As true as Jesus walked on water, Julius sky-walked on air.
Before there was MJ, there was “Dr. J.” Before the high-flying, elusive, inventive style of play we’ve grown to love and admire made its way to the NBA, there was the ABA. Highlights, flash, big contracts, flamboyant outfits, and the afro. You can’t forget about the “fro.”
The “Doctor” or “Dr. J,” was a fitting nickname for someone who was surgical on the hardwood and operated with finesse and precision. In a time where the label of “legend” is platitudinous, Erving is —unequivocally— a legend amongst legends.
Julius Winfield Erving II, the man, myth, and every bit of the legend. A pioneer and, some may say, the “Godfather” of the newfangled gravity-defying dunks that keep us enthralled and captivated with top plays segments and social media highlights.
Erving spearheaded a style of play that has transcended time and still has his DNA written all over it.
Dr. J went from the housing projects of Long Island and honing his skills at Campbell Park, to an irrefutable ABA star putting on a show at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum with the New York Nets.
Prior to LeBron James bringing a title back to his hometown the Cleveland Cavaliers (via Akron), Erving led the Nets to their first championship defeating the Utah Stars in his introductory season (1973-74) back in Long Island. Averaging a league-high 27.4 points per game, 10.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists, Erving was named the ABA’s most valuable player, captured a scoring title, and was the MVP of the playoffs.
Erving was the Epitome of “hometown hero.”
Despite exhilarating and electric play from ABA stars like “Dr. J” and company, the greatest show on earth was approaching cessation. With no major television contract, a merger with the National Basketball Association was all but inescapable.
The New York Nets didn’t capture a championship in the 1974-75 season but that didn’t stop the 24-year-old Erving from earning co-MVP honors with George “Big Mac” McGinnis. Title or not, there was no denying the ascendancy and fandom appreciation of Erving’s impact as the ABA’s biggest and brightest star.
The 1975-76 season would mark the ABA’s last, but the beginning of one of sports superlative displays of athleticism. The ABA was known for their entertaining spectacles and the halftime show of the All-Star game that final year did not disappoint.
At a packed house at McNichols Arena in Denver, Colorado, the inception of the Slam-Dunk Contest was born. Nothing short of God could have created a better platform for the “Doctor” to display and showcase his superb-athletic ability.
Dr. J wowed the record-breaking crowd and players alike with a number of breathtaking dunks that memorable evening. But one dunk in particular has permeated its way throughout history and is embedded in basketballs culture infinitely.
In an act Isaac Newton probably would have deemed physically impossible, Erving started by marking off his steps as he headed into the backcourt. Dr. J got a running start, palming the ball in his right hand before taking flight and dunking from the foul line in a gravity-defying display of athleticism. The same dunk that we see mimicked in today’s basketball modern-era had people in 1976 placing bets that jumping from the foul-line was inconceivable.
“Grand opening, grand closing.” – Jay – Z
In spite of the unforgettable exhibit and exceptional assemblage from the All-Star festivities, the American Basketball Association was still on its last leg. Even with Erving’s breathtaking play and ultimate professionalism, the Doctor could not cure the ABA of their financial woes.
If there was ever an indication that Erving wanted to leave his mark on the ABA, he made that crystal clear in the ’76 playoffs against the Denver Nuggets. After dropping at least 45 points in each of the first two games, he went on to average 33 points and a hair under 15 rebounds for the remainder of the series.
In his final ABA season, Erving captured his third league MVP accolade, second playoff MVP award, All-ABA First-Team honors, and made the All-Defensive team. If there was ever a demonstration that encapsulated “going out with a bang,” Dr. J’s final ABA season was it.
Erving transitioned his stardom from the ABA into a sensational NBA career with much acknowledgement and post-career recognition. Accolades included, but were not limited to: 1983 NBA champion with the Philadelphia 76ers, 1993 Hall of Fame inductee, named a top-50 player of all time, and had his number 32 retired by the New York Nets.
Not to mention, when most senior citizens were depositing their social security checks, 63-year-old Erving was still throwing down dunks. How is that for longevity and showing up father time?
Julius Erving, an Avant-garde basketball pioneer that challenged gravity in a pair of Converse Pro Leathers. A class-act innovator that broke the mold and has his legacy forever etched in stone.
Throughout February, in a recognition of Black History Month, you will see “Built by Black History” on the front of NBA players warm-up tops, paying homage and respect to those who fought and continue the fight for social justice and equality.
Subjectively, “Built By” also entails the trendsetters and trail blazers like Julius Erving who pushed the game forward and paved the way for today’s generation.
May we always honor and venerate the legends who broke ground, so we can dream, build, and reach limitless heights.