[Writer Mark Ribowsky has interviewed many a sports legend for book projects and magazine profiles during his long and productive career. His writing never disappoints, and that’s the case with his profile of Julius Erving nearing the end of his pro basketball career. The article ran in the November 1986 issue of the magazine INSIDE SPORTS. Enjoy!]
The painting seems to crackle like lava, drawing all eyes to it as though with the intensity of its own heat. It is, more often than not, the first thing you notice upon entering the downtown Philadelphia sky-rise apartment that has been converted into the office suite of the Erving Group, inc. Looming large on the living room wall, two imposing brown figures rise before you, swathed in native vestments. Most riveting is the bearing of the Africans. Erect, proud, and unsmiling, their eyes stare—burn—in determination.
The artwork, Julius Erving tells you, recalls a marketplace in 17th century West Africa. Erving likes to speak of the painting and its hold on him, and when he does, his brown eyes become lost in a journey somewhere inside the canvas. You realize it is no accident that visitors to his office—and they come in a steady stream to pay homage and seek deals—must contemplate the painting as they sit on the modular sofa directly under its gaze. It tells visitors something about the master of this office.
“There is a pride in those people in that picture,” Erving points out. “Those guys are merchants. The garb they’re wearing is also what they’re carrying to sell. They’re takin’ care of business, they’re working, they’re not goofing off. It’s a strong statement, and it’s the kind of thing that goes on today in Africa. I’m into that—continuous civilizations, linkage with the past, lessons to be learned. I strongly identify with my ancestry. That’s me up there. I’m living out those guys’ legacy.”
Erving shows not the slightest trace of self-consciousness when he says this. His vocal cords, trained like an elite military unit, vibrate in slow, deep tones steeped in sincerity. After 15 years of living in the public spotlight, Erving has worked overtime carving a public perception that repels, like a bug lamp, shallowness, indignity, fools, and boors. Sometimes, it can seem as though everything Erving says is suitable for parchment. This is, one suspects, by design. Erving’s integrity, and his message for outsiders, tolls like a bell. Look for a fast buck to be made off him, a cheap or cynical proposition with no enduring value or social enrichment, and you can forget it. Immediately.
Erving has probably concluded, with reason, that he couldn’t get away with embracing cheap values even if he wanted to, so there’s no use trying. The integrity flowing in his bloodlines has turned into an obsession, a duty owed to the proud Africans and to future Ervings. He often speaks in transitional terms (e.g., “I’m always thinking three generations ahead and how what I do will affect them, their self-esteem”), of predestiny, of the grand scale of things. “Things don’t happen by accident,” he says. “They happen with planning. So, I try to find out what the plan is.” Even his basketball majesty, Erving says, has simply been a case of an “ordinary” man elevated by a higher calling: “My parents didn’t set out to produce a Dr. J., and I didn’t sit down and make it my plan to be that. It’s God’s plan, not mine.”
This season, Erving’s 16th as a pro, was to have been the closing of the circle that is basketball. The 36-year-old Erving—who has played with one-year Philadelphia 76ers contracts the last two years, his ninth and 10thwith the club, expressly so that he wouldn’t be tied down when he saw the end was at hand—made no retirement announcement, but in typical Erving fashion gave the go-ahead for mass NBA farewell rites.
“I can envision my cycle being complete after one more year,” is how he puts it.
Ah, but life patterns can be tricky little devils. Erving, ready to neatly file away the game he transformed into his routinely spectacular image, started seeing messy edges, discordant notes in the songs of the heavens. After last season ended—unhappily, but still appropriately in his hands as he missed a last-second jump shot that would have beaten Milwaukee in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals—Erving waited for 76ers owner, Harold Katz, to renew his star athlete’s $1.5 million contract for the final season. Not only didn’t Katz do it right away, he went on to tear the club asunder as if it were a dust rag, trading Moses Malone, changing assistant coaches, losing his general manager, and stockpiling so many forwards that Erving didn’t know where or how he would fit in with the new Sixers.
This created an ambivalence for the Doctor. On the one hand, he believed he almost certainly would re-up with the 76ers once Katz finished dealing and knew what was left in his wallet for Erving and fellow free agents Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney. On the other, there was the distastefulness of it all. Here sat Julius Winfield Erving II—legend, a man who had given his pride, integrity, and thousand of hours to the game—wondering what he had possibly done to deserve being treated as a rank commoner. And was it a sign that his career wasn’t meant to end yet, in a city like Philadelphia?
Regretfully, Erving had to play Katz’s game. He went on national TV at draft time and charged the team with “mismanagement.” And items began appearing in the papers, apparently planted by his agent, that Erving might go elsewhere. Katz’s response was that he just might let it happen. Not until Erving was offered a two-year, $3.5 million contract by the Utah Jazz did Katz succumb to the pressure and agree to re-sign his most recognizable star.
Most troubling to Erving, though, was the dissection of his 76ers, the team he labored to lift up even when his surrounding casts were dragging down his game and his reputation. Erving fought for them, and proved his greatness through 10 straight playoff seasons. Finally, as team captain, lone survivor of a decade ago, and symbol of Sixer continuity, he found himself an elder statesman presiding over an unrecognizable state
Erving preferred not to spend his last campaign in mediocrity. The problem was, he was as much in the dark about the Sixers as everyone else. He was high on Roy Hinson (acquired for the No. 1 draft pick the Sixers owned), skeptical of Jeff Ruland (who came with Cliff Robinson for Malone), terrified of losing Cheeks. And adamant about Malone. “Our team is not better without Moses,” he says. “Moses is one of the all-time greatest centers to play in this league, and will continue to be.”
Erving may be wrong about the loss of Malone’s increasingly creaky game, but it is understandable that he takes pride in last year’s club. The Sixers were a lumbering, aging team living on old habits and little inspiration. Because of injuries, Erving was asked, and consented, to move to the backcourt. Matt Goukas, the rookie coach, described the team’s play as “chaotic.” Yet, the Sixers won 54 games and, without Malone, expired stubbornly in the playoffs.
Early last season, when the 76ers were an inept 12-12, many were ready to embalm Erving. Sadly, people came to pity, not praise, Dr. J. “Everybody wanted to retire me,” Erving noticed. A Philadelphia Daily Newsheadline from that period still lives in Erving’s mind: ERVING’S DECLINE LEAVES LEADERSHIP VOID.
The Sixers then won 18 of 20—with Erving excelling in a strange new position that required him to shoot less, handle the ball infrequently, rebound little, yet make a Dr. J. impact. Which he did. Erving averaged 18.1 points a game, was the third-best Sixer rebounder, second in blocked shots, third in steals. The attention paid him was a tipoff that the league hadn’t buried him.
“I command a certain amount of respect,” Erving explains. “A team is always aware of where I am, which can open up things for other guys. I can go to more than half the teams in the league and score 20 points a night, if that’s what they wanted.”
Erving may even have surprised himself, which might really be why he’s ambivalent about retirement now. “I felt I made a huge sacrifice for the good of the team,” he says. “I gave up my position, which I played 14 years, and I don’t feel it was appreciated. It was a definitely incorrect statement I read in the middle of the season that I couldn’t play frontcourt anymore, and that I was “accommodated” being put in the backcourt. That pissed me off a little bit. Especially when Matty wouldn’t take a step to correct it.”
Now, on this June day, it seems as though dark, bothersome thoughts Erving has kept hidden are reaching for daylight.
“Do you know that the 76ers have never retired a player because a guy said, ‘I want to retire.’” he says, his words and tone noticeably lacking formal speech. “Every guy who’s ever ended his career here, his contract ran out, he’s been traded, benched, or he’s been hurt. You’re talking lack of tradition with this organization. Bobby Jones came the closest, and he was just kind of quiet about it. He ended saying, ‘This is my last year.’ Not one guy—and they have had some great players here. Hal Greer sat on the bench pissed off this whole last year and was forced to quit. Let me tell you, the Knicks treat retiring guys right. Boston’s retired guys. L.A.’s retired guys—I mean, through the front door. Well, that’s how I’m committed to going out. Through the front door.”
Erving, at 6-foot-6, 210 pounds, with sequoia-long arms and nuclear fission in his legs, merged a small man’s dynamics with a big man’s anatomy, and conversely, made a big man’s functions accessible to the little men. His best years were lost to a rummy league, he never won an NBA scoring or rebounding title, and never was at ease with a jump shot, yet he had far more effect than Cousy, Robertson, or even Russell. They wrote the gospel for their positions. Erving did more than define small forward; he made any player think he could be Superman. Basketball stopped being specialized when, because of Dr. J., everyone started to run, soar, slam, fancy-dribble, and rebound. It was, of course, Erving’s array of steaming slam dunks, executed after space-climbing leaps seemingly from as far away as the midcourt line, that gave birth to the jam as an art form.
“In terms of pioneering, innovation, entertaining, exciting, and winning, I think you’d have to put me up there with any player who’s ever played the game,” the Doctor says. “I know some people will only look at my NBA years and pretend those other five didn’t exist. They probably will never give me my due. But I look at it as 15 continuous years of pretty good service.”
Erving giggles. “You know, people have always said I’m not a good shooter. But in the last few minutes of the game, I shoot the ball as well as anybody in the league. But standing there shooting outside shots is really boring for me, especially if I know I can go around you and slam-dunk. The more you can do, the less they can do about stopping you.” Another giggle. “You don’t score 30,000 points [33,510 all told, including playoffs] by not being able to shoot.”
One thing you should remember about Erving is that his moves are almost always in response to an opening, not merely a burst of virtuosity. After a game last year against Sacramento, Terry Tyler, the Kings’ small forward, remarked that no one in the league took the game from the backboard to the backboard like the Doc.
Even when Erving, whose defiance of gravity came along as though by mutation, does improvise—such as his etched-into-eternity shot against the Lakers in the 1983 title round, when he took off for a jam, found the path blocked, and changed direction completely in mid-air, twisting, curling, jack-knifing his body under the rim and launching a reverse layup high off the glass and in—he gives off more light than heat. Little wasted or uncontrolled movement, no loose edges, no confusion in panic.
“Every shot I take, I’ve taken before,” he says with a nonchalance allowed him. “They’re all filed away in my mind somewhere, to the point that I take them—and make them—by instinct.”
So it seems. And therein lies the paradox of Erving’s game. For a man who does so much, he rarely appears out of control, or even working up a sweat.
“People like to say the great ones make it look easy. That’s not right,” he says. “They make the difficult look easy. If you only make the simple things look easy, then you’re working too hard. Bernard King is like that, because he makes the difficult things look difficult. I can’t put him up there with myself and the other greats. He’s too intense—it’s like he’s programmed, on some kind of mission. I don’t look at that as greatness. That’s obsession. Larry Bird comes close to that, too, but he makes difficult things—real difficult things—look easy, too.
Dr. J., the grand master of cool heat, has periodically had to convince people he’s got fire in his belly to match the kind in his limbs. “In a way,” Bobby Jones said last year, “it’s all a business for him. That’s how he sees the game, which is why he sees it so clearly, unemotionally.”
The Doctor has aged with the grace of a fine Bordeaux. As a young pup, his wild Afro—round and high as the Taj Mahal—symbolized his dance of joyful defiance. Now, gray speckles his fashionably short hair. Rose-tinted shades are at the ready, and French cuffs fill his shirt drawer.
Because Erving has thought about conflicts of conscience, he will meet you on any ground you choose to press him on. His involvement with Coca-Cola, for example. Two years ago, he became a major stockholder in the Coca-Cola bottling company of New York—he’s endorsed the drink for many years—but Erving sold his million-dollar interest early this year to become co-owner of Coca-Cola a Philadelphia, the 15th largest bottler in the country and, with 650 employees, the biggest minority employer in the city. Erving stands as a monument to Black pride, to be sure.
Yet there is also the disturbing fact that Coca-Cola has huge investments in and dealings with South Africa. How can he square that? Erving is ready when the question comes. Thanks to the Black people of Coca-Cola, such as Julius Erving, he says, the company has established a $10 million fund for the Black economy in South Africa. “No other companies are doing that,” he boasts.
While hearing him out, something sticks in the mind of his guest. In a recent issue of INSIDE SPORTS, Erving’s old teammate, World B. Free, spoke of how George McGinnis would freely come into the ghetto. And Erving? “Well, Doc is Doc,” said Free, damning with faint praise the portrait of the too-perfect hero. Such sentiment may mean that—for all of Erving’s right-sounding verbiage—some don’t see him as real.
Again, Erving does not bristle. And his self-defense is so pointed as to draw blood. “I’m aware of being a representative of the Black community,” he says. “I open doors, but I don’t open them to fall back through them. I open them to bring Black people through them.” If you don’t see Dr. J. in the ghetto, he seems to be saying, it’s because that kind pandering condescension—as he sees it—is not as meaningful as the beacon of success and hope that he embodies.
Erving can believe that, because he has stayed on wonderful terms with his humanity. Nowhere in sports is there a more accessible interview, and the warmth he projects is real and immense. His likability rating, Madison Avenue’s way of gauging commercial spokesmen, always goes through the roof, which Erving is proud of. “I refuse to be a casualty of fame,” he says. “People can be a pain, but once you get past the autographs and stuff, you know, let’s coexist. Because I’m not looking for anything from you, so don’t look for anything from me other than intangibles. If you’re inspired by me, then be inspired.”
Erving takes his soul seriously, and this has sparked a thirst for truth and fact. His perspective, he says, is that of a “universalist,” and for man whose money is made in America, he is caustic in his opinion of this country’s tastes and intellectual limits.
“We tend to feel we’ve seen and done it all and can’t learn from other cultures,” he says. “That’s just arrogance. We’re only babies as a nation. We’re only scratching the surface. All our architecture is copied or imported. Why stay limited? Go and read, travel, see with your eyes and mind. Doing that has helped my outlook on life, my humility.”
Erving remembers South Africa’s Bishop Tutu telling him how much Black American athletes have meant to him and other Black Africans. “I mean, he freaked me out,” says Erving, his eyes widening. “I never knew Africa was watching us. But young African children, Chinese children, Jewish children, they’re watching us, and it’s opening their eyes. They send me letters, touching letters. The American kids write , “I like to watch you dunk.”
By going international—there is an Erving Group operative in Ghana—Erving hopes to find clues in his never-ending search for linkage in civilization, and apply it to his religious beliefs. In fact, Erving’s secular education—he earned a B.A. in learning and management from the University of Massachusetts last spring—is a branch of the spiritual. Erving dubs his method of learning the FAT theory: Stay Faithful and Available, and you’ll be Teachable.”
As far as Erving knows—and he plans to ask no less than Alex Haley to help him confirm it—he is a descendant of great tribal warriors, even kings, in West Africa. What he knows for sure is that his American roots trace back to 1837, when the marriage of his paternal great-great grandfather with a woman named Williams produced the offspring that formed his branch of the Erving clan.
Erving knew none of this as a troubled child in Hempstead, New York. Just three years old when his father walked out on his mother, brother, and sister, Erving, out of a large void, found basketball on a Salvation Army team of children from broken families. Then, after his mother remarried when he was 13, his brother Marvin died from lupus disease. For Erving, it meant a conscious distancing from his bruised emotions. “I don’t think there is anything that can make me cry,” he says today.
Erving’s Roosevelt High School coach, Ray Wilson, recalls: “He never wanted to be spectacular in games, and I didn’t want him to because I don’t think a kid learns the game that way. Julius’ philosophy was: ‘Do just enough, do what it takes, and do what the coach tells you.’”