THE DOCTOR: Erving Is Making Final House Calls

By July 10, 2018Portfolio

By Ron Thomas

It was 1976, the summer of the ABA-NBA merger and Julius Erving was being showcased in NBA cities for the first time. The ABA hadn’t had a major television contract and was more of a rumor than a memory for most of the nation. But anyone who called himself a basketball fan had beard about “The Doctor.”

Such was his legend that 6000 fans packed DePaul University’s Alumni Hall in Chicago to see this phenomenon from basketball outer space. They saw Mickey Johnson, then with the Chicago Bulls, set himself in the lane to take a charge from The Doctor, then lean back with his face toward the ceiling as Erving leaped over his head for a stuff.

With about two minutes left to play, Erving left the game accompanied by a standing ovation. The game continued, but the fans began streaming out of the arena.

“Doc be gone; I be gone,” one fan said.

After tonight, Doc will “be gone” from the Coliseum Arena, too. The game between his Philadelphia 76ers and the Warriors 730 tipoff, KNBR 680 Radio will be his final one here as he plays out his final NBA season. Fortunately, Erving can’t take our memories with him.

There are myriad ways to account for Erving’s 16 seasons of greatness dating to when he broke in with the ABA’s Virginia Squires in 1971. But Ervmg explains it best.

“I dare to be great,” he says. “Unless you dare to be great, you can’t be and never will be.”

Erving never wanted the law of gravity to restrict what he could do.

“I dream about flying a lot,” he said after a magical performance in 1983. “I just find myself floating out in space as if I had wings. I stay up a lot longer when I’m dreaming. I go sideways, backwards, do somersaults … It’s a fun way to sleep. Sometimes your dreams just seem so real.

“After you understand the fundamentals of the game, the artistry and creativity come from dreams and experimentation.”

It took Ray Wilson, Erving’s high school coach on Long Island, a few years to understand Erving’s quest for the unknown. Young Julius would make a remarkable move, and Wilson recalls thinking, “He was pretty lucky.”

Wilson concedes that be was “imposing my limitations- something I couldn’t do, I assumed he couldn’t do.” When an Erving move surprises him now, Wilson says, “I just shake my head and say he marches to a different drummer.”

Erving implants indelible memories. In the 1980 NBA finals against the Lakers, he swooped down the right side of the lane, curled under the basket with his arm and the ball extended out of bounds, then hooked around flat-footed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for a reverse bank shot. Best shot I’ve ever seen, but probably far from the best Erving ever made

Jack McMahon, the Warriors’ director of play personnel, watched Erving for 10 years in Philadelphia. He’s seen all the maneuvers, but the Erving deluxe was a display of sheer power.

In a playoff game against Washington, “he took one down the middle hard and strong on Elvin Hayes,” McMahon recalled. “You talk about in-your-face’ This was ‘in-your-face supreme.’ I loved it; I’m not an Elvin Hayes fan.”

At a press conference yesterday in Oakland, Erving said his personal favorite occurred at Petersburg, Va., in his first pro exhibition game. At the University of Massachusetts, the tallest opponent Erying had faced was 6-foot-10, but the Kentucky Colonels of that era had 7.2 Artis Gilmore and 6-9 Dan Issel on the front line.

“I went around a guy named Wil Jones, and I was going to dunk the ball -just a conventional, one­handed dunk,” Erving said. “While I’m going up, (Gilmore and Issel) went up and they blocked out the basket.

“I felt myself slicing between the two of them and I held the ball up real high. Then I saw the white



Season/Team                      G               FGM        FGA        Pct.         FTA          FTM         Pct.         TR             Ast.         Pts.

71-72/Virginia                     84            907         1810      .501        467         627         .745        1319      335         2290

72-73/Virginia                     71            889         1780      .499        475         612         .776        867         298         2268

73-74/New York                 84            897         1742      .515        454         593         .766        899         434         2299

74-15/New York                 84            885         1719      .515        486         608         .799        914         462         2343

75-76/New York                 84            915         1770      .517        530         662         .801        925         423         2462

ABA TOTAL                            407         4493      8821      .509        2412      3102      .778        4924      1952      11662



Season/Team                      G               FGM        FGA        Pct.         FTA          FTM         Pct.         TR             Ast.         Pts.

76-77/ Philadelphia        82            685         1373      .499        400         515         .777        695         306         1770

77-78/Philadelphia         74            611         1217      .502        306         362         .845        481         279         1528

78-79/Philadelphia         78            71.5        1455      .491        373         501         .745        564         357         1803

79-80/Philadelphia         82            838         1614      .519        420         534         .787        576         355         2100

80-81/Philadelphia         81            794         1524      .521        422         536         .787        657         364         2014

81-82/ Philadelphia        72            780         1428      .546        411         539         .763        557         319         1974

82-83/ Philadelphia        77            605         1170      .517        330         435         .759        491         263         1542

83-84/Philadelphia         78            678         1324      .512        364         483         .754        532         309         1727

84-85/Philadelphia         78            610         1236      .494        338         442         .765        414         233         1561

85-86/Philadelphia         74            521         1085      .480        289         368         .785        370         248         1340

86-87/Philadelphia         7               54            105         .514        27            31            .871        35            25            136

NBA TOTAL                             783         6891      13531   .509        3680      4746      .775        5572      3068      17495




Hand Issell come down, but the black band was still up there. Then that one finally came down, and I ended up dunking the ball (while) falling, and started running down the court.

“I really didn’t know what I had done, but I looked around and the place was hysterical. From that play on, I think I was established as a pro player.”

Pride and competitiveness have always been Erving’s driving forces. The past few years, he’s made a conscious effort to “master all aspects of the game” instead of being just a scorer. And losing is always unacceptable.

“He and I used to play one-on-one after practice,” former Virginia teammate George Irvine said, “and he’d work his tail off to make sure I didn’t win. I remember only winning a few times, and those were flukes.”

When Erving’s pride is stung he demands immediate payback – like a ill-tempered bill collector.

Watch Erving if his shot is blocked from behind. His face scrunches up into a snarl, and he vengefully hones in on the culprit who wronged him. Invariably, his claw-like hands will swat the next shot into the crowd.

Three years ago, Erving had struggled through two bad playoff games against Milwaukee. Philadelphia writers were calling for his basketball burial: “Is it time for The Doctor to make his last house call?”

Two nights later, Erving responded with a triple-double performance. After the game, totally out of character, he didn’t stick around to answer reporters’ questions- he went directly from the court to the team hotel across the street.

He felt betrayed by the same reporters who’d praised him over the years, and they could read his reply in the box score. Later, he told a reporter he had dedicated that game to the “older generation.” Doc was 33 at the time.

Phil Jasner, who was covered the 76ers for the Philadelphia Daily News for six years, said that was the only time he can remember Erving refusing postgame interviews. Usually he is a reporter’s dream.

Erving sets aside an hour after practice every day for interviews, and after games he is often engulfed by a mass of reporters crowding around him.

It’s easy to identify the least important Philadelphia players (will history remember Sam Williams or Paul Thompson?) because they’re assigned the lockers next to Doc.

The 11th and 12th men almost never get interviewed, so Doc’s entourage of questioners can spread into their locker space.

But access doesn’t endear Erving to reporters; courtesy does. Approach Erving for an early-season interview, and before you can get to question No. 1, he’s liable to ask: “How was your summer?”

How was my summer? That’s a shocker. Players so seldom show an interest in a reporter’s life that an inquiry can leave you mute.

In addition to pursuing business interests after retiring, Erving wants to be an ambassador for basketball. No one has better qualifications.

Rumors fly around the NBA as often as planes in an airport. Yet Erving remains untouched by rumors; his personal life is considered exemplary, above reproach.

At a time when Americans rue the breakup of the family unit, Erving sat on Denver’s McNichols Area floor during the 1984 Slam Dunk Contest and listened to advice from a coaching staff composed of his children.

If a black athlete can speak his name without stumbling on the words, it’s common for him to be patronized for being “so articulate.”

But Erving truly deserves the description.

A few years ago at the league meetings, he accepted an award for teammate Bobby Jones. Erving was expected to give a speech; instead, he mesmerized the audience with a tribute to his close friend, who overcame epilepsy to become a basketball star.

Unlike so many athletes who waste their money, Erving has become a respected businessman. Sure, he has his Maserati and a fur coat, and one venture into the high fashion shoe industry flopped quickly. But now he is part owner or a Coca-Cola bottling company and a television station in Buffalo.

And though hundreds of pro athletes promise to “go back and get my degree,” Erving, who left Massachusetts after his junior year, actually did so by completing his course work during two years of road trips. He had no choice; he had promised his mother he would graduate.

“It was a matter of putting something to rest that was unfinished business.” He said yesterday.

“The Doctor” truly will be missed. The night Erving announced his decision to retire, a saddened Irvine said, “Julius Erving leaving basketball is like taking Mom out of apple pie.”


About ronthomas

Ron Thomas, a sports journalist since 1973, became the first director of the Morehouse College Journalism and Sports Program in 2007. He is in charge of realizing the vision of the program’s founders, great filmmaker Spike Lee and the late columnist Ralph Wile.