[One of Sport Magazine’s most-memorable covers ever was this gem from March 1975, featuring the New York Nets’ Julius Erving wearing scrubs. So classic it was, the issue’s two excellent articles about the Doctor and the fate of the ABA sometimes get glossed over. This weekend, we’ll reprise both articles, starting with this quirky, but wonderful, piece by the legendary Jimmy Breslin titled, “A Day with the Doctor.”]
Kids running through the grey winter day, grammar school kids mostly, parkas open from the ride in the station wagon, running through the cold parking lot to the Nassau Coliseum, where Julius Erving was going to play basketball. The kids, father or uncles dogtrotting after them, were from places like Huntington and Rockville Center and Garden City, from White America. If it were not for the kids, the crowd coming to see Julius Erving—Doctor J—would have been less than the 8,532 who did come. Adults on Long Island go to the Coliseum to see the hockey team, the Islanders. Most of the people on Long Island were raised in the boroughs of New York City, raised on basketball, but now that they live on Long Island, they sell out the hockey games—crowds of 13,000 are common.
I asked a man named Arnold from Brownsville about this one day. Arnold now lives in a raised ranch house in Westbury, on Long Island, but he comes from Brownsville, which is in Brooklyn. He is very proud of old Brownsville. The Jewish and Italian gangsters used to lock a guy in his car and set it afire and then everybody would watch from the windows while the guy in the car went up in flames. Salem on wheels. Then four blacks moved into Brownsville, and one of the blacks went out and wrapped an arm around somebody’s neck. All of Brownsville fled to Long Island, to get away from the crime.
Arnold from Brownsville was brought up on basketball at Thomas Jefferson High School, and his friends were basketball players, names out of the ‘40s like Max Zaslofsky and Sid Tannenbaum. He never saw a hockey game in his life until he faced a choice of buying season tickets for the New York Nets basketball team, starring Julius Erving, or the Islanders hockey team, starring a whole set of guys who bounce off boards and fall down. Arnold, of course, bought the hockey tickets.
“It’s a terrific good game,” Arnold from Brownsville told me.
“Because when you go to the game, you see 12 white faces. I go to see basketball, I see 10 black guys.”
Julius Erving was born, raised, and taught to play basketball on Long Island, in Hempstead, which is only three miles from the Nassau Coliseum. But Hempstead is different from the rest of Long Island. I still remember the middle of a summer morning in a place in Hempstead, a big barn of a place, it was called the Big Apple, and two guys at the bar started a hell of a fight. One of them had on a beautiful long-sleeved white shirt. When he was stabbed, the shirt became crimson all at once. I watched it happen over my shoulder while I was leaving the place on the run. The high school, Hempstead High School, is an attraction on Long Island. The next town to Hempstead is Garden City. A group of students from Garden City High School organized a field trip to Hempstead High School so they could meet and touch blacks. Just as they organize field trips to the Museum of Natural History so they can see things about Ice Men.
Inside, the half-filled Coliseum on this Sunday afternoon, the Nets were playing the Utah Stars. The Nets came onto the floor in varied stages of numbness. They had played a wild game in Indianapolis the night before, winning their tenth straight, and they had to be up at 6 a.m. for the flight to New York. Now, at 2:30 in the afternoon, they were on the floor against Utah, which had rested for four days.
Somebody had a stuck a finger into Doctor J.’s left eye in the Indiana game of the night before and now the eye was filled with blood. The first time he got the ball with any room around him, he was deep in the corner. He hit with a soft shot, so soft it surprised you see the net jump. The man guarding Erving, Gerald Govan, shook his head. The next time Doctor J. came downcourt, Govan put a hand on Doctor J’s chest and tried to keep it there. As the other Utah players moved around, switching and following a Net, they made a point of brushing, bumping, jarring Doctor J. I watched the face. He showed nothing. No anger. Not even a little irritation. Always, his eyes were taking in the whole court, letting him see the whole game. Let the others bump and shove and push. He was busy looking. When he got the ball this time, he made one move. Govan going with it, the attention of two other Utah players being drawn to the move. With a minimum of motion, a pass came off these great fingertips. The ball went to John Williamson, for an easy basket. Utah brough the ball downcourt and Doctor J. was on one man, then switched and forced a big white kid—Jim Eakins—to travel with the ball.
Moses Malone played for Utah. He should be a college freshman, and he is a starter in a pro league. Moses does not even give people the courtesy of being nervous. He was running—he has to be the fastest big man alive—and eagerly snapping for the ball right from the whistle. And now, they worked the ball in and threw it at Moses, who left the man guarding him, Paultz of the Nets, and was alone. Moses took the pass, wheeled, and went up, two hands high up, way high up, ready to stuff the ball down with a great flourish. And here came the Doctor sliding along the base line and then going up, going way up, way up. Forget about it. Just as Moses Malone was going to stuff the ball, Doctor J.’s right hand came up. The fingers were spread so much that the hand was spread wider than a tennis racket. Doctor J. swatted the ball out of Moses Malone’s hands. Later on, the Doctor was on defense again, head going from side to side, hands up and out, watching, watching, moving, moving, the hands always out there, and then one hand went out further, quickly, slapping, snatching at a pass. The ball bounced down in front of Doctor J. and now it was all his. He was going with huge strides and he came under the basket and then stuffed the ball back over his head—two hands going right back over his head and down into the basket.
There was this nice young noise in the half-empty Coliseum. The noise coming from the kids. This was a play for Madison Square Garden in Manhattan or the Forum in Los Angeles. There should have been 20,000 people caught up with the game and exploding when Doctor J. gave it his big flourish. There should have been wise guys screaming and leaping out of the seats and waving their fists. And playwrights wanting to invite him to dinner parties and women wanting to go home with him and advertising executives promising major clients that if they are very good, and cause no trouble, they will someday be allowed to personally meet Dr. J. He belongs with the great sports crowds because he is, Julius Erving, the best basketball player alive at any time. He belongs in a city, belongs to the ages of sports. And here he was getting a half-cheer in White America.
Doctor J. was tired and the bloody eye bothered him and he was off his game. He scored only 24 points and near the end missed a couple of jump shots that would have won the game. No matter, you could see what he was. Utah finally won, 83-77. But there were these moments when Doctor J. exploded, going up so high and his body bending and swaying so spectacularly, that he made you forget the world for an instant. And then there would be this half cheer, and the footsteps of the players echoing in the empty corners of the arena, and the feeling would be utter desolation.
In the dressing room after the game, the Doctor sat on a stool with a can of beer, talking pleasantly, and in connected sentences.
“When was the first time you had a car in the family?” he was asked.
“When I was in college, I bought a car with my sister for $100. We used it until it just died. Then my uncle gave us a car, an old beat-up car. We used that, but you couldn’t take long trips with it.”
“But no car when you were growing up in Hempstead?”
“I walked everywhere. I walked to all the schools, it was over a mile to high school and I used to walk back and forth a few times every day. Use the legs.”
“What did your parents do?”
“My mother and father were separated. I lived with my mother. She was a domestic.”
“Are kids from nice neighborhoods ever going to be able to play this game anymore?”
“You’ve got to want it so much, I don’t know how they’re going to do it.”
Julius Erving lived in a mean four-story project in Hempstead. A place called Campbell Park was alongside the project. Erving, at age 10, was so good that a man who ran the park, Andy Haggerty, told a friend of his, Don Ryan, in the Hempstead Salvation Army community program. The Salvation Army team had uniforms and played organized games. When Don Ryan asked Erving if he wanted to wear a uniform and play basketball, Erving’s eyes brightened. The team was for boys from 10 to 12 years old. Erving showed up with a boy named Archie Rogers, who grew up to get in trouble doing stickups. Julius never had a day’s trouble. “The mother is the reason,” Ryan tells people “She washed floors and the kid copied her. He was out delivering morning newspapers at 4 a.m. every day. He got it all from her.” Ryan is a high school teacher and he still coaches the same age group, 10-12, for the Salvation Army. He does not bother to talk about himself. Mostly, he is worried that if you mention Archie Rogers’ name, it will make people think that there is no hope for kids from Hempstead unless they are great players and have a great mother like Julius Erving. In this he is wrong, for always there is hope as long as a Don Ryan is in sports. When they write stories about athletes and sports, they should forget about business agents and general managers and great coaches, and they should write about the people who do the real things, people like Don Ryan.
If Ryan does not talk about himself, Julius Erving, sitting in the Nets’ dressing room, does.
“He was very helpful to me in my view of life,” he was saying. “You see, I grew up never knowing I was on the other side of the tracks. Then when I started to look around me and see the way other people were living, I said to Don Ryan, ’What do I have to do to get like them?’ And he told me, “You have to perform in school the same as you do on the basketball court.’ Unfortunately, a lot of people I played with, excellent ballplayers, just couldn’t do it. I did. You know, I went to the University of Massachusetts. They are very selective about who they let in there. That is no jocks’ school.”
He took a shower and dressed carefully in orange slacks and an orange turtleneck pullover. He took a long time fixing the turtleneck so it would be just the way he wanted it. A man who spends hours practicing jump shots out of the corner does not just throw clothes over his head and walk out of a place. He carefully fastened a gold bracelet on his right wrist.
The trainer gave him a black patch to cover the bloody left eye and give it a rest for a night. Erving stood in front of the mirror adjusting the patch. He liked the way it looked on him. He fitted square dark glasses over the eyepatch. He looked at himself some more. Damn good.
“Where did you get the name from?” he was asked. Clearly, Doctor J. is the finest name in sports in modern times.
“In high school, one fellow called himself the Professor and I called myself the Doctor. Then when I was playing in Virginia, Willie Sojourner helped me make it into ‘Doctor J.’”
Now the chin came out in pride. “Do you know, some people don’t even call me Julius Erving anymore. They just call me Doctor J.”
Oh, you could see he had it all put together. The playing and the other thing, the thing that makes a star.
He put on a light tan fingertip coat, tied the belt, and walked out into the runway off the dressing room. His wife, Turquoise, slipped a hand inside the arm. There was squealing over Doctor J.’s head. The young kids from White America had waited in the empty stands and now they were holding scorecards down for him to sign. At the end of the runway, the special police had set up barricades to keep another group of kids from rushing Doctor J. One kid in a red zipper jacket was standing in the runway and Doctor J. put a hand out and shook the kid’s hand. The kid’s eyes gleamed as he saw the gold bracelet on Doctor J.’s wrist.
“And this ,” Doctor J. said to the kid, “is my wife Turquoise.”
Like I told you, the man has it all.
The kid shook hands with Doctor J.’s wife and then he ran to the others at the end of the runway to tell them about Dr. J.’s bracelet. And Doctor J. and his wife walked out of the runway, to the door to the parking lot, and all the grammar-school kids from White America, who are so much smarter than their parents, craned their necks to watch the biggest star of them all walk away.