And before Michael Jordan there was Julius Winfield Erving, Jr, far more commonly known as Dr. J.
Moving with elegance and grace, he soared through the air over and over again before slamming the ball through the hoop with devastating force or delivering exquisite finger rolls.
Off the court, Erving carried himself with a regal yet humble manner. Handsome, articulate and cool whether wearing the massive afro of his ABA years or the more scaled down version of his NBA career, he seemed to epitomize class.
As readers of this blog know, I grew up in Boston during the Larry Bird era. To this day, I still probably spend more time than I should watching YouTube clips of Bird’s exploits (I spent a very enjoyable 10 minutes this weekend, for example, watching the famous 1986 game against Portland where he predominantly shot left-handed, just because he needed a challenge.).
The Sixers and Celtics had epic contests during the regular season and playoffs, especially during the early part of Bird’s career. My brother Jon had the iconic picture of Bird and Erving locked in combat-Erving’s arms were so long that his massive left hand was closed around Bird’s throat while the taller man was trying to reach Erving-toward the end of a game in which Bird had scored 42 points and Erving just 6 on 3 of 13 shooting.
Still, it was a tribute to Erving’s skills and conduct that even I was glad for Erving when he finally won a NBA championship on his fourth try.
He also was the author of one of my favorite moves in playoff basketball history, which I saw on our 13-inch black and white television in the 1980 Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.
You know the one.
He went up for a routine dunk, saw journeyman Mark Landsberger and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, adjusted in mid-air, went around the entire backboard, came out the other side, flicked in a lay up, and, this was the kicker, ran down the court as if nothing unusual had happened.
Given all that history and background, I was excited to read New York Times sportswriter Vincent Mallozzi’s Doc: The Rise and Rise of Julius Erving.
Unfortunately, while it had some useful and informative sections, I found the book disjointed and unable to capitalize on the possibilities of its remarkable subject.
To be fair, Doc does have interesting information about Erivng’s background in Hempstead, Long Island, his gradual ascendance to greatness in which he improved at high school, college and the pros, and his legendary performances in the Rucker League that earned him the moniker”Black Houdini,” among others. The book also has plenty of admiring quotes from former coaches, guys from the neighborhood, ex-teammates like World B. Free and opponents like Magic Johnson.
That said, the book has a disjointed feel. Erving’s playing career ends about two-thirds of the way through the work, and the rest is devoted largely to exploring Erving’s cruelty toward his ex-wife and prolific philandering, which led to at least three children outside of his marriage. Mallozzi also has a chapter about his 91-second stint in a pro league that he had finagled through the promise of a Times column that adds little, if anything, to the reader’s understanding of Erving.
I don’t mind the myth busting or showing that even our most venerated, classy and distinguished figure has flaws. In The Hero’s Life, Richard Ben Cramer wrote skillfully about Joe DiMaggio’s incomparable play, conscious cultivation of his iconic status from an early age, and general venality.
Rather it’s that I left the book not having either learned much about these sides of Erving’s life or having felt the thrill I felt while watching some of the most dazzling athletic feats of my childhood.
For now, I’ll stick to YouTube to get my Dr. J highlights on.
You might want to do so, too.