Dare To Be Great

I’m not sure how one dunk alone could qualify as the dunk of the season, there were just so many to choose! But here’s a highlighted dunk of Mr. Erving (No. 6) from the scrapbook that I made Dad when the 76ers won the World Championship.

February 22, 2020 Julius Erving turned 70 years old! What a perfect way to pay tribute to dear Mr. Erving than to dedicate this post to him. He filled so many of us with inspiration that even now those magic tricks he performed in the air with his big hands and artistic dunks linger in my imagination.

In 1983, life left a lot to the imagination. We looked up to people and made them our heroes. The best ones acted with integrity and respect and Mr. Erving was right along with that camp. In the April 16, 1987 Philadelphia Inquirer, an entire insert was dedicated to Julius Erving. I saved it and found it in among my college papers which got shoved into a plastic bin after the fire in my parent’s house. I was lucky enough to unearth it while I was writing this article.

It brought me back to that time when I read that he wanted to be remembered as “The player who dared to be great.” That was an expression he used a lot in his career. And, funny enough, it’s exactly what comes to mind when I think of Mr. Erving.

Fans only idolized the greats. But once someone became their idol, they were hungry to know everything about them. I didn’t play favorites. In fact, most people would find out who my Dad was (he coached the 76ers Championship team) and they’d want to know most importantly, “Who’s your favorite player?” And then when they got my disappointing answer, “I don’t have one”, they’d want to know, “Do you go to the players houses or do they come to yours?”

I was an NBA basketball coach’s daughter at heart and I learned from a young age that you don’t play favoritism. You love all of the players equally. I got an early glimpse into the concept that you really can love all of your children the same and for different reasons.

While I went a bit overboard on that lesson, I always had friends who could pick just one and sometimes it would most definitely be, “Dr. J was my favorite.” And, yes, it’s okay to honor your children individually. So let’s use this glorious moment to honor Mr. Erving, I hope to capture the essence of the great captain of the 1983 team that he was both on and off the court.

Does that hug say it all?

So in answer to the question about going to the players houses, we went to Julius Erving’s house one time that I recall (he only lived 10 minutes from us) but Dad didn’t believe his job allowed him to hang out and socialize with the players. I came home and found myself fixated on his coke dispensing machine. Yes, full-sized and you didn’t even need to put money in it. I didn’t like Coke, or Pepsi the rival even, so this was just a kid moment here. And I remember leaving and announcing as soon as we got in the car, “How cool was that Coke machine?” Mom said, “Endorsements, Stephanie.” And I just remember getting real quiet and thinking things through: Mr. Erving could teach Dad a thing or two about getting endorsements.

Dad had endorsements of his own, he was with Nike, but I was a kid, you know, you’re on vacation and you emphatically need to know where we’re going next…Dad’s endorsement with Nike paled in comparison to the coolness factor going on at Mr. Erving’s house. Just saying.

He was always Mr. Erving to me. It was a way to show him respect, although he was known as Dr. J to everyone else. I never wondered why he got that nickname. (Kids don’t question things like that). But as an adult I most definitely wanted to know. There it was, an entire article devoted to the evolution of the name, “From Julius to the ‘Doctor’ to ‘Dr. J'”.

And so the story goes, in high school, Erving called his friend and Roosevelt High teammate who used to lecture everybody on the court ‘The Professor.’ So his friend said well then you’ll be ‘the Doctor.'” Erving stuck with that nickname when he needed one in college. But when he needed a nickname once more when he went to play for an ABA team in Norfolk, VA, there was some confusion as to who was the ‘Doc’? Was it Erving or the physician? So the physician became Dr. M and Erving became Dr. J.

What I remember is Dave Zinkoff, the PA announcer, who would exaggerate the introduction of everybody’s name from 1963 until his death in 1985, with the exception of one season. His voice would sound electric as he would zing (a cross between sing and Zink) into the microphone. With Zink, when he made his introductions, no one needed a nickname. It was always, “Julius Errrrrrrrrving.”

If you want to take a trip down memory lane with this, here’s a great clip with Zink introducing the entire lineup.

Zink was so loved his microphone got retired into the James Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

I wondered what Zink would do with the microphone when he knew it was someone’s birthday, I couldn’t remember, though Dad said that Zink never made note of that publically. But privately, he’d have sent Mr. Erving a birthday card. Zink never forgot a birthday.

Mr. Erving had a special place in the hearts of fans and players. Just as Michael Jordan wished that he could be like Dr. J when he grew up, Dad remembers Julius was also the hero of Magic Johnson. “Magic had just won the National Championship in college in 1979 and within a few days he came to our practice to see Julius.”

Unlike Magic, Mr. Erving once told me he didn’t know he was going to play in the pros until after his second year in college. He didn’t have time as a youngster to daydream about who he was going to be when he grew up. In fact, he didn’t realize that would happen until he was already an adult at 20 or so.

He didn’t dream that he would one day be the spokesperson for the NBA. Dad said, “From 76-80 Julius was the marquee person in the NBA. The person who would fill the house wherever we went. The patience and the time that he had to talk to a High School boy or to the New York Times…He knew what his responsibilities were to make himself available to sell the NBA.”

Here’s Mr. Erving at the 50th Reunion giving a speech to his teammates.

Dad laughed at how responsibly Julius took his job. He remembered sitting on the bus “forever” for Julius to finish talking after the game so they finally go to the point where they would rent cars just so he could drive himself back.

I’ll never forget the time I went to the Billy Joel concert at the Spectrum and we got the opportunity to meet Billy Joel beforehand along with Julius Erving. But I remember it as the time Billy Joel met Julius Erving. It was an unbelievable moment to see two people who were so enamored with the talents of one another. I’ll never forget how tall Mr. Erving was compared to how short Billy Joel was (sorry if you’re reading this Billy). And when they shook hands Billy Joel looked like a little kid. And then they exchanged the same words I’d heard hundreds of times before, “I’m a big fan of yours.” And, “I could never do what you do.” It was a remarkable moment which taught me you’re always looking up. You can never be so great that you don’t strive to do more. Hence Mr. Erving’s quote really does carry such weight.

Here’s such a cute moment: the players are signing each other’s basketballs. It just goes to show, not only are we always looking up, there’s a lot to see if you look sideways!

Initially, Mr. Erving played on a team that everybody wanted to be a star so it wasn’t his personality to push and be aggressive so Dad created a situation where it could become Julius’ team. As Dad said, “I’m always amazed coaching him for eight years, he had to listen to me talk close to a thousand games and practices. He could have made my job difficult, but he didn’t. He was so cooperative; and the stars set the stage in the locker room.”

Here’s my scrapbook again.
IMG_5308 copy
Here’s my crinkled insert of Julius Erving making another dunk.

I remembered Mr. Erving being the captain of the World Championship team and I wondered if he had always been the captain? Dad said, “He might not have had the title of captain of the team the way he did when they won the World Championship, but he was always the captain in the locker room.”

As far as saying if he was better than somebody else or who was the best, it’s unfair to compare different generations of basketball players. The game has changed, the money, the travel. But Dad said, “There was nothing stand-offish about Julius. Rookies would come to Philadelphia and he’d invite them to come and stay with him until they got settled.”

Though I never played favorites, I knew Mr. Erving the most and he had such finesse and class that he made everyone feel like they were the most important person in the world. He truly had love in his heart for everybody, including me. I’ll never forget when he granted me a phone interview in December 1991, when I was still in college.

I was suffering through Journalism School while on a deeper level I was struggling to find my voice amongst all the greatness that I had experienced and inexplicably felt like I had lost. I wound up choosing a topic for my final Journalism paper which was ironically entitled The Peter Pan Syndrome. I explored how hard it is for professional athletes to give up the sport. How ironic that I was grappling with the emotions of having to graduate college; it was the very same dilemma, but on a smaller scale. This paper meant so much to me on so many levels and the grade was the least of my worries (though in hindsight it really could have mattered more). And there was Dad, “just call up Mr. Erving. He’ll give you an interview. Here’s his number.”

I treated the research I did for that paper like I was a professional journalist (oh, I could have used spell check). Next blog post, for fun, I’m going to publish it (only without the typos), but meanwhile here’s what Mr. Erving said to me that December 1991 conversation.

“Probably the greatest inspiration was the stories I heard about athletes (they were so successful until they stopped playing). They seemed they weren’t prepared…The controversial stories you’d hear, it took them 5 or 10 years to find happiness. I wanted to be happy the day after I stopped playing. I didn’t want to wait that long.”

“Thinking about what I was going to do became an obsession. I was in a state of preparation for eight years or so…Physically I started playing golf and that sort of compensated for the competitive time of my life. Business filled in the rest (using my mind) and trying to catch up with family…I knew it would take more than one thing to fill the void.”

“The adjustment I felt was tougher on my wife and my children than it was on me (they only knew the time I played) from beginning to end that’s all they knew…They were the ones who had to deal with a more dramatic change. I was the dictator of that change. The adjustment for the family is greater than it is for the individual.”

Reflecting on that interview and the subsequent article I wrote (I ended up getting an A+ on that paper, by the way), I realize that Mr. Erving had helped me begin to find my voice. It had been lost in those glory days of basketball that I was having a hard time letting go of.

The hardest thing for me about life is growing through the adjustments that are forced upon us gracefully. Maybe that’s the case with others, too, and that’s why we were all searching for that hero. We all needed to learn how to have such finesse that we could make all our efforts seem so smooth, effortless and polished. And if ever there was someone who was able to teach us that grace, both on and off the court, it was Mr. Erving.

Whether they call him the Doctor or Dr. J or Julius, he will always be Mr. Erving to me, and I call him that out of respect for the great man that he has always been. He dared to be great, he was all that, and so much more, and by the way, he still is. Happy 70th dear Mr. Erving!

Though this picture comes from the World Champions 50th reunion, it shows you just what these guys were made of and the love that unites them. Our hearts are united in Philly 1983 forever!

A Muse 4 You: How might you dare to be great? (Here’s a hint: your greatness will be a team effort; don’t dare to be great alone).

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Re Re Who’s Who The Terrible Two’s

Part 2 of 2

Look who’s entered the terrible two’s!

We had our first rehearsal, and three subsequent practices, for Twelfth Night (our not-so Shakespearean musical). For the veterans this could very well be their twentieth show, for me, it’s Mama takes the stage, take two. In other words, I’ve reached the terrible twos with this whole acting, singing dancing thing.

This is the practice where we go around the room and give a fun fact about ourselves. And being that I’m always wittier when I can hide behind a piece of paper, I’m not so comfortable with delivery, I had some preparing to do. Okay, a lot.

And dare you ask why am I preparing for an impromptu one-minute fact about myself? You’ll have to read on to understand that this wasn’t going to come eloquently unless I thought it through. Not to mention, the last time I had an experience this awkward, I had to ask a guy to the prom, well, actually, I had my friends ask for me so I wouldn’t have to feel that ridiculous. So let’s just say, if I had asked a guy that I knew to the prom, it would have been just as scary.

In fact, I was up several nights in advance. I didn’t even tell Alex or the kids about this. It was embarrassing enough. No one else in the cast was being so ridiculous. (And aren’t I still playing the fool to be admitting to it now? But this is Shakespeare, after all) In fact, their fun fact could be what they had for breakfast that morning, and especially if they were a lead, everyone would laugh anyway. Ensemble has it harder, because let’s face it, there are so many of us and we aren’t exactly a walking comedy skit. (Ok, I do like to entertain with a story or two).

Don’t get me wrong, we aren’t judged by our fun facts and everyone forgets them anyway. It’s three practices later and I can’t remember much of what was said that day. Luckily I have my daughter who makes me write this stuff down.

We heard how we are going to modernize the play. Bring in members of our community. For instance, the Illyrian bar will be named after the local watering hole and we will don paraphernalia from the local sports teams.

We went around the circle so everyone could have their spotlight. As I remembered perfectly from last year, there were the two camps: those who could truly skim the fat off the surface and say the latest witty thing that came to mind and those of us, like me, who had to rehearse, or should have rehearsed, what we were going to say up until our turn. (And then the aftermath, when we’re plagued with the replay hoping we sounded okay).

It’s just how it goes. But I was ready. I listened. Some gave recaps of all the fun facts they’d given over the years (they must have prepared, too) and those who hadn’t rehearsed, but secretly wished they had, and took the bandaid off quickly with a “my fun fact is (blank).” Get the spotlight off of me NOW! (This group also secretly wanted a chair to be missing so they could get out of playing Musical Chairs when they were kids).

And it was my turn. But before you can read on, this is really part two of a two part series and it would be wise if you read what I revealed in about myself in last week’s post about my blush with greatness in order to get me here. http://re-whos-who-aka-the-incognito-snowman. Whether you read it or you’re brave enough to read on, please understand, these words were not easy for me to say.

What I said, seemed to morph into what I wanted to say and now I can’t tell the difference between the two of them anyway. But I’ve belabored the telling of this long enough. So whether I said it out loud or in my head, this is how I’m going to recap this now:

“I’m Stephanie Ortiz (when you forget to say your in ensemble, that’s okay, everyone assumes since Deb didn’t ask me to clarify that, that’s who I am anyway). This is middle-aged Mama takes the stage take two. Take one was last year and I practically crawled on that stage, but I did it with the support of my daughters, who forced me to go through with it, and my stage husband (I looked over at Bill). I can’t act, I can’t sing, I can’t dance, but I did it anyway/. I’ve always watched greatness. I watched my Dad coach the Philadelphia 76ers to a world championship, and now this was my championship and I did it with you. So I’m a glutton for punishment and now I’m back again. And fun fact: I have some sports paraphernalia for you, Deb!”

Later my youngest said, Mommy, you had so many fun facts, why’d you have to give one more?” So there you have it, the only response that really mattered.

So why’d I do it? It had been haunting me all those years, always making me scared of the spotlight that would see right through me and show me up for who I really was, gasp, I was Mr. Cellophane. But that’s the wrong play, come back to Twelfth Night and there’s Malvoleo struggling with the very same concept: “Some are born great, some have greatness thrust upon them. “

I’m proud of all my Dad’s greatness, don’t get me wrong, but I couldn’t process it. I was only 13 and I was just trying to figure out who I was.

Maybe you could call it my journey of overcoming greatness: how I sat and watched greatness, thinking it was a one-man show only to finally realize you can’t open the door to your own greatness sitting in the audience. So there’s a moral to this story: the first rule of greatness is you can’t do it alone.

So that reminds me, I’ve just now entered the terrible two’s with this theater thing. Give this Mama just a little bit of a stage, have her turn 50 and just see what happens.

This week’s muse: how have you stared greatness in the face and/or how might you act out your terrible twos?

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Re: Who’s Who aka The Incognito Snowman

Part 1 of 2

The Incognito Snowman

I have a confession to make, I’m a self-proclaimed nobody. Hence the picture of the incognito snowman. Okay, he might not be the best example, but he’s really cute.

And I have another confession to make. I come up with lots of ideas/stories, and especially when they are great and are meant for somebody else, I feel shamed if I don’t share them.

So that leaves a comedy skit in the making or a good blog post: a nobody with an idea reaching out to a somebody who is famous. However to protect the privacy of my famous person I’m not going to divulge the name and will just refer to who’s who as Incognito Snowman (I got to make sense of my picture somehow).

To dive into my big embarrassing confession a bit more, I’ve always found security in obscurity. (Don’t you just love a rhyme for no reason)? As long as I stayed incognito, I felt safe. My rhyming sister, Emily Dickinson, wrote a poem about us, “I’m nobody who are you? Are you nobody too?” Oh, how I loved that she got me.

But that’s absurd, right? This calls for drastic measures. I broke down the giant and made him take baby steps. Here’s the dumbified results, just to make this easier for me, and for you, so you can play along, too.

Step 1: Walk the dog and come up with an idea for let’s just say a great television show. You know the lightbulb moment that I’m not ashamed to admit isn’t for me. A distinct person came to mind, the very person who could pull it off: none other than Incognito Snowman!

Step 2: Share your idea. But how? Keep this bit of advice handy: find the avenue that the least amount of people would use to contact that person. And if you’re still scratching your head, the answer is email. What a duh moment! Of course, I knew that because I was armed by those words.

Step 3: Decide how to contact Incognito Snowman. Look up said person and realize there are five points of contact via email. It appears a lot of other people have intentions to reach my famous person, ahem. Since there’s no direct email, I choose the writer.

Step 4: Write the email. Another duh moment, but we’re taking baby steps with this, just in case in the heat of the excitement you forget who you are (because trust me you will). This is not a pitch. It’s not professional. It’s just a friend (who you don’t know). I didn’t start off with “hey”, I did reserve some formalities. But do what I say not what I did: make a copy of what you sent.

Step 5: Forget about it. And, of course, I did. (That’s why you made a copy so you could refer back to it when you couldn’t remember you even wrote the email). I wasn’t expecting anything in return. In fact, if I actually thought I’d get a response I wouldn’t have reached out to Incognito Snowman in the first place. (That’s how obscure I hoped to remain).

Step 6: Receive a response email and open it. Yes, at this point, you’re allowed to skim, reread, savor, memorize whatever you want, and yes, you can even start to quote it in your casual conversations with your immediate family members only, who are all in on it. But don’t jump ahead to the complete FREAK OUT just yet. First, proceed with caution and take my daughter’s advice, “Don’t tell anyone or you’ll jinx it.” For the record, she now claims she never said that. Good thing that’s what I heard her say because that’s what I did. Now read the email, trust me, what you’ve done up until this point was not reading. Just process the facts.

Hello Stephanie, 

I am the public relations assistant to Incognito Snowman. We received your email and would like to send you a mailed response. If you would be so kind as to provide me with a personal address or PO Box, we would be happy to do so. 

We are most grateful for your patience and look forward to hearing from you soon!

Kind Regards,


Step 7: Respond. I know. You didn’t really need these steps up until this moment. Now you are so shocked you can’t make even the simplest decision. I didn’t want to sound too excited (over what anyway?) or too desperate (what can I get out of this?) or too ungracious (maybe I should just thank the assistant and wish her Happy New Year?). I texted Alex and asked “Should I thank her or wish her Happy New Year?” And, luckily he replied back, “yes to both.”

Step 8: Click Away Negative Thoughts. Most recently I’ve been clicking away my negative thoughts. Remember? But some negative thoughts are persistent; I click them away, and they are still there! So get defensive, they creep in like leaches now that you hit “send”. This could be a scam. CLICK. It’s probably just a survey asking how they did. CLICK. Maybe a telemarketer hacked Incognito Snowman’s computer and stole my email. Good thing I covered that and gave Alex’s work address instead of my home address. I showed them. Until my oldest pointed out, “If you’re so worried about this being a scam, don’t you think they would be too?” Why does she have to be so smart when I’m being such a recovering nobody? How many duh moments can there be? The steps, I repeat, remember the steps.

Step 9: Congratulations, you’ve reached the FREAK OUT step! Dream it up! Let it grow. Make it as big as you dare it to be. It’s only in your mind anyway, right? And when you have to share what’s bouncing around like a pinball machine before you burst, share it carefully. Don’t advertise this. You were just feeling like a nobody when we started step 1 (and you don’t need anyone accidentally reminding you of that) so revel in this greatness. When was the last time you dared dream so big?

You get the picture?

Step 10: Wait, and I mean wait for the post man to come, every day, the old-fashioned way. Yes, there’s time here. Lots of time. In fact so much time that I’m reminded of Fiona and the waiting…the waiting…the waiting…

Waiting doesn’t feel like a step, but don’t be fooled. It knocks the sense into you. This is when I collected myself and ultimately opened to the truth. Alex helped too as he had the wherewithal to locate a message board. Fans posted that they received letters, gasp, in the mail. There were two camps: those who sent a photo and got it returned with a signature and those that wrote fan mail and received a response written in block letters thanking them for their support.

That was the buzz kill. That good for nothing reality check. I’m just a, gulp, fan. And while I was facing the truth I had to consider a few more things. Remember all those giddy, grandiose dreams that were too big to even tell anyone in the freak out stage? They weren’t real. And for all those years of playing a nobody alongside Emily Dickinson, I had to finally admit that truth, too; she’s dead, long gone. Imagine that, my partner in anonymoty was a famous dead person.

But somehow these realizations didn’t send me crawling back to my blanket of obscurity as they once would have, and they have made the waiting a bit more doable. There’s still questions, but now they’re just more practical, grounded and shareable: am I eligible for an autographed photo? Has my idea been lumped into the “thank you for your support” pile? Let’s throw in that possibility of a survey–it would be a fun twist.

Now that I’ve validated myself, I don’t need to hope anymore that my letter from Incognito Snowman will fulfill me. I just had to come out of hiding and find myself again. Take one step at a time.

I’m still waiting. If I hear anything, you’ll be the first to know. But, hey, I did hear it’s supposed to snow on Saturday. to Want to build a snowman? Though the name Incognito Snowman is taken, I have a good feeling about this; whatever name we give him, ours will be just as great (wink)!

A Muse 4U: Did you ever have an encounter with a Who’s Who that made you forget who you were? And perhaps, that was just the nudge you needed…

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