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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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!