Every few years or so, there comes athletes across all sports that it’s pretty widely understood, no matter the era, that they could play due to their athleticism. They aren’t the ones who are more skill defined or maybe a causation of the era, they’re the ones who take over a room simply with their raw size and physique.
Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, you probably know most of the NBA’s version of this list off the top of your head. One name that has to be on this list as in many ways he helped trail blaze its very existence is Julius Erving.
The first man to dunk from the free throw line, the first man to truly weaponize flight, Dr. J was really the defining cultural player of the seventies. Although Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the best pro player at the time, he never shared the ability to captivate 20,000 people like the Doctor did.
In fairness to Kareem, few in sports history, let alone NBA history, even come close to the showman that was Julius Erving.
His high-flying theatrics paved the way for the Jordan and LeBron’s of the world to even exist. Before James had no regard for human life, Erving had hops that made it seem like he was trying to explore other worlds to find life beyond humanity.
What’s most ironic about Erving’s eventual widespread popularity is he was originally not well enough known to go to a major school and, his signing in the ABA wasn’t even seen as major news. He was just another talented black kid from New York City, by no means irrelevant but also far from the star his talents would soon create.
In fairness to pro scouts at the time, dunking was in fact banned at the college level (thanks to Kareem). Although Erving’s ability to take flight was useful on the glass and led him to two seasons of averaging over 20 rebounds a game at UMass, his offensive gifts were neutralized due to the era of anti-expression that had taken over basketball.
Simply put, with the inevitable racial undertones of the era, coaches (almost all white), preferred technical skill over athleticism and cringed at the “show boat” nature of dunks and flashy dribble moves. Then came along a league called the ABA that helped build a platform for Dr. J to usher in a much more familiar era of expression to today’s pro-basketball.
The ABA was an upstart competitor league to the NBA that launched in 1967. In order for it to gain mainstream success it needed some hooks to differentiate from its more established rival. From rules like allowing non-seniors to enter (the NBA required you to finish four years at this time in college), creating the three point shot and some other innovations, the ABA posed a fairly real threat (if you ignore the financial situations of basically all the teams).
One of the key thing’s commissioner George Mikan wanted to do was allow the players to be freer and more expressive. In many ways this league was one of the kick starters for the culture of the game we see today that is so player dominant over the team, system, organization etc. Mikan wanted to give the famous red, white and blue ball to the players and let them run.
Dr. J was the man who benefitted most.
By creating a freer style of play, this played directly into Erving’s game. Prior to the ABA, Erving was a New York City street ball legend, having dominated multiple star level players at parks across the city. His game was built for the flashiness of Rucker Park much more than the control of the Boston Garden.
So, when he signed with the Virginia Squires in 1971, those who knew the Doctor knew the show was coming. Instead of being a park and practice all-star, Erving would become a more traditional one now.
As a rookie he averaged 27 points per game and the next season after a contract dispute that almost led him to playing with Pete Maravich in the NBA, Erving would break the 30-point mark. Following that season, Erving was fed up with the suspect business operations of the Squires and was able to force a move to New York to play for the Nets.
In the next three season Erving would win two more MVPs, two league titles and firmly cement himself right with Kareem as the best player in the world. He may have not been in the best league, but his talent was undeniable. Fans across the country were infatuated with the Doctor’s game.
Erving’s athleticism basically looked like the people who wonder what it would look like if you put insert current all-star here in a time machine back to the seventies and see what happened. His freakish athleticism came from genetics and a ridiculous work ethic that saw him as a teen create a series of jumping drills that he did every day.
Erving was in a lot of ways the first modern NBA player.
Russell, Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson were all great in their own ways, but none came to define a more translatable style of play than Erving did. Those posterizing dunks you see on Twitter every night started in the seventies in the ABA with Dr. J.
It should come as no surprise that that style of play was a key determinant in the merger of the two leagues’ following the 76 season. The free-flowing style Mikan created had worked on the court. In the respective bank accounts of the owners not so much though, so they really only had one choice.
This lack of leverage led to the four teams that remained from the ABA paying over $3 million each to enter the NBA and the Erving’s Nets having to pay an additional $4.8 million to the Knicks for their territorial rights. Facing bankruptcy, the Nets sold Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers to save the team (the Knicks had the chance to get Erving but chose the money!).
Erving would continue his dominance in the NBA. Although he never broke 30 points per game again, his elite talent transferred over beautifully. What hampered him most in the NBA wasn’t actually his game, it was probably his personality.
If Erving is most famous for his high-flying ability, he’s almost equally as highly regarded as a person. His gentlemanly nature was a key factor for Erving becoming the first black player white families really fell in love with. The sixties players paved the road for more respect racially, but it was Erving who drove the truck that led to the iconic status Magic and Jordan would later benefit from.
By 1982 Erving was seen as an elite talent, great guy but not good enough to win a title in the “real” league. His 76ers had lost three times in the NBA finals and choked away multiple other close series, most notably versus Boston.
That season though, with the addition of Moses Malone, another player finally on his level (the Sixers struggled to add significant help prior to Malone), the Sixers would go 12-1 in the playoffs, quietly becoming one of the great teams ever.
Malone won the MVP, but it didn’t matter, Erving’s legacy was cemented. An MVP and now champion in both leagues (he was the only guy who did it), Erving firmly entrenched himself in basketball lore.
He was the first great player for the culture and by being able to also win, he helped create a future generation that still exists today. High flying forwards and wings across the league owe their games to Erving. Furthermore, as the first major ambassador of the league and player to receive an impactful shoe deal, the brands today’s stars love so much really started with the Doctor in the seventies.
Maybe it’s his uniquely nice disposition, maybe it’s the fact his prime was in another league or maybe it’s just the weird era of the 70’s he played in, but Erving is often lost in translation when people remember the game’s best.
As the first star to defy gravity and bring the street to the court, he deserves more mention with other all-time greats. If you love basketball for what it is now, there’s a man who deserves your appreciation and his name is Julius Erving.