If there was a Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan, that guy was Julius Erving.
Perhaps the coolest, smoothest person to have ever played the game, Dr. J, as he is fondly called, belongs in basketball royalty. Many fans believe he should be part of the subjective “GOAT” conversation, and they are not entirely wrong.
Along with the numbers to back it up, Erving consistently displayed unmatched grace, power, and athleticism during his heyday. Sure, Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson were probably better overall basketball players, but Dr. J was already an icon way before them. There were already high-flyers in basketball back in the day, but only a special few brought the art to a new level.
Make no mistake about it; Julius Erving was one of them.
How ‘Dr. J’ Got His Nickname
Many of today’s basketball superstars obtain their nicknames after a stellar showing in the pros. For instance, Jordan’s “Air” nickname took off only after being affiliated with the Air Jordan shoes from Nike.
That’s not the case with Julius Erving.
So, how did he get his nickname? According to Dr. J himself, a high school friend was the first to call him “Doctor.”
“I have a buddy; his name is Leon Saunders,” recalled Erving. “I started calling him the professor, and he started calling me the Doctor. It was just between us. We had our nicknames.”
Once he turned pro, sportscasters and media people started calling him by different monikers. Some of these included “The Claw,” “Houdini,” and “Black Moses.” Erving didn’t like any of it. At a summer tournament at Rucker Park, Erving took PA announcer Plucky Morris aside and told Morris to just call him “The Doctor.”
The nickname stuck, and he was already known as “The Doctor” when he started playing for the ABA’s Virginia Squires.
Dr. J’s College Years and the ABA
Nobody talked about Dr. J’s collegiate years, partly because of how good he was as a pro. But even back at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, one could see undeniable greatness in his body of work. In two seasons with UMass, Erving amassed averages of over 26 points and 20 rebounds, a feat done only by five other players in NCAA history.
Since the “No Dunking” ban was put in place during Erving’s first year playing at UMass, his aerial exploits were repressed, only seen by his teammates in practice. That was about to change when Erving applied for a “hardship” entry into pro basketball, primarily to help his family.
After his junior year, he accepted a $500,000, four-year contract from the Virginia Squires of the ABA. In the pro ranks, the shackles were entirely off. Erving had only been able to dunk on the playground and practice for the previous four years, but finally, he was free. He averaged 27.3 points and 15.7 rebounds as a rookie, making it to the All-ABA Second Team while leading the league in offensive rebounds.
Erving’s First Two Seasons
The first two seasons were individually successful for Erving, but the team fell short in the quest for the ultimate goal, the championship. It was also getting messy off the court. He was in contract disputes involving three teams across two professional basketball leagues.
When all the dust settled, Erving found himself dealt to his hometown New York Nets and relished both team and individual success. Aside from winning ABA MVP from 1974 to 1976, he also led the Nets to the promised land in ’74 and ’76.
ABA Highlights Video
Move To The NBA
In 1976, the ABA and the NBA entered into a merger. Four of the six remaining teams of the ABA were brought into the fold– the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, and New York Nets. Kentucky and St. Louis ultimately disbanded.
Erving was once again the center of controversy and drama amidst the merger. The New York Knicks demanded monetary compensation from the Nets for supposedly breaching their territory (since there are now two New York teams in the NBA).
The Nets offered Erving’s contract to the Knicks but were turned down. In one savvy move, the Philadelphia 76ers swooped in to acquire Dr. J’s services by offering to buy out his contract and paying for the Nets’ league entry fees.
That was the beginning of Dr. J’s legend in the city of brotherly love. He enjoyed success on and off the court as the face of the top-drawing team in the NBA. Endorsements and TV appearances followed. Erving led the team to several Eastern Conference Finals trips and ultimately a title in 1983 after failing in ’76 and ’80.
Along the way, Dr. J became fierce rivals with Larry Bird after the Sixers and Celtics faced off in the Conference Finals four times from 1980 to 1985. That intense rivalry led to the launching the video game One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird, courtesy of Electronic Arts.
First Slam Dunk Icon
In 1976, the struggling ABA looked for ways to make a splash at the annual All-Star game. The idea of having a slam dunk contest was the perceived answer. All of the league’s high-flyers came together at halftime and showcased their aerial artistry for everyone to see.
According to former Denver Nuggets general manager Carl Scheer, the concept of the slam dunk contest was borne out of desperation.
“We had to come up with a concept that would get everyone’s attention,” Scheer said. “We were in serious trouble. (And) we knew that it was our last year and we had to make a big impression. We felt the All-Star game was our big showcase—our swan song, so to speak. We needed to have something dramatic to show the world, and the NBA, that our product was worthwhile for their league. (And) we had to show that we had great players, great ideas, and great contests.”
And they did not disappoint. Sure, this was before basketball players jumped over a car’s hood or blew candles off the rim. But it had to start at something, and Dr. J made sure it was something that stuck to this very day.
First Slam Dunk Competition
At the first-ever slam-dunk competition, Dr. J made the mother of all dunks — his famous court-length, take-off-from-the-foul-line showstopper. It was the icing on the cake as Erving was named the Slam Dunk champion and, needless to say, became an instant classic.
When the NBA adopted the dunk contest in 1984, Dr. J took part and relived the free-throw dunk. He admitted that he was long in the tooth, with eight more years of wear and tear taking a toll on his body.
But for Dr. J, it was all about putting on a show. One of his second-round dunks saw his head bump the bottom of the backboard. Although he lost to Larry Nance Sr. that night, the iconic free-throw dunk made its appearance. He had to do it twice to make up for a dud in the first round. But for the people in the arena, it was as if they were watching it for the first time.
Other Slam Dunk Winners
Darrell Griffith, an ’84 Dunk contest participant, then playing for Utah, said: “I thought (the contest) was a great (idea). The one in ’76, that’s when Doc took off from the free-throw line—that was a memorable one there. It’s been many years, so I thought it was due. It was perfect timing.”
Nance, the inaugural NBA Dunk contest champion, admitted the $10,000 cash prize was a motivator since he was looking to buy a Camaro. However, the chance to measure himself against Dr. J was also a driving force.
“I did not watch the one in 1976, so when I heard about the contest, it was cool because it was the first one,” Nance said. “The next reason to do it was because Dr. J was in it. I thought he was the best dunker ever. To go and compete against him was the coolest thing. I always watched him play basketball on Sundays. I never watched a lot of basketball, but when Dr. J was on, he had my attention. I just loved his game, and that’s who I wanted to be like.”
After 1984, what Dr. J has done for the Slam Dunk contest is undeniably clear. He created a standard by which all dunkers were measured. The free-throw dunk made an appearance every year, it seemed. Michael Jordan did it in 1985, sporting a gold chain around his neck, a clear homage to Dr. J’s fashion statement back when he was the face of the ABA.
Brent Barry did his own version, and Vince Carter, Dwight Howard, and Zach Lavine all added a little of their flair to the dunk. Even Dr. J felt the players after he took the dunk to new heights, but he was the one who prepared it for takeoff.
Greatest Dunker Ever?
Few may remember how good of a basketball player Dr. J is. His lasting impact in the game is turning the dunk into an art form, not just a scoring weapon. If there was no Dr. J, there probably was no dunk contest, nor the game would be as entertaining. Dr. J brought the flair and flamboyance to the basketball court, and he could explode at any given moment.
Ask Michael Cooper. The wiry defensive specialist for the 80s Lakers had the best view in the house when Erving did his most iconic dunk. You know it’s something good when they made a name for it– “Rock, the Baby.”
On January 5, 1983, against the Lakers, the Doctor got to the ball on the left sideline before it went out of bounds after Philadelphia’sPhiladelphia’s Maurice Cheeks tipped a Magic Johnson pass. Erving drove the ball up the court, past Cooper, cupped it with his right hand, pulled it back, and thundered it home. Cooper leaped into the air to try to avert the inevitable, but he could only duck his head and move out of the way.
Greatest Dunk of All Time
“The greatest dunk of all time,” Cooper declared. “If you’re gonna get dunked on by anyone, why not let it be the best in the game?”
The bar set by Dr. J as far as dunks go may have been surpassed, but even that is debatable. Erving calls this progression a “lineage” of great dunkers throughout the years. More will come, but Dr. J’s name is already set in stone at the top of the list.
10 Dr. J Facts That Everyone Should Know
1.) Having good ball control is important for a dunker and leaper like Dr. J, and being blessed with big hands undoubtedly helped. His hands were among the largest in NBA history, estimated to be 9.5 inches long and 11.75 inches from the tip of the pinkie to the end of the thumb. Come to think of it, Dr. J’s mitts were bigger than Wilt Chamberlain’s and Michael Jordan’s.
2.) When Dr. J won the NBA MVP in 1981, he was the first non-center to bag the award in 17 years. Bill Russell, Wes Unseld, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dave Cowens, Bill Walton, Bob McAdoo, and Moses Malone– all centers– took turns taking home the honors from 1965 to 1980.
3.) Julius Erving is the third player to crack 30,000 points in his career, although those were the aggregate numbers in his ABA and NBA career.
4.) Remember where it was mentioned that Dr. J’s college averages of over 20 points and 20 rebounds were matched only by four others– Bill Russell, Kermit Washington, Paul Silas, and Artis Gilmore.
Julius Erving Trivia
5.) Dr. J is the father of professional tennis player Alexandra Stevenson, who became the open era’s first woman qualifier to reach the Wimbledon semifinals in 1999. It had not previously been revealed that Erving was her father.
6.) The BIG3 championship trophy is named after Julius Erving.
7.) The Julius Erving Award was created in 2015 and given to the best collegiate small forward in the country. The latest recipient was Wendell Moore of Duke.
8.) Dr. J is only one of five players with two numbers retired by two different teams. His No. 32 was retired by the Nets and No. 6 by the Sixers.
9.) Erving never missed the playoffs in 16 seasons in the ABA and NBA.
10.) Dr. J is the only basketball player to have won an MVP award in the NBA and ABA.
Dr. J’s Legacy
Julius Erving’s legacy is all about aesthetics, the visual appeal of his game. It was pure poetry in motion, whether a dunk or a finger roll.
But more than the beauty of his game, his demeanor and the way he carried himself off the court were never before seen in the game. As Kenny “The Jet” Smith puts it, Julius Erving was the first superstar sports figure in basketball. He was the first ambassador of the league and commanded the type of presence that can be the face of a whole organization.
“As a basketball player, Julius was the first to truly take the torch and become the spokesman for the NBA,” former NBA coach Billy Cunningham said. “Julius was the first player I ever remember who transcended sports and was known by one name — Doctor.”
By Jan Rey with Mike O’Halloran
Jan is a sucker for all things basketball and still yells, “Kobe!” every time he tosses a crumpled paper into a trash bin. Mike has written four books on youth basketball, including The Well-Prepared Coach: 30 Youth Basketball Practice Plans.
You are on our The Doctor Is In: Julius Erving page.
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