It is generally agreed that the greatest move of Julius Erving’s career – a tough call – came in the 1980 NBA Finals against the Lakers, when he took off from the right side of the lane and went into orbit.
Really, though, he spent his entire career in flight, never coming down and happily bringing the rest of us along for the ride.
It wasn’t just that he was a spectacular, inventive player with a cool nickname – Dr. J — though that was a big part of it. It was also the fact that he carried himself with uncommon grace – that he took seriously his role as a basketball ambassador and did as much in his day to raise the sport’s profile as anyone ever has.
Along the way he took the Sixers into the stratosphere, leading them (along with Moses Malone) to their last title, the fo’, fi’, fo’ crown of 1982-83. They have only been to the Finals once since then, in 2000-01, and (you may have noticed) don’t appear poised to get back there anytime soon.
That’s why the Good Doctor deserves to be the Ultimate Philly Athlete – because he was the ultimate showman, the ultimate in class and because he built on the work of George McGinnis (a forgotten figure, sadly, in team history) to make the Sixers an elite franchise.
Erving’s impact was also far-reaching. He set the stage for the Magic Johnsons and the Michael Jordans, who have said they studied the way Doc carried himself, the way he dealt with teammates, civilians and reporters. And that in turn allowed them to propel the NBA toward its current heights.
Pat Williams, once the Sixers’ general manager and now an Orlando Magic executive, described Erving as “the Babe Ruth of basketball” while convincing Sixers owner Fitz Dixon to part with the $3 million it would take to acquire him from the New York Nets in 1976. Really, though, Doc was more an Orville or Wilbur Wright, lifting the game (not to mention a tortured franchise) off the ground and giving others the opportunity to take both to the space age.
Lest you dismiss this as hyperbole, understand that upon Erving’s retirement in 1987, he was accorded a parade through the streets of Philadelphia.
A parade. For one guy. And he didn’t go to the moon or anything; it just felt like he took a city there.
It is difficult to imagine nowadays the niche pro basketball occupied in the 1970s, here and in the nation as a whole. The NBA was widely viewed as a second-class league, lagging well behind major league baseball and the NFL in popularity, and the ABA was a fly-by-night endeavor, an outlaw league that employed every gimmick imaginable, from a red, white and blue ball to a (gasp) 3-point shot.
The Sixers? They were a mere blip on the radar, having sunk from the heights of their 1966-67 title to 9-73 in 1972-73, still the worst full-season record in NBA history. McGinnis, a fine player in his own right, came over from the ABA in 1975 to get them started on the road to respectability, and Erving took the baton from him.
He had kept the ABA afloat during his five years in that league, leading the Nets to two titles, including the league’s last, in ‘75-76, when in the finals he dominated the Denver Nuggets’ fine defensive forward, Bobby Jones, later his Sixers teammate and a man Erving dubbed his “vice president” on the team.
It is widely believed that if you didn’t see Erving in the ABA, you didn’t see him at all, because that was when he was at his most creative, his most daring. But certainly everyone saw quite a lot during his 11 years in Philadelphia. He made the All-Star team every one of those seasons, was voted first-team all-league seven teams and in 1980-81 was named MVP.
But even that doesn’t do his legend justice. Rather, that was accomplished in moments great and small. Like that move in Game Four of the ’80 Finals, when he exploded past a lumbering, earthbound forward named Mark Landsberger, floated right to left under the basket, made a sandwich, paid his taxes and — with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — looming laid the ball in on the other side of the rim.
It was later determined that Doc spent 0.7 of a second in the air on that move.
Seemed like a week.
Magic Johnson, an interested onlooker that day, later called it the greatest move he ever saw. As he told ESPN.com, “I thought, ‘What should we do? Should we take the ball out, or should we ask him to do it again?’ ”
Off the court, Erving seemingly signed every autograph and answered every reporter’s question (something unthinkable in this day and age, where waves of publicists are bent on obstructing the interview process, as opposed to facilitating it).
He was also a perfect teammate, as noted by Bobby Jones when I interviewed him for a book I co-authored, “100 Things 76ers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die,” released by Triumph in November.
“You hear a lot about superstars, (how) they put pressure on younger guys to come up to their level,” Jones told me. “Julius was such an encourager. That’s what stood out in my mind, I think, the entire time I was with him: He wasn’t arrogant. He didn’t consider himself better than anybody. He worked as hard as anybody, if not harder. Didn’t put anybody down for the mistakes that they made.
“That’s easy to do at that level, when the game’s on the line or something’s on the line. He knows he can do it, but (when) you’re in a position where you have to do it and you don’t, it takes strength of character to say, ‘We’re in this together. We win together, we lose together.’ I think that was probably, to me, his greatest quality.”
Seldom will you hear a greater tribute from one teammate to another.
Then again, seldom will you encounter the likes of Julius Erving.
Gordie Jones covers the Sixers for Sports Xchange. Image of Dr. J by the Philadelphia Bulletin courtesy of the Temple University Archives.