Julius Erving ascended to rarified air in the 1970s as a high-flying superstar of the upstart American Basketball League, then the NBA, as he defined the small forward position and went on to become an archetype of style and class for the sport. Nicknamed "Dr. J," Erving filled up score sheets as a lithe, 6'6" forward for the University of Massachusetts before leaving school in 1971 to join the ABA's Virginia Squires. His dynamic aerial drives to the bucket began garnering real attention in 1973 when he was traded to the ABA's major market jewel, the New York Nets. Becoming a rare breakthrough star in a sport with marginal mainstream appeal at the time, he led the Nets to two titles and garnered three scoring titles and MVP Awards. With the 1976 ABA/NBA, he moved to the Philadelphia 76ers, whom he made a perennial NBA power, but the team came up short in epic battles with rivals the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. Erving finally helped bring the NBA title to Philly in the 1982-83 season, but, with the aging team's fortunes declining, the Doctor retired in 1987, having scored over 30,026 points in his pro career, a feat achieved by only four other players. One of those rare talents who periodically alters how a sport is played, Erving leapt well outside the fundamentals to bring spontaneous, balletic artistry to the game and presage later talents such as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
Julius Winfield Erving II was born on Feb. 22, 1950 in Hempstead, Long Island, NY, to Julius and Callie Mae Erving. After his father left the family three years later, Callie Mae supported her children doing domestic work. Developing extraordinary athletic talents, Julius was playing basketball at a very young age in a local kiddie league with a Salvation Army team and dreaming his skills might prove a ticket to a better life for his family. When he was 13, Callie Mae remarried and the family moved to nearby Roosevelt. Attending Roosevelt High School, Julius excelled in his studies and, as he grew, he became an imposing scorer and rebounder for Roosevelt's basketball team. A buddy he had nicknamed "the Professor" began calling Julius, in turn, "the Doctor," and that in various iterations - "Dr. Julius," then "Dr. J" - would become his on-court moniker, bespeaking his surgical dissection of opposing defenses. Upon graduating Roosevelt in 1968, Erving matriculated at the University of Massachusetts. He went on to lead UMass to two consecutive Yankee Conference titles and averaged 25.7 points and an astounding 20 rebounds a game as a sophomore and, the next season, 26.9 ppg and 19.5 rpg.
Erving bucked convention of the time and left school early to turn pro. While the better-established pro league, the National Basketball Association, by policy refused to draft players until four years past their high school graduation, Erving found interest in the four-year-old ABA. He signed a four-year $500,000 contract with the Virginia Squires franchise in Norfolk. Erving continued to fill up box-scores with 27.3 points and 15.7 rebounds a game in the 1971-72 season and took the Squires into the playoffs. He revolutionized the forward position, showcasing deft outside shooting combined with a singular talent for driving to the basket, altering his shot in mid-air to avoid defenders, and capping his moves with graceful finger-rolls or ferocious tomahawk dunks. Few saw him, though, as he labored in a small market in a league with no national television presence. In the off-season, he signed with a new agent in hopes of raising his profile and inked a $2 million-plus contract with the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, but legal actions by the Squires and the Milwaukee Bucks - the NBA team that had since drafted him - scuttled the deal.
Pending settlements, he suited up again for the Squires and upped his points-per-game to a league-best 31.9 in the 1972-73 season. In the off-season, per an arbitrated deal, Erving was shipped to the ABA's New York Nets, whose home arena was the Nassau Coliseum, not far from where he grew up. The Nets signed him to a $2.8 million, eight-year contract. Erving's public profile rose along with the Nets' fortunes, and he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated for the first time in January 1974. Featuring All-Star talents in guards Brian Taylor and John Williamson and power-forward Larry Kenon, the team coalesced around Erving and stormed to its first ABA title that spring. At the end of the 1974-75 season, the ABA named him co-MVP along with that year's scoring champ, Indiana Pacers forward George McGinnis, but the Nets foundered in the playoffs. In 1975, the struggling ABA struck a merger deal with the NBA. In the final ABA campaign, the Nets proved nigh-unstoppable behind another Erving MVP performance and scoring title (29.3 ppg) and advanced to the ABA Finals against the Denver Nuggets.
In what hoop aficionados would dub one of the most exciting basketball championships in history, Erving exploded for 45 and 48 points in the first two games, and he went on to average 38 in defeating the Nuggets in six games. A national audience finally saw Erving play as ABC's Wide World of Sports broadcast Game 4. In the off-season, the ABA's top four franchises, the Nets, Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers, joined the NBA, but as the 1976-77 season approached, the financially strapped Nets sold Erving's contract to the Philadelphia 76ers for $3 million. Joining a team heavy on firepower, including his former ABA rival McGinnis and gunner guards Lloyd Free and Doug Collins, Erving deferred some offense to his teammates and saw his scoring average dip substantially to 21.6 ppg. But he dazzled audiences at the 1977 NBA All-Star Game with a 30-point, 12-rebound performance, good enough to take the game's MVP award. Still, while the Sixers' sheer talent powered them into the 1977 NBA Finals, they had yet to coalesce.
After taking the first two games from Portland, the Sixers collapsed, losing the next four to the Bill Walton-led Trailblazers. Erving appeared in a ramp-up ad for the Sixers' season the next fall, telling Philly fans, "We owe you one," but after losing in the Eastern Conference Finals, management overhauled the team by trading McGinnis and Free and bringing in Sixer veteran Billy Cunningham to coach. Though NBA stars carried little pop-cultural élan in that era, Erving proved an exception. He endorsed Spalding basketballs, donned "Dr. J" shoes for Converse and, somewhat infamously, appeared in TV ads encouraging kids to now call him "Dr. Chapstick." More curiously, in 1979, Erving took the starring role in "The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh," a cinematic menagerie suffused with disco and fellow NBA stars. Erving played Moses Guthrie, star of the Pittsburgh Pythons, a cellar-dwelling pro team that sees its fortunes turn after a loopy astrologer counsels management to rebuild the team with oddball players who share Moses's sign, Pisces. Erving's performance less than wowed critics, and the film became a notorious bomb before garnering kitschy cult status.
Also in 1979, Erving began an affair with Philadelphia-based reporter Samantha Stevenson. In 1980, Irving informed Turquoise - with whom he had four children - that the coupling had produced a daughter, Alexandra, to whom he would provide substantial child support. The Sixers meanwhile ensconced themselves as a power in the NBA's Eastern Conference but kept coming up short. With the addition of two revolutionary talents, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, to the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics, respectively, the NBA of the early 1980s became characterized by gutty games between the three powerhouse franchises. The Sixers advanced to the Finals against the Lakers in 1980 and 1982, only to lose in spite of sterling performances and eye-popping, legendary moves by Erving - such as "The Baseline Move." The latter came in Game 4 of the 1980 Finals when Erving drove from the right wing, leapt and, when found the way guarded by the Lakers' Mark Landsberger and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, kept sailing along the baseline, under the backboard, and scooped the ball up and off the backboard from the left side.
In 1980-81, he put together one of his best all-around seasons, averaging 24.6 ppg, 8 rpg, 4.4 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks per game. It earned him the regular season MVP trophy, but the Sixers suffered another playoff meltdown that year, this time against Bird's Celtics as that rivalry heated up. It would take the blockbuster signing of center Moses Malone in 1982 to put the Sixers over the top. Malone lent 24.5 points and 15.1 rebounds a game, third-year shooting guard Andrew Toney blossomed into a 19 ppg game scorer and All-Star and point guard Maurice Cheeks matured into an All-Star himself as Philly could do little wrong and racked up a 65-17 record. They stormed back to the playoffs and nearly fulfilled Malone's prediction of a "Fo'-fo'-fo'" championship, e.g. sweeping each series on the way to a title. They lost only a Conference Finals game to Milwaukee, then meted decisive revenge on the Lakers in four, making it the "Fo'-fi'-fo'" championship. Erving, though only averaging 18.1 ppg in the playoffs, finally earned his long-denied NBA championship ring.
But the Sixers' chemistry would lapse the next season, and, after a stunning first-round playoffs loss to the (now-New Jersey) Nets, they would cease to be a title threat. Erving showed old form in a 34-point All-Star MVP performance in early 1984 and increasingly took on the air of Grand Old Man of the game, particularly in juxtaposition to Philly's Young Turk 1984 draft pick, Charles Barkley. After two aborted trades, Erving announced the 1986-87 season would be his last. He was toasted in a veritable "farewell tour" that year in every opposing arena. Though posting his lowest scoring output, 16.8 ppg, Erving surged late in the season to pass the 30,000-point mark for his career. As the season wound down, SI devoted a cover package and seven separate stories to Erving's retirement and legacy. He finished his career with 30,026 points (fifth behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and Karl Malone), a 24.2 ppg average, 16 All-Star games under his belt and four All-ABA and five All-NBA First Team selections. As importantly, he vastly influenced the up-and-coming generation of players whose above-the-rim creative talents would bring the NBA into a new Golden Age. Additionally, Erving, fulfilling a promise to his mother, obtained his college degree in 1986, via UMass's University Without Walls program, as well as an honorary doctorate.
Having pitched Coca-Cola in TV advertising the years prior, he purchased a Coke bottling plant in Philadelphia via his private investment company The Erving Group. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA, in 1993, and the next year began a stint doing in-studio analysis for NBC's NBA broadcasts. In 1997, he took a front-office job with the Orlando Magic, which was run by Philly's old general manager, Pat Williams. Alexandra Stevenson became a professional tennis player and, in 1999, Erving confirmed reports of her paternity that had bubbled up after she advanced to the semifinals at Wimbledon. In 2003, Erving and Turquoise divorced amid another tabloid-happy scandal over Erving's illegitimate child with the much younger Dorys Madden. They would have two more children and marry in 2008. That year, they moved to Atlanta, GA where Erving purchased a local golf club, which he redubbed the Celebrity Golf Club International. By 2010, the club was bankrupt and in foreclosure. Though Erving sought to downplay any correlation, a menu of some of his personal memorabilia in 2011 went on auction with high-end sports-swag brokerage SCP Auctions. SCP fetched a reported $3.5 million selling items such as Erving's ABA and NBA championship rings, his MVP trophies from both leagues and various game jerseys.
By Matthew Grimm