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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

House Call With Dr. J Podcast Featuring Isiah Thomas

Since February 2018, Julius Erving has been doing a podcast titled "House Call with Dr. J." Erving is a genial, well organized and engaging host. The podcasts sound much more like conversations than interviews. His guests have included many prominent people--including more than a few who are not basketball players--but in this article I will focus on Isiah Thomas.

Yesterday during my lunch break I listened to Erving's podcast with Thomas and the interaction between my favorite player of all-time and one of my favorite players from the 1980s brought back a lot of positive memories and great feelings. I remember seeing footage of Thomas and Magic Johnson talking at the 1987 NBA All-Star Weekend--Erving's last All-Star Weekend as an active player--about one of the times that Erving came to Michigan and appeared at a youth basketball camp. They took turns describing how Erving marched to one end of the court, ran to the free throw line, took off and hung in the air long enough to talk to the campers before he dunked the ball! The sheer joy on their faces as they gave their (perhaps slightly exaggerated) description of Erving made a lasting impression on me. I remember feeling jealous that Erving went to their camp and wishing that he had made an appearance at my basketball camp (one of my counselors wrote at the end of the summer that I was preparing daily to go one on one with Dr. J).

Erving was a tremendous player, a vastly underrated player, but he also has a touch of grace and class that enables him to influence generations of not only basketball players but people in general.

Thomas' respect for Erving shone through during the podcast and it was equally apparent that Erving respects Thomas. This was not some vapid mutual admiration society but rather two men who beat the odds in so many ways talking about what specifically they each did to be successful and how they are paying forward the good fortune that they have experienced.

Erving brought up how Thomas overcame a severely sprained ankle to score an NBA Finals record 25 points in the fourth quarter of Detroit's 103-102 game six loss to the L.A. Lakers in 1988. Erving was modest enough to not mention that in game one of the 1976 ABA Finals he scored 25 points in the fourth quarter and 37 points in the second half. Erving asked Thomas what he was thinking as he was scoring those points. I remember that a similar question from ESPN's Dan Patrick years ago elicited passionate tears from Thomas as he talked about how hard he and his teammates had fought to have this opportunity to win a title. Thomas did not cry this time and he provided some interesting insights. Thomas said that players of his generation, like players from Erving's generation, played for the moment and were focused on winning the title right at that time. In contrast, Thomas believes that today's players focus on their legacy or on a business plan to play for 15 years and make X amount of dollars. Erving and Thomas agreed that it is unlikely that a modern player would or could do what Thomas did in that game. Erving said, "I watched what you did in that game and it did not go unnoticed."

Erving and Thomas also talked about their interactions with legendary Hall of Fame basketball coach John McClendon. Thomas correctly noted that the up tempo style often credited to Mike D'Antoni can be traced back to McClendon. Thomas said that when predominantly black teams used that style it was not called "Seven Seconds or Less" but rather "alley ball." Thomas said that when he was young he attended a basketball camp where McClendon spoke and that McClendon opened his remarks by holding up a basketball and saying that this could be their ticket to travel the world and to meet kings and queens. Thomas recalled being mesmerized and inspired. Erving shared some nice memories of working with McClendon on a committee with the Basketball Hall of Fame. 

Thomas described his childhood in Chicago, a time marked by nationwide unrest that hit very close to home. Thomas said that after the riots that took place in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, there was a time when it felt like his neighborhood was under military occupation. Thomas said that his father likely suffered from what would now be diagnosed as depression, though nothing was diagnosed or treated at the time. It fell to Thomas' mother to run the household and set a good example for all of her children. Thomas also recalled the positive influence of several coaches, of the Harlem Globetrotters (who did camps in the city) and of Erving, a dignified and respected figure who was universally admired.

Without prompting from Erving (who is typically reluctant to speak about his accomplishments and his place in history), Thomas noted that the mainstream narrative has become that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson saved the NBA. Thomas said, "I don't remember it that way." Thomas said that when he was growing up in the 1970s there was Dr. J, Kareem and then everyone else. Thomas acknowledged that there were other talented players but he insisted that Doc and Kareem set themselves apart not only on the court but also off of the court. Thomas remembered that whenever Doc or Kareem spoke, his parents and siblings told him to listen and to use them as role models.

One of Thomas' current business ventures is champagne distribution and Thomas said that he donates some of the profits to help the retired NBA players. Erving responded that some people talk but their actions don't back up their words and he was happy that Thomas is not just paying empty lip service to the pioneers who built pro basketball.

Early on, when both men talked about the influences in their life they mentioned their mothers. Thomas asked Erving why he has always been so gracious and helpful to so many people, including the generation of players that came into the NBA after Erving. Erving said that his mother taught him to treat everyone the way that you want to be treated--with respect. Erving said that he learned that even if you are poor you can share what you have and that when you share you ultimately find that everything you give is returned to you, while if you don't share that also is returned to you. As Erving's mother told him, "God don't like ugly."

The conversation lasts 42 minutes and I recommend that you subscribe to Erving's podcast (it's free!) so that you can listen to all of the previous episodes as well as keep up as new ones are posted. I am working my way through the archives--usually listening to one or two per day at lunch--and enjoying every minute. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:08 AM



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