In an era before extensive news coverage, cellular phones, internet and social media being about 45 years premature, few people knew of him. As the story goes, unless you saw it, you missed it.
The stories of Roosevelt, New York’s Julius Erving were legendary. From his time as a young prodigy at Long Island’s Roosevelt High School to his dazzling displays at Harlem’s most famous blacktop, Rucker Park, Erving was doing things that had never been seen before.
Effortless reverse jams, gravity-defying glides through the air, and dunking on New York Knick Tom Hoover so hard that his teeth were left on the ground, were all things that made you believe that he was going to be a star one day.
The Doctor was born.
Playing in the freewheeling ABA after his great college career at the University of Massachusetts, Erving would wow crowds with his athletic exploits that were more than welcomed in a league that emphasized dazzling play.
Sporting a meticulously groomed afro that seemed to wave in the air as he walked on air, Dr. J was the prime example of “cool.” He was the face of an upstart league — being paid what at the time was a handsome sum of $125,000 for four years while playing for the Virginia Squires.
After two years in Virginia, though, Erving would go back home, sold to the New York Nets.
9,300 fans at Long Island’s Nassau Memorial Coliseum filled in to see their homegrown hero debut in October of 1973. In his first season, he would bring New York a title while winning the MVP and leading the league in scoring.
Perhaps the biggest thing that would put basketball’s preeminent star on the map, though, was the ABA All Star Dunk Contest in 1976. It was there that the Doctor did the unthinkable, dunking the ball from the free throw line – something that had never been seen before.
With the league fledgling and struggling to make money in 1976, being shrunk to seven teams, they would merge with their big brother league, the NBA. People knew Erving was great in the ABA, but they wanted to see what he could do in the NBA.
At the time, the NBA was struggling itself. It was a league embedded with drug issues, finding difficulty in dealing with conclusion of the Boston Celtics–Los Angeles Lakers rivalry that had ruled the previous decade. It had been lacking star power and a player that would engage the public once again and get them interested in NBA basketball.
Fortunately, Dr. J was there to save them.
He wasted no time getting to work, leading a star studded Philadelphia 76ers team – whom he was sold to at the merger, a team that included Doug Collins, World B. Free, George McGinnis and Darryl Dawkins – to the NBA Finals to face the Portland Trail Blazers.
In the series, he averaged 30 points, seven rebounds, five assists, three steals, and a block per game, including 40 in the game 6 loss. He indeed proved he was for real.
His NBA legend took off.
He became the NBA’s singular ambassador, the face of the league, its official player spokesman and also its lead endorser.
He got back to the Finals with Philadelphia in 1980 – pairing with the great Moses Malone, another former ABA star – but lost to the Lakers in six games as a 20-year-old rookie named Magic Johnson put together a virtuoso performance in the clinching game.
He would get his title though in 1983, defeating the Lakers. He retired following the 1987 season, with, if you add up his ABA and NBA stats, over 30,000 career points.
He brought flash and style before they existed in pro basketball. He was the original sky walker and poster maker. He was the first true face of the game, its brightest star.
And it’s safe to say that the star power of Michael “Air” Jordan, “The Black Mamba” Kobe Bryant and the “King” Lebron James would not exist if it weren’t for one man.