He was relatively unknown. Only a couple of stories floated around about him. His reputation was spread by word of mouth. In seeking freedom of expression, his legend grew. It grew into a stratosphere of epic proportion. He laid the foundation for the modern game. Today, he goes simply by one name, the Doctor.
Julius Erving came from humble beginnings. He was not a highly recruited high school player. He flew under the radar of the conservative basketball world even as a college player at UMass. He was a victim of circumstance. The NCAA’s ban on the dunk kept him hidden from the world. The magnitude of this restriction would have a resounding impact for generations to come. The evolution of the game sought a champion and Erving would be the conqueror.
On the concrete of the famed Rucker Park courts of New York is where his legend began before becoming a pro. Julius was of the people for the people. His game had a profound effect on all of those whom would become future generations of ball players. The revolution would not be televised and had begun far from the scrutinizing gaze and reach of the establishment.
Doc took the renegade American Basketball Association to the next level with his league wide aerial assault. It set forth the alchemy of the game. Then came January 27, 1976 at McNichols Arena in Denver, CO. Born from the popularity of the pregame layup lines of the ABA came the inaugural Slam Dunk Contest. The stage was set and the spotlight shined down squarely on him. Erving’s human flight from the free throw line captured America’s attention and set the standard for every young player to be.
The merger was financially inevitable but it was up to the Doctor to carry the game forward and he did not disappoint. The traditional game had been long dominated by conservative pass oriented post play with less focus on individual athletic expression. His game was more aggressive as he faced up his opponent and attacked the basket free of post player intimidation.
In 1976-77 Erving took Philadelphia to NBA Finals squaring off against the Portland Trail Blazers. The game was known as the battle between NBA tradition and ABA vanguard. The Doctor was stellar averaging 30.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2.7 steals in 6 games but Portland rallied behind Bill Walton’s play and coach Jack Ramsay’s team concept. In the final game Doc scored 40 points on 59% shooting with 6 rebounds and 8 assists but fell short of the victory. The Trail Blazers took the series 4-2 behind Walton’s 20 points, 23 rebounds, 7 assists, and 8 block shots. Walton only had a combined total of 5 assists in the first two games. He may have lost the battle but the war had just begun. Dr. J would take Philadelphia to the Finals two more times without bringing home the gold. It was beginning to weigh heavy on him because back then you weren’t a real champion unless you were a champion of the NBA.
1983 would finally bring him redemption as the Sixers acquired Moses Malone(another former ABA player) and took the league by storm. Philadelphia posted a league best 65-17 record behind Malone’s MVP efforts. Although his role had changed and his numbers took a dip, the Doctor never complained because winning had always been more important to him even though his style had always been perceived as self serving. He averaged 19 points, 8.5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2.8 blocked shots versus the defending World Champion Los Angeles Lakers in four games. In the final contest, Erving scored 21 points (seven in the last two minutes of the game) on 62% shooting with 5 rebounds and 6 assists. He had a series total of 20 assists, 11 blocked shots and 34 rebounds. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had nine blocked shots and 30 rebounds respectively. The Doctor was finally an NBA champion.
Julius Erving’s legacy will always be linked to the dunk but few people realize the significance of his Hall of Fame career. Accounting for his entire career, which should include all of his ABA achievements, Dr. J rests on the same statistical plane of all other players considered as greatest of all time. For context, the dunk existed before he played, However, he brought it to the forefront by utilizing it as a weapon in mid air battles towards the basket. Some of the greatest shot blockers in league history are on his short list of conquests. The Rucker Park league existed long before he had ever set foot on its hallowed courts. He took it to new levels of popularity even before becoming a professional athlete. The ABA was established before his arrival. He gave the league validation through his own efforts. His baseline drives, mid air adjustments and dynamic onslaught from the perimeter towards the basket had never been witnessed in the era’s half court game driven by one dribble jump shooters. Dominance from the small forward position by way of rebounds, steals and blocked shots was unheard of before then and is still rarely seen today. The game had steadily evolved before he became the Doctor. He just carried it towards the highest tier of his era, one massive stride at a time. Respect.