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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

"The Doctor": Julius Erving's Life Story in his Own Words

ESPN Radio's Scott Van Pelt perfectly summarized the emotional impact of NBA TV's "The Doctor," which premiered on Monday night; Van Pelt reminded his listeners of the great Jim Valvano quote that every day each person should laugh, cry and think: Van Pelt said that if you watch this documentary you will fulfill your quota in all three areas.

Erving's grace--on and off the court--and his remarkable basketball career resonate in a way that is both deeply felt and difficult to explain. Erving is not a perfect man, nor is he considered to be the greatest basketball player of all-time, yet in many ways he embodies what we think a man should be like and what we most enjoy watching in a basketball player; he is confident but not boastful, he is serene but possesses deep reservoirs of inner strength, he played the game with great flamboyance and joy but he was unselfish and very focused on winning.

A Hero Ain't Nothing But a Sandwich is a catchy book title but we need heroes to inspire us. Julius Erving's athletic prowess awed and inspired me as a kid, as did his elegance and class. I wanted to be like him and--when I was really young and really dreaming big--I hoped that his career would last long enough for me to play with him for the Philadelphia 76ers; I imagined running alongside him on the fast break, either throwing him a lob or else receiving a lob from him. I know that I am far from the only person who had that fantasy. In Julius Erving's Transcendence, Scoop Jackson mentions Erving's answer to a question about the impact Erving has had on people who he has never even met:

Well, you never know who is watching, so you can do one of two things. You can assume everyone's watching or you can take the attitude that you really don't care who is watching and who is not. I kind of always liked to assume that there were a lot of eyes--particularly young people--on any professional athlete once they start to get on the big stage, once they have a platform. They have a responsibility that you are a role model. Now I have been far from perfect in my professional life and personal life in terms of role modeling, but, you know, only our Creator is perfect. So perfect is not an option.

But to be good and to be consistent, to be dedicated and to have goals that are achievable and to reach them and then handle that situation with humility...those are doable things. So knowing that there are people out there who are watching, it became important to me. And it will always be important to me. I can't help it. It's something I don't wish on everybody because there are clearly some people that don't want the role, but it is a role.

The challenge of having a balanced perspective versus seeking impossible perfection is fascinating; I struggle fiercely with perfectionistic tendencies that, if unchecked, can lead my thoughts and emotions down a very dark path. Jackson articulates the feelings of so many of us who deeply admire Erving while also realizing that, as Erving said, "perfect is not an option":

Those imperfections upon their discoveries hurt--I can't lie. The children he bore outside of his marriage, the divorce from Turquoise Erving, the auctioning off personal memorabilia that led to speculation of severe financial troubles, the "Reign On" ad.

But those made him human instead of mythological. Something needed to help make many of us face the realization that Erving, as great of a role model and human being as he'd been in many of our eyes and lives, was mortal. A god, but not God.

The one thing I learned directly from Julius Erving is that he never wants a story about himself to be told too soon or before its time.

He held off on an interview once with me because he wanted to make sure other players were interviewed before him: Elgin Baylor, Earl Monroe, Pete Maravich, Connie Hawkins, etc. He felt their stories should have been told before his. Almost as if the Dr. J story was not worthy without others being given similar attention.

Even though no other is similar.

"The Doctor" traces the arc of Erving's life from his Long Island childhood to the present day and in addition to plenty of basketball highlights it also includes his memories of the two most painful tragedies of his life: the death, at 16, of his younger brother Marvin and the death, at 19, of his son Cory. His brother's untimely passing gave Erving both a sense of purpose and a glimpse of his own mortality and it seems like the 63 year old Erving has a heightened awareness of his mortality now; the once intensely private Erving is telling his story to the world (his authorized biography is scheduled for a November 2013 release), no longer content to let others define the meaning of his life and career. As Erving ages and is forced to face mortality, those of us who have admired him since childhood are likewise compelled to think about the meaning/mystery of life and death. At the start of the documentary, Erving buys flowers--and at the end of the documentary, he brings those flowers to the cemetery where his mother, sister and brother are buried. It is easy to think of great athletes like they are invulnerable comic book heroes but they have frailties and strengths--and they even have their own heroes: Erving adored his younger brother and he said that after his brother died he carried his spirit within him, feeling as if he enjoyed a 2 on 1 advantage even when facing the toughest foe on the court.

When Erving graduated high school, he was a lightly recruited 6-3 forward/guard but at the University of Massachusetts he blossomed into a 6-6 multifaceted pro prospect who signed with the ABA's Virginia Squires after his junior year. During that time, Erving made a name for himself by excelling at Rucker Park while competing against NBA players and streetball legends. The Rucker Park stories and footage are priceless; Erving played with joy and ferocity but he never disrespected anyone and he never showboated: not many of today's players could imitate Erving's moves and even fewer of them live up to the standard he set with his personal demeanor.

Erving was much more than just a guy who could fill up a highlight reel; his game contained plenty of substance and that is a big reason why his teams enjoyed so much success. In a February 1985 Esquire article, Erving explained to writer Mark Jacobson how he viewed his impact on the evolution of basketball: "I'd say I've had an effect in three main areas. First, I have taken a smaller man's game, ball-handling, passing, and the like, and brought it to the front court. Second, I've taken the big man's game, rebounding, shot-blocking, and been able to execute that even though I'm only six-foot-six. What I've tried to do is merge those two types of games, which were considered to be separate--for instance, Bill Russell does the rebounding, Cousy handles the ball--and combine them into the same player. This has more or less changed the definition of what's called the small forward position, and it creates a lot more flexibility for the individual player, and, of course, creates a lot more opportunities for the whole team. The third thing I've tried to do, and this is the most important thing, is to make this kind of basketball a winning kind of basketball, taking into account a degree of showmanship that gets people excited. My overall goal is to give people the feeling they are being entertained by an artist--and to win. You know, the playground game...refined."

As Magic Johnson once put it, Erving made the playground official. Near the end of "The Doctor," LeBron James said that without Erving there is no Michael Jordan and that without Jordan there would have been no LeBron James. Many people love to compare James to Magic Johnson but, in both style and substance, James' game is much more similar to Erving's, from the arm-extended overhead dunks to the chase down blocked shots to the ability to blend together backcourt skills with frontcourt skills and even to the question about how much a superstar should defer to less talented teammates. After Erving joined the Philadelphia 76ers, he voluntarily reduced his scoring to blend in with a cast of All-Stars and "The Doctor" includes a clip of Erving answering a question about whether it bothered him that players who he routinely outscored in the ABA were now outscoring him in the NBA. Erving replied, "Scoring is an individual statistic and I think the objectives of the team are the things that have to be paramount and have to come first." Erving's second NBA coach, Billy Cunningham, recalled, "He didn't want to rock the boat. He was too nice a man to say, 'Hey, I'm Dr. J." One big difference between Erving and James, though, is that Erving tended to defer during the regular season but take over during the playoffs--and especially the NBA Finals--while James tends to score big during the regular season only to defer during the NBA Finals. In 22 NBA Finals games, Erving scored less than 20 points only once, while James has scored less than 20 points in six of his 17 NBA Finals games.

One unexpected but fascinating anecdote in "The Doctor" concerns Mike Piazza, the former All-Star catcher; Piazza described being in the Spectrum as a little kid and watching Erving deliver one of his most famous dunks, a windmill over Michael Cooper. Piazza said that Erving provided inspiration for him to become a Major League Baseball player and that even now he sometimes is moved to tears when thinking about Erving's profound influence on his life; Piazza admitted that his wife is surprised by how emotional he gets when he thinks about Erving but he insisted that Erving's example had a huge effect on him. There are many great athletes but very few have Erving's unique combination of skill, style, flair, grace and class--and even fewer can move men to tears nearly 30 years after they retired.

Erving won two championships and three MVPs in the ABA but his 76ers lost three times in the NBA Finals before they paired Erving with another former ABA player, Moses Malone; in 1982-83, the 76ers ran roughshod over the NBA, going 65-17 in the regular season before winning 12 of their 13 playoff games--including a 4-0 Finals sweep of the defending champion L.A. Lakers. Pat Riley, who coached the Lakers at that time, said, "Even though we really would have loved to beat them again and we would have loved to keep him in that pain, you give those who really deserve it their just due when it's time."

Erving said, "It was such a relief, like a brick that was sitting over your head waiting to hit you and suddenly it went the other way and now it wasn't there anymore."

Cunningham remembered, "I was so happy for him, because if there was one player who deserved to have that one little piece that he was missing for his legacy, he had it now."

Erving played four more seasons, making the All-Star team each year, and then he glided seamlessly into retirement, unlike so many athletes who cannot let go of past glories and/or search in vain for something that thrills/challenges them the way that being a professional athlete thrilled/challenged them. Erving neither brags about his own considerable accomplishments nor does he diminish the accomplishments of the players who came after him. One point that Erving gently but firmly mentions now in some interviews--and perhaps he should be less gentle and more firm but that is not his style--is that ABA Numbers Should Also Count; it is a travesty that the NBA and the league's media partners act as if ABA statistics do not exist and/or do not matter. Julius Erving was just the third professional basketball player to score at least 30,000 points and he was the first "midsize" player to score 30,000 points, blazing a trail later followed by Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Erving ranked third on the all-time regular season career scoring list when he retired (behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain) and he still ranks sixth on that list 26 years after playing his last game. Erving is also the sixth leading playoff scorer in pro basketball history--and when he retired he ranked second on that list behind only Abdul-Jabbar.

When Erving's numbers and accomplishments are placed in proper context it is obvious that contemporary commentators often vastly underrate his place in basketball history; he is not the first retired legend to face that fate but in his case these errors are correctable because the statistics exist and the footage exists: his impact can be quantified and demonstrated. For instance, as a rookie Erving averaged 33.3 ppg, 20.4 rpg and 6.5 apg during the 1972 playoffs while shooting .518 from the field and .835 from the free throw line. Those numbers include a 53 point game--tying the ABA's single game playoff scoring record--plus a 39 point, 27 rebound game and an unprecedented triple double of 26 points, 20 rebounds and 15 assists; I have yet to find another 26-20-15 stat line in pro basketball history. College basketball coaches John Wooden and Mike Krzyzewski are celebrated for reaching the Final Four 12 times in 29 seasons and 11 times in 38 seasons respectively; Erving led his team to pro basketball's "Final Four" (the Division Finals/Conference Finals) 10 times in his 16 year career.

Erving's impact extended beyond his statistics and accomplishments. M.L. Carr, who played against Erving in the ABA and the NBA, recalled, "He was carrying the weight of the league on his shoulder. He realized he was an ambassador for the league. He was the ultimate ambassador for the league."

Erving was one of the first athletes who had what was referred to in the 1970s as "crossover" appeal; as Dr. Todd Boyd noted, "Major corporations decided that they wanted this guy to endorse their products. The idea that a black guy would be the face of a national brand--that was really radical."

Erving's importance as a crossover figure is undeniable, as is the influence that he had on multiple generations of young black people, but I never looked at Julius Erving as a black man.

I just looked him as my hero--and, despite his admitted flaws, in my heart he will always be my hero.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:04 AM



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