It was in the autumn of 1976, just a few hours after news had leaked out that basketball’s hidden treasure was finally making the jump to the NBA when a man strode up to the ticket window at Detroit’s Cobo Hall, slapped down his weekly paycheck from Ford Motor Company and said: “Gimme all you got for The Doctah!”
The oft-told story may be apocryphal, but it accurately describes a time when the greatest legends still grew and traveled by word of mouth and every up-and-coming, next-great-thing sports star wasn’t identified and overhyped before he left junior high.
To the national consciousness, Julius Erving seemed to swoop down out of the sky like an unexpected alien invader. However, the tales of his mind-bending feats had traveled the lines of the basketball tribal drums long before he went mainstream with the Philadelphia 76ers.
The NBA TV documentary, The Doctor, which debuts Monday night at 9 p.m. Eastern, reintroduces the player who changed the style, image and direction of pro basketball to a new audience.
There is at least a generation of fans that has grown up probably thinking of Erving in only two images that are shown in the opening montage for each game of the NBA Finals. There is that float along the right baseline with arm extended, finding his path blocked by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, seeming to change direction in midair and coming out on the other side of the basket to flip in a bank shot. And there is that steal and the drive in the open court, the rise into the air, the sneer on his face and the helpless look of defender Michael Cooper as Erving eventually finishes with a windmill slam.
These are the grainy YouTube images that endure in a high-res, 3D world. The 90-minute documentary tells the fuller, deeper story of a young man who was struck by tragedy early in life and went on to rise above it, or maybe was inspired by it.
The NBA TV Originals crew, led by executive producer Dion Cocoros, has unearthed rarely seen footage of Erving not only playing in the boondocks of the old ABA, but also treasures of highlights from the world famous Rucker League in Harlem, where the legend of The Doctor was born.
The clip of Charlie Scott launching a heave from behind the half-court line that is snatched from midair by a young Erving and slammed home with two hands is like watching Michelangelo sketch out his first ideas for the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Seeing shots of school kids and adult fans crowding rooftops and sitting in trees to get a glimpse of Dr. J at Rucker Park demonstrate the height of his popularity and legend.
“When you show some nice moves at the Rucker League, they show you their appreciation,” says a young Erving in the film.
His father was killed in a car accident when he was nine years old and his younger brother Marvin, 16, died of Lupus when Erving was a freshman at the University of Massachusetts and those two events seemed to make him more introspective in his formative years and as a young adult.
It was the basketball court where Erving cut loose with his emotions and expressed himself, eventually taking the wide open style of the playgrounds into the pro ranks.
He was the marquee attraction, the driving force, the star that kept the ABA afloat for more than half of its nine-year existence, waving that red-white-and-blue ball in his giant hands as he seemed to defy gravity and attacked the rim from every angle imaginable.
“My brother was the first one to tell me about him,” said the flamboyant Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins. “This kid Erving, man, he’s a bad boy.”
From that tall Afro that seemed to blow backward in the breeze as he soared toward the rim to those Converse sneakers that were his endorsement of choice and trademark in the early days, to stylish hats and the fur-collar jackets and platform shoes, The Doctor was always cooler than the other side of the pillow.
He understood his place as the star of the show in the ABA, where he won two championships with his hometown New York Nets on Long Island and he embraced a role as the NBA’s ambassador and maybe even savior when the made the jump to the Sixers just a few days before the start of the 1976-77 season as the two league’s merged. It was a time when two-thirds of the NBA’s teams were swimming in red ink and a time when newspaper headlines screamed the 75 percent of the players were using drugs.
“From the standpoint of a young, African-American man who was patriotic and believed in the American dream, I embraced that duty to be a role model,” Erving said. “If it meant spending extra time withe media or going out of my way to promote the league and the game, I felt it was a duty.”
At the same time, it was a natural instinct to enter a league where the likes of Earl Monroe and Pete Maravich were showing flashes of individualism and lift it up and slam it home into the mainstream.
“The freewheeling, playground style of play, that’s where I felt most comfortable and where I wanted to go,” he said.
It is the style that built on his predecessors in Elgin Baylor and Connie Hawkins and was handed down to Michael Jordan, LeBron James and is on display every night in the NBA of today.
The fine film shows Erving’s often frustrated pursuit of an NBA title with the colorful, ego-filled Sixers that included George McGinnis, Lloyd (pre-World) Free, “Jellybean” Joe Bryant, Doug Collins and Dawkins, to name a few and his finally teaming up with Moses Malone to grab the brass ring with Philly’s sweep of the Lakers in 1983. It was one of the most dominant seasons in NBA history.
You can turn on dozens of TV channels every day in the 21st century, download images to your smart phone and feed on a steady diet of YouTube clips today that make flying to the hoop as routine as riding a bus.
But there was a time when such things were only the talk of legends.
“I always thought you never know who’s watching,” Erving said. “So you can do one of two things: Assume everybody’s watching or act like you don’t care.
“I always like to assume that everybody is watching. I’ve been far from perfect in my professional and private life. But what’s important is to have goals. I wanted to be good, to be consistent, to be dedicated.”
The Doctor shows how.