SALT LAKE CITY — There wasn’t much anyone could do about Julius Erving, once he found some space. Any space worked, but especially up where the air was thin.
Opposing coaches hoped to force him into shooting from the perimeter, to lower the percentages, but the best thing was to stall him at midcourt.
“If he got inside, Doc would come swooping down,” said former ABA and NBA coach of the year Tom Nissalke this week. “I would tell my guys, ‘If he’s in the open court, just grab him.’”
That didn’t sit well with Dr. J.
“I didn’t like it one bit,” Erving said via conference call on Thursday. “Sometimes I’d just try to drag them to the basket, take them for a ride.”
Why talk about this now? Because another round of Doctormania is on the way. Time to resurrect the old phrases: The doctor is in the house. The Doc is making house calls. Doc is operating.
It has been 26 years since Erving played. His career included stops with the ABA’s Virginia Squires and New York Nets, as well as the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. Banking on his enduring fame, NBA TV will air a documentary on Erving, Monday, called “The Doctor” and the material is terrific. It includes interviews with long-ago friends and coaches, and scenes of Erving walking his hometown streets and visiting his childhood courts. There is rare footage of high school, college and playground moments.
Nobody who saw him, or has even Googled his highlight dunks, could be unimpressed at the irresistible, imperturbable Dr. J.
“People watch on YouTube and things, and come up and say, ‘What did you think when you did that?’” Erving said. "And I say, ‘Well, it was crazy.’”
Nissalke figures only a handful of players combined talent and court charisma similar to Erving: Michael, Magic, Pistol Pete, the Iceman, Hawk, the Big O, Elgin and a few others. Erving was the first player Nissalke saw dunk from the free throw line.
“He was Michael Jordan before Michael,” Nissalke said.
There’s something that should be noted about praise from Nissalke, and most coaches: They’re not easily awed. They usually wear McKayla Maroney “not impressed” faces, no matter who is dunking. But Erving had undeniable talent plus style; the ability to both elevate and hang. The documentary says his hands were so big, school teammates tried to nickname him “The Claw.”
Beyond that, he was what Nissalke terms “really a gentleman, the epitome of grace.”
Erving arrived on the scene in 1971 to spur the ABA’s red, white and blue apex. The league was faster, more colorful and arguably more athletic than the NBA. George McGinnis, Rick Barry, Artis Gilmore, Moses Malone and George Gervin were sublime to watch.
But the outlaw league belonged to the Doctor.
“When those guys were really young, they were something,” Nissalke said. “But Doc was a guy that awed everybody. I’d hear through the years about (Rick) Barry or (Larry) Bird, or this guy or that guy, but Doc was in a league by himself.”
As for the NBA, many say, Erving was the face that saved the league from ruin in the pre-Bird/Magic era.
So pull up a seat if you missed him the first time around. The TV retrospective includes Erving talking about tragedies that shaped his life, such as the deaths of his brother, sister and son. But it also includes firsthand recollections of an era when the game was changing from squared-up jumpers to howling dunks.
In one scene, Erving’s high school coach, Ray Wilson, speaks reverentially of the time he anonymously visited a playground court to see the young phenomenon. Fearing Erving would crash to earth after leaping from the free throw line, Wilson closed his eyes.
“But he just glided,” says Wilson in a near-whisper, "then dunked it. That was beyond my imagination.”
In the era of Dr. J, imagination was everything.
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