"As a basketball player, Julius was the first to truly take the torch and become the spokesman for the NBA. He understood what his role was and how important it was for him to conduct himself as a representative of the league. Julius was the first player I ever remember who transcended sports and was known by one name – Doctor."
The most famous “doctor” in American history, Julius Erving has the largest fan base out of any NBA player besides Michael Jordan. This appreciation is rightfully earned; no other player has come close to his aesthetic ability. His name is synonymous with the slam-dunk. Dr. J created every specialty dunk one could possibly imagine, becoming the first player to use spins and windmills while in the air. In addition, Erving is father to two of the most memorable shots in NBA history. This flash, combined with his loud afro hairstyle, made him one of the most unique and recognizable players in NBA history.
Julius Winfield Erving II was born on February 22, 1950, to a middle-class family in Roosevelt, New York. He became the star of Roosevelt High School’s basketball team, where he earned his reputation as a fundamentally sound, if not conservative, player. It was here that Erving would also earn his famous nickname “Dr. J.” The name, although it came to stand for the way Erving would “operate” on the basketball court, was created while joking around with and old high school friend who he called the Professor.
An average student, Erving was accepted to University of Massachusetts in 1968. He would not make varsity for his freshman year, but would enter with a force afterwards. Over his two seasons, Erving averaged 26.3 points and a remarkable 20.2 rebounds a game. Despite his spectacular averages, he was not recruited by any NBA team and was skipped over in the 1971 NBA draft. He left school to play for the ABA’s Virginia Squires instead.
The ABA and Virginia Squires
He averaged 27.3 points a game his rookie year, but the most important result of the season was a boost in Erving’s confidence. On a drive to the basket, contested by rookie of the year Artis Gilmore and Dan Issel, Erving recalls “I went in between both of them and just hung there and waited for them to come down. Then I dunked on them so hard I fell on my back. Just doing that made me confident to go after anyone, anytime, anywhere, without any fear."
Erving contributed early on to the team’s excellent season performance and Virginia’s playoff run. During their first-round playoff series, he averaged 33.3 points a game before they were knocked out by a New York Nets team led by Rick Barry in the Eastern Division Finals. He had finally turned some NBA heads, and was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the 1972 draft.
Due to legal complications, Erving would never get to play in the NBA that year. He was forced by a court injunction to return to Virginia and the ABA, where he led the league with 31.9 points a game. Now comfortable on the court, Erving became known for his ostentatious playing style. He was selected to the All-ABA first team, where he would remain for four years. Still, Erving was not content playing for a low-profile team in a small market.
The ABA and New York Nets
Prior to the 1973-1974 season, Erving was traded to the ABA’s New York Nets for George Carter, a first round draft pick, and a whole lot of money. The team was unstoppable; they earned the best regular season record in the league and swept through the playoffs, where they defeated the Utah Stars for the championship. Erving led the league in points a game with 27.4, came in third in blocked shots and steals, and was sixth in assists. His excellent versatility earned him the ABA MVP Award, a title he would retain for three years.
The 1975-1976 season would be the last for the ABA. Due to an unusually large numbers of teams collapsing, the league combined into one division. Erving, who had led the league in scoring for his third title, averaged 34.7 points during the ABA championship game against the Denver Nuggets to lead New York to a win and earn himself the MVP title of the playoffs. With the ABA collapsing, the NBA had to find a way to get Erving, who had easily become known as the most exciting player in either league.
The NBA and Philadelphia 76ers
In order to get Erving, the NBA reluctantly absorbed the rest of the ABA too. The New York Nets, Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets, and San Antonio Spurs merged into the NBA, with the rest of the players going into a draft. The Nets would never get to show off their star player, though. Due to a salary dispute, the Nets were forced to sell Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers for three million dollars. Philadelphia easily became the most colorful team in the NBA, with Erving, George McGinnis, and Lloyd B. Free.
In the All-Star game during his first NBA season, Erving put on one of the most spectacular performances in NBA history. He executed his showy dunks over the best players in the league to score 30 points, grab 12 rebounds, and take 4 steals. Without a doubt, Erving had earned the MVP award. This success in a larger market also gave Erving the opportunity to make some more money. He became known for his numerous endorsements and also became one of the first NBA players to have their own shoe. Philadelphia made it to the NBA Finals, where they were dispatched by the greatest Portland Trailblazers team of all team, featuring hall of famer Bill Walton.
Philadelphia added the street-smart Bobby Jones and Maurice Cheeks to their lineup in 1978. Erving also continued his domination with 26.9 points a game and a nomination to the All-NBA First Team, where he would remain for a few years. They played second fiddle, though, to a Washington Bullets team featuring both Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes.
The Baseline Move
In 1980, Erving became one of only two active players (the other being Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) to be named to the NBA 35th Anniversary Team. The Sixers would also make it to the NBA championship, where they faced the Los Angeles Lakers. Although they would lose two in a row after splitting the first four games, Erving had created history. In game four, he performed his jaw-dropping “baseline move,” which is still widely regarded as the best shot ever made.
Erving began by driving past Mark Landsberger along the left baseline, teetering delicately inbounds. Once past, he jumped, with a considerable distance to the basket, for an easy lay up. This plan was foiled by Abdul-Jabbar and his incredible reach, which made a lay up impossible. Erving, who had already started to take the shot, brought the ball back down and just floated behind the backboard to the other side of the net. He somehow defied the laws of physics, moving slightly left in order to flip the ball up and into the basket on the opposite side that he had started on.
"Here I was, trying to win a championship, and my mouth just dropped open. He actually did that. I thought, 'What should we do? Should we take the ball out or should we ask him to do it again?'" – Magic Johnson.
Championship and Retirement
Despite missing another NBA title in 1981, the season proved to be Erving’s best. He averaged 24.6 points a game in addition to his 364 assists and 176 steals. It would not be until 1983 that Philadelphia would become a serious contender to the championship. The Sixers had acquired league MVP Moses Malone to compliment Erving’s firepower and Maurice Cheeks’ sleek defense. For the third time in four years, Philadelphia faced off against Los Angeles in the championship game. The game lacked drama, though, when Erving earned his first championship ring in a four-game sweep.
Erving continued to stun both players and fans alike until his retirement in 1987. Philadelphia’s 1986-1987 season became known across the country as the “Julius Erving Farewell Tour.” Fans from every city across the country flocked to stadiums to see Erving play his final games. Erving scored 30,000 points between his ABA and NBA appearances, one of the highest of all time, and was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.
Erving continued his involvement with basketball after his retirement, in addition to other projects. He served as an in-studio analyst for NBC for four years before becoming Executive Vice President of the Orlando Magic on June 4, 1997. Erving also owns a Coca-Cola bottling company in Philadelphia and cable companies in both New York and New Jersey.
Awards and Honors:
Three time ABA MVP
Four time ABA First-team All-Star
Two ABA Championships with New York Nets (1974, 1976)
Two time ABA scoring title (1973, 1974)
NBA MVP (1981)
NBA Championship with Philadelphia 76ers (1983)
Five time All-NBA First team
Eleven time NBA All-Star
Two time All-Star MVP (1977, 1983)
One of only three players to score over 30,000 lifetime points
Most career steals in NBA history upon retirement
NBA 35th Anniversary All-Time Team (1980)
NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time Team (1996)
Walter J. Kennedy Citizenship Award (1983)
Jackie Robinson Award presented by Ebony Magazine (1983)
American Express Man of the Year (1985)
Inducted into Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (1993)
Points per game: 24.2
Rebounds per game: 6.7
Blocked Shots: 1,293
Games played: 1,243