NEW YORK — Julius Erving was a springy 21-year-old, soaring high, dunking hard and electrifying the masses at Harlem's famed Rucker Park, when a friend tried to explain his uncanny connection to the crowd.
"When you're playing and you make a sweet move, somehow, you give the people a taste of what it's like to be you," sportswriter Peter Vecsey observed in the summer of 1971, according to Erving's newly released autobiography, Dr. J.
Even then, still months away from his professional debut, Erving was dubious of the claim, poetic as it sounded.
The bond between player and fan is powerful, but illusory: We watch, we cheer, we boo; therefore we know—or presume that we do.
The reality is much different, as Erving deftly, sometimes painfully, illustrates over the course of 423 pages. From the start, he draws a distinct line between Dr. J, the Hall of Fame player, and Julius Erving, the private individual; and he spends much of the book shattering illusions and exposing personal frailties with admirable candor.
Every indiscretion and every regret are laid bare: his womanizing, his failed first marriage, the fathering of a child out of wedlock, the untimely deaths of family members and friends, including a son.
After 25 years out of basketball, Erving could easily have let these painful chapters fade into history, without elucidation. He has spent most of his post-playing career happily out of the spotlight, guarding his privacy to the extent possible.
But once he decided to proceed with an autobiography, a project he had been considering for 20 years, there would be no holding back.
"My thought was: If you're going to do it, do it; don't kid-glove it," Erving, 63, said in an interview with Bleacher Report. "The story is, for better or for worse, a real story."
It is a remarkable story, tracing Erving's path from the Parkside Gardens projects in Hempstead, N.Y., to his trailblazing days with the New York Nets of the ABA to his legendary career with the Philadelphia 76ers, whom he led to the championship in 1983.
Erving leaves out nothing. He describes his first dunk, his first kiss, his first sexual experience, his first confrontation with overt racism.
There is a Forrest Gump-like quality to the book, as Erving—while gradually building his own fame—casually weaves in relationships and chance encounters with a who's who of celebrities, from Bill Cosby to Natalie Cole to James Earl Jones, Teddy Pendergrass, Richard Pryor, Arthur Ashe and Miles Davis.
Erving's is a rich and textured life, but one laced with profound sorrow and tragedy. The book—written with author Karl Taro Greenfeld—pays respect to Erving's athletic triumphs, but it is at its most powerful when discussing personal loss.
His absentee father died when Erving was still a child. Erving's younger brother, Marky, died at 16 from a form of lupus. His older sister, Freda, died of cancer at 37. His mother, Callie Mae, passed in 2004. Over the course of the book, Erving also loses a cousin, a teammate and, perhaps most tragically, his teenage son Cory, who died in a car accident at age 19.
"It is therapeutic," Erving acknowledged in the interview. "I think there's therapy associated with it."
There is plenty of basketball in the book as well, a retelling of key games and playoff series, although it is the personal passages that are the most textured and revealing. Erving provides a rare glimpse inside the soul of a star-in-the-making, taking us along as he gradually becomes aware of his athletic gifts, his unique feel for the game, the creative impulses that will help revolutionize the sport.
"I see the game differently than other players," Erving writes, a statement that comes across more factual than boastful.
Erving just as openly embraces his failings, particularly in his relationships with women. Shy and insecure in his teen years, Erving becomes a sexual thrill-seeker in adulthood, capitalizing on his fame, even as he wrestles with his conscience.
The book is written in the present tense, drawing the reader into Erving's consciousness as each event unfolds.
"It depletes my soul, this philandering," he writes after describing a quest, at age 21, to bed eight women in eight nights.
This presages two of the toughest episodes in Erving's life: the discovery that he had conceived a daughter—tennis player Alexandra Stevenson—out of wedlock; and the eventual breakup of his marriage to his first wife, Turquoise. Erving learns about Alexandra in a letter from her mother, Samantha Stevenson, a sportswriter.
"If Alexandra is really my daughter," he writes, "then I have to own up to that; that's the right thing to do."
The disclosure leads to an ugly fight with Turquoise that turns physical.
"Turquoise and I have some violent fights," Erving writes, before adding, "I've hit her, but only in self-defense."
That passage was bound to provoke some backlash—as it did in an awkward interview on Good Morning America this week—but as with other sensitive material, Erving said he felt obligated to include it.
"It's a piece of a person's life," he told Bleacher Report. "So yeah, you become a target for that. … I'm not going to let what somebody has to say about what I had to say dictate my life."
He added, "I could choose not to discuss something, but if I'm going to discuss it then I've gotta be candid. I'm probably a bad liar."
Greenfeld said it was up to Erving to decide what details to include and what to omit.
"I think to his credit, he said, 'I want to talk about every facet of my life, and I'm willing to talk about every facet of my life,' " Greenfeld said in a separate interview. "He wanted to tell the whole story about being a man in his life and times."
Erving said he long ago made amends with those he has hurt, that the book is not so much a confessional as it is a simple affirmation of the facts—for a curious public, but more importantly for his own family. Eschewing a self-tribute, Erving opted for a raw self-portrayal.
"Some day, there's going to be nieces and nephews and great grandchildren and great-great-great grandchildren, who I might never meet," Erving said. "I'd rather have them take this away, rather than being put on a pedestal."
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.