Julius Erving is NBA royalty, and on his 62nd birthday, I celebrate the career accomplishments of the coolest player the game has ever seen. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant may have been better overall players, but even that is debatable.
Dr. J was so far ahead of his time, he never really needed to develop a more well-rounded offensive game until he was in his late 20s to early 30s. The smooth, graceful and powerful athlete he was, was already vastly superior to his peers.
He dominated in the ABA in a way that rivals or surpasses just about any player in any era of the game.
He is a part of a small group of players simply known by their nickname (Dr. J, Shag, Magic, Air). The Doctor changed the game intangibly as much as he did tangibly.
He made the aerial game cool. His style and graceful demeanor was disarming, but his killer on-court instinct was vicious. All that while physically defining what a swing man should look like.
Dr. J embodied African-American dignity in a time when blacks in this country desperately needed an image of pride, excellence and grace.
As a kid, he was easy to look up to and easy to love. He was the rare player that you and your dad loved; his appeal bridged age and racial gaps.
Time and era will never allow for another presence like Dr. J, so let us look back and enjoy the amazing career of Julius Erving.
Julius Winfield Erving II was born on February 22, 1950 in Roosevelt, New York. He attended and starred at Roosevelt High School. According to nba.com's bio on Erving, "He starred for Roosevelt High School, earning a reputation as a fundamentally sound but not spectacular player."
That is amazing considering what he would become. I guess Michael Jordan isn't the only NBA great who showed just a fraction of what he'd be in high school.
High school is where it is believed Erving picked up the nickname "Doctor." Erving's bio on nba.com explains:
The moniker coming from a high school friend, who dubbed Erving "Doctor" because Erving called him "Professor." The name stuck, and it even came to define the way Erving "operated" on a basketball court.
It is one of the most appropriate nicknames in sports history, as the term screams skill, respect and poise. All of those things Erving represents.
Finding a photo of Erving at Roosevelt is like trying to stop him in the open floor, nearly impossible.
The most awesome Dr. J memorabilia and information site, DrJstuff.com came through with this retro picture of the Doctor.
It is before my time, but drenched in nostalgia, just how I like it.
Erving attended the University of Massachussets in 1968. Over two seasons, Erving averaged 26.3 points and 20.2 rebounds per game. Even after that dominant stay at UMass, the Doctor was still an unknown, and he signed with the ABA's Virginia Squires as an undergraduate free agent.
And you thought Jeremy Lin was underrated coming out of Harvard.
In those days, the ABA allowed players into the league that had not completed four years of college via the draft, as well as through undergraduate free agency.
To this day, Erving is the greatest Minuteman ever, with Marcus Camby a very distant second.
The world was introduced to cool.
From the Afro, to the stride and the glide. The ABA and Virginia Squires provided the Doctor's first operating room
In Erving's first season, he played 84 regular season games, averaging 27 points, 15 rebounds and four assists per game while playing 42 minutes per night. Wow, Tom Thibodeau must have been his coach (actually, it was Al Bianchi).
Erving averaged 32 points per game in his second season, leading the ABA in scoring for the first of three times. This would be his last year with the Squires.
During his two-year career with the Squires, Erving averaged 29.6 points per game. Prior to the1973-74 season, the cash strapped Squires traded Erving to the New York Nets along with Willie Sojurner for George Carter, the draft rights to Kermit Washington and of course, cash.
His time in Virginia was exceptional, even if the small market limited his exposure. It gave Erving the confidence in his ability; he is quoted here from his nba.com bio, via the Sacramento Bee:
I didn't think it was possible that I might be the most talented player in the world. But after I became a pro, after my second year in Virginia, I thought that there was a possibility that I could offer something unique.
That's for sure.
With the Nets, in New York, Erving blew up. In his first year, he averaged 27.4 points per game, again leading the ABA in scoring. This time, he also found team success as well.
The Nets won their first of two ABA championships with Erving.
In the playoffs, he averaged 28 points per game with 9.6 rebounds. In New York is where the legend of Dr. J truly took off.
This was the perfect spot to springboard Erving into super stardom. It was New York, it was the 1970's, it was the ABA and Erving was the most exciting player in the world. It was the ideal combination to create a basketball icon.
In 1975-1976, the ABA pioneered an event the NBA still cashes in on to this day, the Slam Dunk Contest. There, Erving expanded on his legend.
Erving defeated Artis Gilmore, Larry Kenon, George Gervin and David Thompson for the title. Thinking about that field makes the 2012 participants seem even worse.
With Erving's great play and growing popularity, the NBA had to have him.
In his historic five-year ABA career, Erving won two titles, three MVPs and three scoring titles. That is nearly unprecedented dominance, and surely on par with any Michael Jordan run.
Here is an awesome highlight reel of Erving from the ABA years:
Erving joined the Sixers after a contract dispute. Yeah, those aren't new either. Ultimately, his services were purchased for $3 million dollars.
The Sixers already had high-scoring World B Free, Doug Collins and George McGinnis. Erving still averaged 21.6 points per game as an NBA rookie.
In that season, the Sixers fell short in the NBA Finals to Bill Walton's Portland Trailblazers. After winning the first two games, the Blazers took the next four to capture the title.
The Sixers were a very good team throughout Erving's early NBA career, but they could not attain the ultimate team goal of a championship. He was consistently an All-Star and the NBA MVP for the 1980-1981 season. Erving was also named to the NBA 35th Anniversary All-Time Team.
Through all his stellar play, a championship would elude him until the 1982-83 season.
A 32-year-old Erving averaged 18 points, 6.4 rebounds and five assists for a loaded Sixers team.
It was the only time Erving would be an NBA champion, but his third league championship.
In 1987, at the age of 36, Dr. J retired. In his final year, he still averaged 16.8 points and 4.4 rebounds per game, but injuries forced him to miss 22 games. The 60 games he played that year were the fewest he'd ever played in his career.
The Sixers were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Milwaukee Bucks, and rather than stay on and become mediocre, the Doctor walked away.
Here he is seen with another basketball legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in his last game.
In 1993, Erving was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. For his professional career, he averaged 24.2 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. He won four MVP awards, was All ABA/NBA 11 times, and he played in 16 All-Star games.
Even those numbers only tell part of his impact on the game.
Erving's legacy is about visual appeal. His game had substance, but it was even more beautiful to watch.
Who can forget these two signature plays:
Because of how cool his game was, he put Converse on the map as a shoe company, as he became the first athlete with a signature sneaker.
He put the ABA on the map, and his presence likely extended the existence of the league by two or three years.
He made the NBA cooler and more powerful with his presence.
As former coach Billy Cunningham put it:
As a basketball player, Julius was the first to truly take the torch and become the spokesman for the NBA. Julius was the first player I ever remember who transcended sports and was known by one name -- Doctor."
Julius Erving's career and path hasn't been perfect. He's had his share of controversies and scandal, as most of us have. He's handle them all with grace, and through it all, Erving continues to be one of the most respected figures the sport has ever known.
Happy Birthday, Doctor