Julius Erving, known as Dr. J., was one of the great superstars of professional basketball during the 1970s and 1980s. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993 and went on to work for NBC as a studio analyst for their basketball coverage.
Julius Erving (Dr. J) began his career playing for the fledgling American Basketball Association, a league started to compete with the long-established National Basketball Association. He played for several years for the New York Nets, being named most valuable player for the 1973-74 and 1974-75 seasons. After the merger of the two leagues in 1976, Erving was traded to the Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers, where he continued a phenomenal career, playing in several all-star games, setting a slew of records, and altering the way the game was played forever by drawing attention away from the center-focused game. At the time of his retirement from the game, he was basketball's third-highest scorer.
Displayed Great Talent at a Young Age
Julius Erving was the middle child born to Julius and Callie Mae Erving (Lindsay). His father deserted the family when Julius was three, and his mother was left to raise three children on her own, working as a house cleaner. The family lived in a housing project in Hempstead, Long Island, among other poor families. Julius was a quiet, well behaved child, and at times his family was concerned that he was perhaps too withdrawn. In school, however, he was a bright student who liked to recite poetry. He was first attracted to basketball at about the age of nine, and began spending his free time at the public courts in Campbell Park. When he was ten, Irving joined the local Salvation Army team, leading it to a 27-3 season. The next year, his team was 31-1 and went on to win the Inter-County Basketball Association tournament.
Erving attending Roosevelt High School in Roosevelt, Long Island, a town not far from Hempstead, to which the family had moved when Julius was 13. Erving maintained his passion for basketball and was named to the All-County and All-Long Island teams. After graduation Erving was offered several basketball scholarships by some of the best colleges in the country. He chose the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where his basketball mentor's friend was the coach. In his first year at U-Mass, Erving led the freshman team to an undefeated season, on the way breaking the school's freshman records for scoring and rebounding. In his next year, Erving again had a stellar season, averaging 26 points and 20 rebounds per game, leading the country in rebounds. In the summer following his sophomore year, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) named Erving to a team of college all-stars to tour Europe and the old Soviet Union. Afterwards, Erving's teammates voted him the tour's most valuable player. In his junior year, Erving averaged 27 points and 19 rebounds per game.
After completing his junior season, Erving decided to turn professional. This was a controversial decision in that the NCAA liked to see its players complete their degrees before turning pro. But there was a new basketball league forming, the ABA, to challenge the status of the NBA, and they were making Erving some lucrative offers. The year was 1971, and sports salaries were just beginning to skyrocket. Erving signed with an agent and took a four-year contract to play with the Virginia Squires for the sum of $500,000. He stayed with the Squires for two seasons. In his first, he was sixth in the ABA in scoring (27.3 points per game) and third in rebounding (15.7). The Squires went to the playoffs that year, and Erving was first in playoff scoring, with 33 points on average per game. In his next year with the Squires, Erving led the ABA with 31.9 points.
After the close of the 1972-73 season, Erving surprised many fans and hired a new agent to find a more lucrative contract for him. After considering a series of offers, Erving decided on a $1.8 million deal, with a $250,000 signing bonus, with the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA. By leaving the ABA for the NBA, however, Erving set himself up for legal troubles. The NBA, as the established professional basketball league in the country, had rules about college drafts, and because the Milwaukee Bucks had earned the right to first draft picks that year, they sued to stop the deal. Erving's old agents and his old team, the Virginia Squires also went to court. It was a complicated, highly publicized case that was finally sent to arbitration to be settled before the 1973-74 season. The arbitrators arranged a settlement that sent Erving from the Squires to the New York Nets, of the ABA, in exchange for the Nets' highest scorer and a cash payment of $750,000. The Nets also had to pay the Atlanta Hawks a settlement fee of $400,000, and then were free to sign Erving to an eight-year contract that would pay him $2.8 million.
One of the Greatest Athletes Ever
In Erving's first season with the Nets (1973-74), the young superstar won his second straight league scoring championship, averaging 27.4 points per game, and led the team to the championship against the Utah Stars. In the final series, Erving led both teams in scoring with 27.9 points per game, scoring 47 points in the last game, which brought the Nets the championship four games to one. In the next season, the Nets floundered, playing erratically. In the first round of the play-offs that year against the St. Louis Spirits, Erving had two good games but his performance wasn't enough to keep the team afloat, and the reigning champs were defeated in the first round.
By the 1975-76 season it was pretty clear that the ABA would merge with the NBA after the season. The leaders of the ABA had attracted star talent, like Erving and others, and had many teams playing on par with the older, established league. Basketball was also becoming big business and showed signs that it would continue to grow. Although the Nets again played sporadically that year, they made it to the championship against the Denver Nuggets. It was a hard fought series coming down to an exciting final game in New York; it showcased Erving to be one of the greatest athletes of modern times, and is considered one of the best games in basketball history. At one point The Nets trailed by 20 points, but managed to come back and win the game, largely as a result of Erving's play. Sports Illustrated called Erving's performance "the greatest individual performance by a basketball player at any level anywhere." For the championship series, Erving averaged 37.7 points, 14.2 rebounds and six assists per game. In his ABA career, Erving scored 11,662 points in total, a per-game average of 29.
Demanded Higher Salary
As anticipated, the next year the ABA and NBA merged. Erving was offered a contract to continue playing for the Nets, but he felt the money was insufficient for a player of his caliber, so he held out for a better offer. Erving was one of the first superstar athletes outside of baseball— which had seen skyrocketing salaries and athlete hold-outs for years—to demand increasingly large sums of money. Ultimately, he signed with the Philadelphia 76ers, already a playoff team with substantial talent, including Darrel Dawkins, Caldwell Jones, Doug Collins and George McGinnis.
The 76ers led their division through most of the season, and Erving scored thirty points during the all-star game and was named MVP. In the ABA, he had been in many ways, a superstar alone and unchallenged. The Sixers, however, were loaded with big names and big egos, and consequently exhibited little team work. They made it to the championship but lost to the Portland Trailblazers after winning the first two games of the series. They had a similar season the following year with the Sixers making it into the playoffs but being eliminated early.
In the 1978-79 season, the management of the Philadelphia 76ers realized that they had a flawed strategy of hiring a team of expensive superstars and thinking that would automatically lead to championships. They traded all their big names except Erving and named him captain, deciding to build a team around their most talented, most team-oriented player. However, that first season of rebuilding did not go well, and in the next season, 1979-80, the Sixers had their best regular season record in over a decade but were eliminated in the playoffs, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers with their soon-to-be-named rookie of the year, Magic Johnson.
Inducted into Basketball Hall of Fame
The following season, 1980-81, Erving was named MVP; the first time that award had gone to a non-center in 17 years. Erving's play had revolutionized basketball, taking offense out to the perimeter instead of just on the boards. They made it to the playoffs again, but this year they came up against their old rivals, the Boston Celtics, with their second-year superstar Larry Bird, and lost a heartbreaking series after being up three games to one. In 1981-82, the Sixers were again left without a championship. That year they made it past the Celtics, but lost to a rampaging Los Angeles Lakers in the finals.
For 1982-83, Philadelphia, by now quite tired of losing to the Celtics and Lakers, signed Moses Malone, hoping to beef up their offense to go against Jabar and Johnson on the Lakers and Bird and McHale on the Celtics. That year they played phenomenally well and made it to the championships, where, once again, they faced their perennial foes from the west, the Lakers. With Malone, however, the Sixers had an added dimension and they took the series in four games straight. It was Erving's first and last NBA championship. The Sixers' prominence steadily diminished over the next couple of years, and in 1987, Julius Erving retired from basketball, after becoming the third player, after Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to score 30,000 career points.
After retiring from basketball, Erving became a successful businessman, buying a Coca Cola bottling business. In 1993 he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and was hired by NBC as a studio analyst for their basketball coverage. In 1994 Sports Illustrated named him to its "40 for the Ages" list, a listing of the forty greatest athletes of all time.
Further Reading on Julius Winfield Erving
Wilker, Josh, Julius Erving: Basketball Great, Chelsea House, 1995.
Porter, David L., Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, Greenwood Press, 1995.