Saturday, 7 December 2013
JULIUS ERVING Feature-PHILADELPHIA SOUL
By TIM DAVID HARVEY
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? A Kobe? A Jordan? No! It's a stethoscope. Some surgical gloves and scrubs. It's a doctor! THE Dr, Dr. J, Julius Erving. Flying through the air with surgical precision all the way to the Baskets noose, remaining in the air longer than a word you just can't guess in this game of hangman. Three letters; the one league that rivaled the NBA, until it was absorbed into it like a local coffee shop brought out by the big bucks (respect to the Seattle Sonics). The red, white and blue ball color and vibrancy of this league like orange, Julius was refreshing with his storm in a teacup play, stirred to a finish with dunks that saw his Converse's stand higher than how far his Afro could be combed. The American Basketball Association should have stood for 'Amazing Basketball Attraction' because even though the league tried to drum up fan and ticket selling excitement by Playboy bunnies and bear fights at half-time (you've seen 'Semi-Pro' those Will Ferrell jokes have a lot of truth in jest) it was it's flagship franchise star that converted it and the revolution of the outlawed dunk and the range of the three-point lines to the big leagues of broadcast. Before Larry, Magic and then Mike revolutionized the game, the good Doctor changed it. Making his mark in Philadelphia more than just that cameo in the Denzel and Hanks movie (he's the best as Washington says..."the BEST"), bringing vibrancy in living color to the Spectrum like the R.O.Y.G.B.I.V. around the center circle. Inspiring the influence of Allen Iverson to answer the call and cross the game over in Philly again decades later. This was Dr. Erving's prescription, time for another hoops history lesson. Did I ever tell you my Philadelphia story?
Julius Erving recently wrote out his amazing autobiography, simply titled 'Dr. J'. A monumental memoir of a man that lived through the assassinations of M.L.K. and J.F.K and grew up in a racist world to some 'Philadelphia Freedom' played out like that Elton John song. This rocket man bonded the city of brotherly love as he took off from the lay-up line and even though in his life he's experienced some of the lowest of the lows in his career he experienced the highest of the highs every time his sneakers scraped the sky. Turning tragedy into triumph, in his own words you can read all about just how well he did this. Even when there weren't many cameras or spectators to capture all the legendary plays of his ABA legacy. A legacy that took this league to ABC and beyond, simply before it became a numbers game and Julius followed in the sneaker footsteps of his inspiration Connie Hawkins, Elgin Baylor and big, movie-like stars, like Wilt Chamberlain, becoming his own NBA legend. It all started in New York with a kid jumping up and down to see over a window-sill. A kid who dreamed of playing on the parks he viewed from his room, took over them as well as taking off from the concrete of the Rucker to every young boy with a high-top sneakers dream. With one jump he modernized the game. With another he took it to the mainstream. With another jump he became one of the NBA's 50 best players. With another he became one of Sports Illustrated 40 most important athletes of all time in all sports. With one jump he legitimized the dunk and birthed the Slam Dunk competition from the arms length, free-throw line that like Mike Jordan paid homage to in his own contest. With another he became the only player to ever win the Most Valuable Player Award in both the ABA and NBA, as well as a combined three championships, 16 All-Star appearances and 11 team selections including the NBA's 35th and 50 anniversary ones. That's what happens when you amass enough points (30, 026 (24.2 points per game)), rebounds (10, 524 (8.5 rpg)) and steals (2,272 (around 2 per contest)) to have two number 32 and one number 6 jersey raised to the rafters. The later only let down once for Iverson to honor him in the hometown Philly's All-Star Game tribute.
It all started with a jump in high school. Out of Nassau County, N.Y., J. Erving began his Hall Of Fame career down the corridors of Roosevelt High. That's where the good Doctor earned his nickname and the stripes that would thus lead to the stars that soared from his Net to Sixer throwback jerseys. A hardwood classic of a career that helped the embroidery of the legend of not only two leagues but Mitchell & Ness. This baller has legacy everywhere just ask Pee Wee Kirlkland. It was no Pee Wee sports in Roosevelt High though as the doctor and 'the professor' (a name he gave to teammate Leon Saunders, who in turn coined him 'doc') took every one to school, before his college class graduation. At the University Of Massachusetts, the young Doctor nursed his opponents to sleep, enrolling a Wilt, stilt like 32.5 points and 20.2 rebounds per. Only five other guys have had this 20, 20 statistical vision in NCAA history hindsight. Julius was drafted into the ABA in 1971, but finished his degree like he told his mother he would in 1986. His major in that degree? Creative leadership! Coincidence? No! The man who would get to know Miles Davis while playing the game people compare to jazz, treated his art like a beautiful ballet as he gracefully flew through the air and took the power game of a dunk to a finesses point that could skillfully bend and weave around opponents and shot blockers in mid-air. A mix of delicacy and dominance you can see from the scoop lay-up out of bounds from the baseline and the cradle rock that turned one of the best defensive specialists of all time Michael Cooper into a cowering baby, fetus like position which is old and new testament to the spirited superstar that Rucker Park dubbed 'Black Moses' like he really did possess 'Houdini' magic. Earvin Johnson, Isiah Thomas and the one they call greatest of the next golden era generation of the 80's and 90's to now where all inspired by this mans ingenious influence.
The Lakers pass first legend and Larry Bird of the storied Boston Celtics may have turned and tuned every households television set into the game of Basketball but before that Julius Erving helped take a sport divided and perform an opposite Moses on the two polar opposite leagues that would one day merge. Becoming a Squire in Virginia, Julius looked the perfect gentleman suited for the ABA draft in a bow tie and Afro. After the suit and tie came off it was like Superman in a phone booth, suited up in his iconic Nets jersey as he flew to every rim and tore down theirs. Making the Nets a feature in New York, before Jay-Z helped them become one in Brooklyn today via New Jersey, Erving wore the red, white and blue, representing his team, the ball of his league and his country. This was America's association before it went national and from the bang of his dunks to the iceman cold roll of George Gervin's fingers, from the San Antonio Spurs to the Indiana Pacers these boys where big league ready. Artis Gilmore may have beat him to the 'Rookie Of The Year' award and Rick Barry and his future team may have beat him to the finals, but his dunking debut of 27.3 points per game certainly set the tone for Virginia like Pharrell. Erving's production was out of this world like a Neptune too as you couldn't believe how much he became a rock star overnight. Just one eligible year later, Julius almost formed THE definitive big-three that was more talented than South Beach as the Milwaukee Bucks drafted him to join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. Still this powerhouse would never be that potent as the Atlanta Hawks wanted to soar with J rights or wrong. Still a dunk, pass duo with behind-the-back legend 'Pistol' Pete Maravich wasn't meant to be either as the legal powers that be in Basketball sent Erving back to the Squires and the ABA after he broke the NBA rules. Never down and out however, this dunker kept it on the up and up as he would still make it to the league, taking a whole team with him.
The New York Nets and Julius Erving went together like pulled-up socks and high top fades. As the Squires without a doctor faced franchise death, the Nets hit absolution with Erving. Defeating the Utah Stars with his jazz like play, as the finals final horn rang, Julius became MVP and ABA champion. It all looked too legitimate, credible and good to ignore. Erving was the truth and his team part of the merger that ended the amazing side-show of the ABA but still gave it new life and legacy in the one sole Jerry West silhouetted league of American Basketball. 34.7 points and another title was all Miss Box Score wrote for Erving, the Nets and the ABA's concluding game in the final 1975/1976 season, as New York beat the Denver Nuggets but at least took them with them to an association that was known for many more storied teams and two in particular; the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers that would later be lead by two particular individuals. As great as they were though they had been watching a seasoned vet who in five seasons of the ABA won two, 'chips, three MVP's and scoring titles and in his last year was the face of the league, being top ten in all statistical categories, points, rebounds, assists, steals blocks and percentages in free throws and three pointers. This was more than All-Star, this was all-legend and all-legacy. No wonder the passion, intensity and pride of the Philadelphia 76ers had their rally-towels waving for Julius. You see, because Erving and the Nets may have made it to the NBA, but they didn't end up staying their together. The Nets where then-like now-playing in Knick town and the Mecca of money they had to play for "invading the territory" of Madison Square Garden was too much to keep their star. The Nets even offered Dr. J's medicine to the Walt Frazier era ending Knicks as compensation. In the worse move in the core of rotten apple franchise history the Knicks turned their rivals and Erving down, not getting another star this huge until a few decades and letters later in Ewing.
This was no sweat for Philly though, who saw more at steak and ponied up $6 mill for the good doctors services. The former number 32 would change his number to 6 to honor this and of course the "Sixers" themselves. The man who became close friends with 80's comedy legend Bill Cosby was no joke with his show on court however, heading toward the eighties with a maturing game that was a cut above his clipped down Afro and more defined like his mustache. The dunks and the dominance remained, but a new savvy, smooth Sade operation to his soulful game gave him and Philadelphia the outside chance to Bird's Celtics and Magic's Lakers in this heaven sent NBA holy trinity. They say the 'Sweet Philly' sound of 'Philadelphia Soul' is lush and funk filled, characterized by sweeping strings and piercing horns. Sounds like Erving's lavish, off the wall, behind the notes, air swooping, buzzer beating game to me. Like The O'Jay's this guy started a train for the people all over the world and like Philly home-girl Jill Scott honoring Michael Jordan it was love in the highest hoops order. In Philly with the ball spread across the floor like cheese, George McGinnis, Caldwell Jones, World B. Free, Doug Collins, the 'Chocolate Thunder' of Darryl Dawkins and Mike Bibby's father Henry formed a steak strong squad, tougher than basketball leather. Before the legacy of Malone, the original 'Black Moses' led Philadelphia. Before the round mound of rebound Charles Barkley ran a power move on the city, the Chuck Taylor ambassador was public hero number one, with a Chuck D narrated documentary. Before Allen Iverson became the 76ers answer in the hip-hop hoop baller generation, the Doc was unquestionable like a Dre "hell yeah" (this good doctor even inspired that N.W.A. rappers name as well as player/coach Glenn 'Doc' Rivers one). His production was just that bombastic. Philly even blasted the great Boston Celtics a couple of times when it came to the crunch. 'Dr. Chapstick' was just that cold in the clutch. So much he became the leagues first big endorsement once the commercial breaks kicked in. Still in one advert, as Julius help us his index finger and told the season ticket buying city of Brotherly love that he owed them one, Billy Cunningham, Maurice Cheeks and Bobby Jones came to help him deliver that promise. Soon would it be always sunny in Philadelphia?
Dr. J's Basketball and literally brawling fights with Larry legend became so much of a fixture they even inspired a 'One On One: Dr. J vs Larry Bird' video game. Far from electronic arts however in the game the pair's performances where like something CPU assisted. The first half of the NBA's golden era eighties where defined by the storied, spectator drawing Sixers/Celtics rivalry and by the time Julius and his boys made it past the parquet and thought they where plain-sailing against a Kareem, Cap-less Lakers team, a young rookie called Magic Johnson took the captains chair on a flight to Philly. Telling his team to "never fear", whilst taking center stage against the Sixers and winning the championship for his team and his big goggle wearing brother. A few years later and a pair of goggles on a big man for themselves and the Sixers where ready for the promised land. Moses took them there as Malone became the original mailman delivering the Sixers promise as he led his team from the post. Forming a dynamic duo for the ages after all those seasons Julius Erving finally met Larry O'Brien and saw championship gold for the National Basketball Association. In his twilight year, he took the rocking chair retirement tour of the league in tribute at his stats where still stellar, he left on a high passing the staff of the franchise to Moses. Even with the game (which featured criminally underrated and dunk overlooked elite passing and D) and dunks gone his legend and legacy would live on from everyone who took the game higher than the glass ball boys couldn't reach to clean. From dollar-bill high guys like Dominique Wilkins to Vince Carter no contest to today's greatest LeBron James and of course, of all time, Michael Jordan. Taking the previously unsportsmanlike play of a dunk and making it as professional as himself the heir to the dunking throne was the king of role models. He was even the poster-boy, childhood hero of President Barack Obama. Speaking of ears, born and raised in Philadelphia the prince of Bel-Air Will Smith modelled his life off the original Air Fresh who spent most of his days on the playground. Turning the purists to his poetry, making 'slam' league vernacular. Giving substance to the style, coining the 'Slam Dunk' and personifying it like Chick Hearn. If you read the story of 'Dr. J' to the new generation tonight you may sing them a rock-a-by lullaby of the times he cradled the Coop-a-Loop and every Tom, Dick and Bill Walton in the league, nursing them to a losing sleep. This was no fable, but all legend. The legend of the great doctor that everybody needed. Can you see him now? If you keep watching tonight you may just. As his legacy lasts, he jumps...we rise.