NEW YORK — Forty years ago, for one fleeting moment, the Knicks and the Nets nearly had a rivalry worth contemplating.
The Knicks were the NBA’s defending champions, having defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals. The Nets were a rising force in the ABA and had just acquired Julius Erving, already a magnetic star.
They resided in different leagues and in distant zip codes—the Knicks playing in Manhattan, with dominion over the five boroughs, and the Nets residing in the suburbs of Long Island.
They met in a 1973 exhibition game, with the Nets taking a 98-87 victory before a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden. It was, Erving recalls in his autobiography, a warning shot—a “notice to New York basketball fans that there are two championship contenders in town.”
The intrigue quickly faded, with the Knicks going into decline and the Nets relocating to New Jersey, where they would lead a marginally relevant existence for the next three decades.
Today, at long last, Erving’s vision has become a reality. The Nets are in Brooklyn, gunning for a title and a piece of the Knicks fanbase. They are again serving notice.
“Nothing is going to replace the Knicks as Manhattan’s team,” Erving said in an interview with Bleacher Report. “But in terms of New York City, Brooklyn is formidable. There’s more people in Brooklyn than Manhattan. It’s the biggest borough. … So if they have a championship team there, they are definitely a threat to the popularity of the Knicks.”
As talented as Erving’s old Nets teams were, they were largely an afterthought in the marketplace.
“Even though we won championships in Long Island, you still couldn’t knock the Knicks off that mantle, because of Madison Square Garden and because they were in Manhattan,” Erving said. “When (the Nets) moved to New Jersey, it was no comparison. They were not a threat. But right now, they're close and they're going to be good. Both teams are going to be good.”
Erving added, “I’m going to be pulling for the Nets, because that’s my old franchise, my old team.”
He praised the Nets’ summer roster makeover and the bold decision to hire Jason Kidd as head coach, saying, “They’ve done a lot of things right, and it’s going to be fun to watch.”
Erving has never attended a game in Brooklyn, but his No. 32 Nets jersey—retired in 1987—hangs from the Barclays Center rafters. He has had little interaction with the franchise in recent years, in part because of his role with the Philadelphia 76ers, who employ him as a strategic adviser.
Erving had to decline an invitation to Kidd’s jersey retirement last month because of a scheduling conflict. But he seemed eager to help celebrate the next big occasion: the 40th anniversary of the Nets’ ABA championship. That anniversary arrives next year.
“One of these days, they're going to invite me back to the arena and I’m going to accept,” Erving said, smiling broadly, “and we’re going to have a grand old time.”
Some other highlights from Erving’s interview with Bleacher Report this week:
• A fashion trend-setter in his time, Erving said he enjoys seeing today’s NBA players try to outdo each other on the postgame stage. Even if some of them have pushed from the cutting edge to the bleeding edge.
“There are a lot of NBA players who are candidates for Joan Rivers right now,” Erving said. “It takes a little bit of the stress and the pressure off of playing the game. Like Dwyane Wade last year, he had a couple of things that were ridiculous, that he wore pregame and postgame. And I think he knew that they were ridiculous. But they diverted a little bit of attention from the pressures of the game. Because the game brings a lot of pressure.”
So, the capri pants? “You got it. That was one.”
Erving has also been struck by the outlandish sartorial choices of Russell Westbrook.
“Russell and Dwyane, they might be 1-2; they might be having a little contest right now to see who can mix it up the best and cause the most controversy,” he said.
• Every child of the 1980s fondly remembers the video game, One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird. Erving said he never played it.
“I’m not a video-game player,” he said. “I have the type of personality, if I start doing something I want to do it all the time. Obsessive-compulsive, I guess. So I don’t mess with it. It consumes too much time.”
Although they were bitter rivals, Erving and Bird collaborated on the game with Electronic Arts. But there was still some gamesmanship in the process.
“We collaborated together, and then the collaboration was with EA individually, so that each of us who had any secrets would be telling it to EA, but not telling it to the other guy,” Erving said.
• In retirement, Erving has generally eschewed the spotlight, in contrast to some of his contemporaries, such as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. Prior to the release of his book, and an NBA TV documentary earlier this year, Erving largely declined interviews.
“I’ve never elected to overexpose myself,” he said. “Jordan or Magic Johnson have long been retired, but really care to see their name in lights, or associated with things, and they’ve done a great job. That’s consistent with their personality. But it’s not consistent with my personality to want to see my name up in lights around the world. It’s just not a match for me.”
• Though he played for the Nets and the 76ers, Erving’s rooting interests are, figuratively speaking, all over the map.
As a proud veteran of the ABA, Erving said he pulls for the four surviving franchises from that league: Indiana, San Antonio, Denver and Brooklyn. “My teams,” he called them.
He also watches a lot of Atlanta Hawks games, because he lives there and is friendly with the owners. The rest of his NBA-watching schedule is dictated by his children. His 12-year-old is a Chicago Bulls fan. His 15-year-old is a Miami Heat fan. His two daughters root for the Knicks.
Erving will cheer along with them—“but not if they're playing against one of my teams,” he said.
Erving also has a soft spot for the Oklahoma City Thunder and counts himself a fan of Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
“I like their ascension,” he said.
• So, who is the most Dr. J-like player in the league today?
“Well, Blake Griffin dunks like the Doc used to dunk—and throws it down in people’s faces and stuff like that,” Erving said. “He’s like a big forward. He’s not really a small forward. Kobe, if he can get out there and have another season like last season, where he’s still got it. … LeBron is great at finishing in transition. So I think I was a really good finisher in transition.”
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.