Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Up, up, and Away with Dr. J, Julius Erving

Slammin' Sam on Sports Media

Before there was Jordan, there was Julius. Julius Erving picked up the nickname “Doctor” not from his ability to surgically knife through defenses on the hardwood, but from the everyday conversations that mark adolescent dreams. His friend would be a professor, Erving would be a doctor. Years later, that label fits better in the figurative sense, as plenty of opponents still bear scars from his incisions.

Account after account in Vincent Mallozzi’s book proves Erving to be the classiest of performers. A showman without being gaudy. In the midst of an exodus from the ABA to the NBA, Dr. J told veteran beat writer Dave Anderson that he had no doubt that he could make the transition between leagues. He didn’t need to provide reasons, a simple yes sufficed.

Having landed on the radar of public consciousness for the first time in the NBA (its counterpart was often brushed aside as a wild, no holds-barred collection of freewheeling talent), “[Erving] was a bridge between the early high fliers like Elgin Baylor and Connie Hawkins [and] today’s star trekker, Michael Jordan,” New York Times columnist Harvey Araton wrote. (Doc, xv)

Read “Doc: The Rise and Rise of Julius Erving” because:
1. You will see how this comet took flight. Little did the public know about the launches taking place behind closed doors.

“Julius pulled off some of the greatest dunks anyone has ever seen,” one of Dr. J’s college teammates said. “The only problem was that he was doing all that dunking in practice [because of the NCAA’s prohibition of dunks at the time]. Added another teammate, “From a standstill position, he would just explode toward the rim, like a rocket, and dunk one ball after the other through the basket. All the guys would kind of freeze for a second and stare,” another teammate recalled. (35)

2. The book allows a reader to discover what made Erving an innovator.
Some of it was a God-given spurt at the right time. Erving shot up inch after inch, just as quickly as his dunks after he turned 18. Before his late growth, Erving honed the skillful attributes of a little man. He handled the ball, he passed well, and he could shoot. He resembled Magic Johnson before Magic. (43-44). Later, his length complimented his game.

As he told The New York Times, “Mentally your head has to be in a place where you don’t place limitations on yourself. You never say I can’t make that steal or I can’t shoot a three-pointer. You never deal with the negatives. Over the long haul, that’s the way good players are made.” (90)

3. Mallozzi’s anecdotes evoke sheer awe about this flying machine.
Today, commentators sometimes offer praise for a player who plays within himself, a player who plays under control. Those words would never do for Dr. J. Erving shook off restraints and, in doing so, he opened up the game and the possibility for today’s free-stylers. With Erving, you never knew what you were going to see next. You just knew that you better not blink. That’s why, as teammate Darryl Dawkins recalled, “We had people coming an hour before the game just to see what he was going to do on the layup line.” (140)

No wonder LeBron’s recent comments about changing his jersey No. from 23 to 6 prompted several questions and spirited discussions. Yes, Michael Jordan shattered any ready-made molds in basketball, but No. 6 Julius Erving? Well, you couldn’t pin him down long enough to make a copy.

Sam Miller/Free Keon

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