since that show aired and Erving's story is inextricably linked with basketball history: he has impacted many, many lives and I know that this website would not exist in its current form--nor would I have the passion for basketball that I have--were it not for Erving's style, grace and class.

Selected Julius Erving Articles:

Great Julius Erving Stories

Julius Erving's 40 Point Games

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 @ 3:19 AM



At Wednesday, May 29, 2013 12:05:00 PM, Anonymous Abacus Reveals said...

Excellent work here, Mr. F. (And the sun also rises in the East.)

I didn't get to see this, but now feel as if I had. Much obliged.

It strikes me that you've captured the evolution of the finger roll in this piece.
From Wilt, to Hawkins, to Doc, and finally Gervin. (Did anyone use the shot prior to Wilt -- I don't suppose a Mikan had the finesse?)

Did you ever have occasion to see Hawkins play?
There wasn't a lot of "up-tempo" to his game when he got to the NBA, but he could still play and had plenty of style (those hands, as you said).

Re. Dr. J vs. Bird: Didn't Cunningham go back to using Erving on Bird in the '82 playoffs (the "Beat LA" series)?

At Wednesday, May 29, 2013 3:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Abacus Reveals:

Thank you.

As far as I know, Wilt was the first player who used the finger roll at the NBA level but I don't know how one could definitively prove or disprove that.

I have seen clips of Hawkins and I am very familiar with his overall game but I am too young to have seen him play live.

Erving always guarded Bird more often than Bird guarded Erving--and Erving even did a credible defensive job on Bird in the 1985 ECF--but Erving's point in 1981 was that he felt that guarding Bird for the bulk of the game was hurting his ability to have enough energy to attack offensively. This is a subject I will discuss in my upcoming article about that period of Dr. J's playoff career (part III of my ongoing series).


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