"The things that happen to you during the course of your life become your body of work," a world-famous Julius Erving explained to a group of assembled media on Wednesday night, "and the culmination of all those things—whether something happened in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 60s, 70s—all those things are going to comprise the dash between the day you were born and the day you die."
I shook Dr. J's hand afterward, and it made me feel like a little kid again. Sure, part of that feeling came because shaking Doc's hand was the dream of every kid who grew up going to the Spectrum to see the Sixers play, but more because the man has gigantic hands. It was like a bear claw shaking the leaf of a tree.
If the bear was 63 years old and could still dunk.
On Monday, June 10, NBA TV will present The Doctor, a biographical look at the life and career of Julius Erving. Prior to the release of the film, NBA TV had an advanced screening in Philadelphia on Wednesday night.
It's hard to explain to a person who didn't grow up in Philly what Dr. J meant and still means to this city. He was more than just a cultural icon in his time. Dr. J made professional basketball matter in this city for an entire generation.
It's been 30 years since the Sixers last won the championship, and the team has never been less relevant on the city's sports landscape. For a night, it was amazing to relive the times worth remembering.
I was five when the Sixers won the title in 1983. I don't have any natural recollection of the championship, nor the three trips to the NBA Finals in four seasons. I don't remember the battles with the young Magic Johnson and Larry Bird the way I want to. I still love hearing the stories.
I do remember the excitement going to see the Sixers as a kid those four years after they won the title, before Dr. J retired. I always knew Dr. J was great, but I never got the chance to truly see how great he was in his prime. This documentary is a wonderful look at Doc, from a young kid in the playgrounds of Long Island to college to the ABA and through his NBA career. It's certainly worth your time.
The Doctor sat down with the media before the screening of The Doctor to wax nostalgic about his career and share his thoughts on today's NBA. Questions were asked by a number of press in attendance (and my apologies for not crediting the answers to specific reporters' queries). The following quotes cover a host of topics, including a look at today's game and how hard it is to win an NBA championship.
"I'm not one to say there has to be a direct order associated with that dash," Erving continued in his thought about one's body of work, "because I've had family members that were younger than me that have gone before me to the maker. I've had situations that have been out of the order that society sometimes makes you think they should be."
The documentary covers the events surrounding Erving's life, including his brother's battle with illness as a teenager and the tragic loss of his son well after his retirement.
"From an emotional standpoint, it was very draining, very taxing to try and recall and recount things in your life that you just don't deal with on a day-to-day basis. They did their homework. ... I probably said this to a couple of friends: 'You know some of those things you know and you say I'll take to the grave? They found a way to flush them out and get them into the documentary.' I'm okay with that now."
Dr. J didn't live an easy life, but his perspective and humility, given all he accomplished in his time, are incredible.
"All of the things that eventually led to the parade 30 years ago occupy a very special place in my heart and my mind. My personal legacy, the reward of having a statue, having the mural, having the love every time I come back to the city.
"I guess I'm cognizant that it doesn't have to be (me). It doesn’t have to be. There are so many people that have done a lot of the same things I did in sports, in basketball specifically, and they're not treated the same. So (the love) doesn't have to be that way, but it is. I'm humbled by it, and I'm honored by it."
Doc was asked if his 1983 NBA championship team was, perhaps, the best team in history. How would they compare to the Heat today, or the other great teams of previous generations?
"I happen to be friendly with Bill Russell, Clyde Drexler, Michael Jordan. And we go to different public events, and guys gather over in the corner, and you hear this noise…and you go over there, and it’s a basketball discussion. 'Could this team have beaten that team? Could that guy have guarded this guy?'
"I just kind of look at them and say, 'Well, who is going to guard Moses (Malone)?' Forget about me and Andrew (Toney) and Maurice (Cheeks) and (Marc) Iavaroni and the supporting cast…Bobby Jones. You figure if Kareem couldn't guard Moses, and he was the best player in the history of the NBA, then none of those other guys could have.
"Maybe Shaq, throwing an elbow, knocking some teeth out or whatever, but it wasn't going to take Moses out of the game. He was going to get back up and hit him back."
Erving won two titles with the New York Nets of the ABA, but it took seven years for him to win a title in the NBA after coming so close three previous seasons. How hard is it, really, to win the title?
"It's difficult to be the top dog, to be the last one standing. There's a certain mentality, there's a certain attitude, there's a certain sink-or-swim piece to it that sometimes it takes experiencing the loss and figuring it out before you can be successful.
"It's nothing you can assume or take for granted."
Dr. J spun it to this season to talk about the Miami Heat, and he put what they are doing into some historical perspective.
"I look at Miami this year. This is their third year playing for the championship in a row. Nobody is even talking about the fatigue factor from just having the longest season—a longer season than anybody else—plus they had the Olympics, and three of the guys went to the Olympics.
"So the physical wear and tear is definitely a factor, and it probably will factor in in the finals.
"Running off eight in a row like the Bill Russell Celtics, or whatever, couldn't happen today. Well, Miami wants to do it and is talking about it, but I don't think it's going to happen. There's too much competition. The physical possibility of it for a team to stay intact and do that for eight years in a row is not going to happen. It's not feasible."
He mentioned that he recently watched the 1983 NBA Finals for an upcoming book, and he was amazed at how different the game was back then.
"Nobody shot three-point shots, unless they were down and it was out of desperation. The line was there, but the game was played inside of that line. The game was played in the paint, inside out. A lot of the creativity you see now, as opposed to play-calling, was replaced with play-calling.
"When teams came down, if there wasn't a fast break and you didn't score or get a shot off the secondary break, you came back out and you called a play. And you could do that in 24 seconds."
He admitted that he doesn't see that as much in today's game and credits Steve Nash for breaking that mold, setting up a more fluid style of game for the current point guards. What's interesting is that he was almost blaming Nash for that style, in an odd way, instead of crediting Nash. Even the word "responsible" sounds a bit derisive when you read it, which is fascinating when you consider Dr. J came from the ABA, where they barely ran any plays at all.
It wasn't until he came to the Sixers that Dr. J had to run a half-court system, so maybe the tone he had when talking about Nash was more jealousy than anything else.
He was asked about how the league—thanks to people like him, Magic, Bird, Jordan and LeBron—has slowly changed over the last 30 years from a team-oriented league where fans rooted for the team in their city, to a player-driven league, where fans root for their personal favorite stars no matter where they play.
There is no doubt, talking to some in attendance, that there are more LeBron James fans around Philadelphia than Sixers fans.
"I think from a generational standpoint, people now don't have the loyalty to teams like they used to have. The reason why is because players are a little more mercenary—they just don't stay with teams from the beginning of their career to the end of their career.
"It's just a different time. I think each fan is going to have his individuals who are their favorites. I have one son whose favorite is LeBron and another son whose favorite is Derrick Rose. I know if Derrick Rose got traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, Derrick would still be his favorite player, but Philadelphia would now become his favorite team because Derrick is playing.
"I think a lot of kids today and fans today think like my sons do. They follow the players more than they follow the team."
Granted, some of that has to do with the fact that teams like, say, the Sixers haven't been competitive for years. Apathy is drawn from mediocrity. Doc was asked about the Sixers new general manager Sam Hinkie and if his analytic approach can work in the NBA.
"The analytics…do you want to explain? Is that like a new category or something? Stats and analysis of players, character and the things that have always existed, but now there's a title for it?"
Stop. Before we go on to his actual answer, it's hard to illustrate in those quotes just how sarcastic he was being. He's an incredibly smart man and still a great basketball mind, but he seems a little skeptical of the notion that advanced stats can reinvent the way we look at the game.
"I think if a team does it and they win, then everybody is going to do it. If a team is a cellar-dweller, they can analyze all they want, nobody is going to follow them. It depends on the success. If it's publicized that 'this is how we did it,' then people are going to follow.
"Especially at war-room time, this is an additional piece to the discussion. When you start drafting and you start going after free agents and you start deciding who you're not going to re-sign and the whole cap situation. Yeah, I would be a proponent of that."
Even the greats have their rivals, and while Doc feuded with Bird and Magic for much of his time with the Sixers, he admitted that he liked almost everyone in the league. So when they did the documentary, he was sure the players they interviewed would say nice things about him.
"Players are always going to say nice things about other players, unless you have this rivalry where you just hate the guy. There were only like two guys I hated in my whole career.
"I'll go on record. I never liked Adrian Dantley, and I never liked Bernard King. Those were my two guys. I never particularly cared for playing against them, either."
I have a feeling they didn't care to play against Doctor J, either. In fact, after watching The Doctor, it's pretty clear that nobody liked playing against him. It was a great thrill to sit and listen to him talk before watching a highlight reel of his career. I only wish I was old enough to remember when it happened.
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