Last March, at the conclusion of his old school's disappointing basketball season, Julius Erving (left, illustrating two of his resplendent dunks) returned to the University of Massachusetts. He had left there the previous spring, at the end of his junior year, to become a professional basketball player, his premature departure shattering the dreams of U Mass fans who had hoped he would lead the school to some modest level of national acclaim in 1971-72. Under those circumstances, most men in Erving's position would have slunk through a side door, but Massachusetts had invited him in the front way to watch as they retired his uniform. And to listen as they cheered him, which is what a banquet gathering of 150 did—on its feet. "I never saw so many people who thought so much of a kid," remembers Al Bianchi, the coach of the Virginia Squires, who accompanied his rookie forward to the ceremonies. "There was a lot of concern for him up there. Not about his play, but about him. "Don't let him get out of hand,' they said. 'We don't think he will, but make sure he doesn't.' To reassure them, I told them, 'Julie still wears the same size hat he did when he first came to us.' "
A month after his triumphant return to Massachusetts, Erving announced to his Virginia fans that he would be skipping out on them to join the NBA Hawks. Atlanta had signed him to a contract worth $1.5 million more than the $500,000, four-year deal he had with the Squires. It all sounded distressingly familiar to Virginians, who had seen two previous stars, Rick Barry and Charlie Scott, take off to greener pastures, bad-mouthing the Old Dominion and the team en route. Erving stayed with the Squires long enough to perform for them in the ABA playoffs and then quietly headed south. He did not return to Virginia until the Squires had lost their first four regular-season games, and then only because a federal court told him he had to. (Upon his return, Virginia won four in a row, and Erving is leading the ABA in scoring.)
Most players who have switched leagues are no longer welcome in the cities from whence they jumped. When Erving came back to Virginia, he was warmly greeted by his coach, his teammates and the Squires' front office. The fans seemed to mistake him for General MacArthur.
"There was never any question that I wanted Julius back or how well he would play once he got here," says Bianchi. "He had a great season as a rookie, averaging 27 points and 16 rebounds. But he was even better in the playoffs. He scored 33 a game with 20 rebounds. That means he actually played better for us after he had signed with the Hawks. That's the kind of guy he is."
While Erving was in Atlanta, Virginia's ticket salesmen spent a frustrating summer trying to peddle season seats, but they're not sore at him, either. "Julius has been wonderful," says Vin Ahern, director of advertising and marketing. "If we have a promotion going or a personal appearance to be made, all we have to do is ask him and he'll do it. We owe him more than he owes us."
Which must be just about the way Virginia fans feel about the man they call Dr. J. The Squires play their home games in three different cities, Norfolk, Hampton and Richmond, and at his first appearance in each this season Erving received a tumultuous welcome. The people stood and cheered and whistled and slapped each other's hands when he was introduced. Then they did the same things all over again when he scored the first of his net-ripping, backboard-shaking, mind-blowing dunk shots.
That Julius Erving has twice run out on his admirers and twice returned home to standing ovations would seem to indicate he has the best moves since the prodigal son. In one sense, that is certainly true. At 22, Erving is already a marvelous basketball player who is at once tightly efficient and wildly creative, who evokes coachly praise as a superb team player at the same time he lifts less expert onlookers out of their seats with the most exciting individual maneuvers going. But over-the-shoulder, one-handed dunks notwithstanding. Erving would not have been welcomed back had he decided to drip his venom all over Virginia and the Squires when he lit out for Atlanta. He didn't, possibly because he has no venom to drip.
The combination of Erving's extraordinary talents and the fact that he has no known detractors has turned discussions regarding him into an interminable series of gee whizzes. Coaches, teammates, opponents, referees, trainers, scorekeepers, all young women and not a few old ones, publicity men, sportswriters, TV announcers, children, autograph seekers and snapshot takers of all ages and hues, drunks who roam the streets near arenas, total strangers and his mother agree that Erving is nice. Depending on the speaker, Julius is a super kid, sumkinda cat, a beautiful dude, a great guy, a good person or a fine young man. In essence, they are all saying, as Erving's mother does, that "Julius is a nice boy. He was never a snappy child. He always liked to listen and he didn't give anyone cause to dislike him. He is smart and deep-thinking. It's wonderful how he made it up in the pros. He's a good boy and I am happy for him. When he graduated from high school, he said to me, 'This is the beginning. I mean to go far.' I guess he thought that out like everything else."
Just how far Erving will go—and where—are subjects of continuing debate. One school holds that he is already the best forward ever to play the game, another claims he needs a year or two more to polish up his defense and outside shot before he inevitably becomes the best.
Such assessments have made Erving a big gun in the pro basketball war and even the Squires don't seem to fault him for taking advantage of the situation. He will apparently remain in Virginia for the next three seasons, but after that he could end up with the Hawks, who still have him under contract, or the Milwaukee Bucks, who hold the NBA draft rights to him.
"The life of a pro athlete is a short one, and after hearing about the money that is being tossed around, I don't think my contract with Virginia is fair," says Erving. "I have proven myself and I don't think I'm being paid the market value for the type player I think I am. I deserve considerably more money. Of course, I'll abide by what the courts say. I invited myself into this situation and I'm willing to pay the consequences."
In this era of wealthy young athletes, the consequences do not promise to be harsh ones for Erving, who stands to become wealthier than most at a younger age. When evaluating hot young properties, basketball men rate him up there with the best centers, Milwaukee's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kentucky's Artis Gilmore and UCLA undergraduate Bill Walton. "I'm extremely high on him," says Atlanta General Manager Richie Guerin. "He could determine the success of our franchise or its demise. Julius will draw people."
Anyone who has ever seen Dr. J. operate cannot doubt the validity of Guerin's prediction. But, curiously, these observers are a select few because Erving is likely the most underexposed super athlete playing a major professional sport. Although he was the leading rebounding forward in the country both of his college years, he wasn't voted anything higher than third team All-America. The University of Massachusetts has never been a showplace for top basketball players, and Erving did not help himself when the Redmen played in the National Invitation Tournament at the end of his junior year. He fouled out early in his team's opening-round game, scaring off some pro scouts who should have known better.
Because of the ABA's measly television contract, Erving has played in only four nationally televised games since joining the Squires. One of them was the NBA-ABA All-Star game last May in which he performed for only 22 minutes yet stole the show with a single play in which he dumbfounded Oscar Robertson with a dunk that started near the foul line and ended up with Erving whipping the ball around his head and into the basket. And since the cities in which ABA teams are located tend to be smaller than those in the NBA, Dr. J. has appeared only in New York among the nation's metropolises. Although NBA players hold him in esteem, many have never watched him perform. Like a lot of fans who routinely include Erving on their personal all-star teams, they rely on what they have heard and read about him, not on what they have seen.
Seeing Julius Erving is believing. The first time Bianchi ever had the pleasure was during the press conference at which the Squires, who had only the most rudimentary scouting data on Dr. J., announced that they had signed him. "When he walked into the room, my first impression was that he might be too thin," says the Virginia coach. "Then I got an eyeful of those hands. I couldn't believe them. When we were leaving the meeting, I turned to our president. Earl Foreman, and said, 'My God, did you see those meat hooks!' "
At the end of outsized arms, which help him play "taller" than he is, Erving wears the largest gloves made (size 11) and a size 13½ ring. He has been able to palm the ball since the seventh grade—just a year or so after he began to refine his dunk shots on an 8-foot basket. There are several pros with hands as large, but none with his combination of size, strength and sensitivity. Erving can one-hand a rebound even when the ball is caroming away from him. And unlike most other one-handed rebounders, he doesn't need to curl the ball into his wrist to control it. He simply plucks it out of the air like a tennis ball. The consensus among scouts is that if Erving can get so much as a couple of fingertips on the ball, he will control it. In fact, a new term, rebounding range, has been coined virtually in his honor. Most rebounders contend only for those missed shots that fall directly overhead, but Erving is considered to have a good chance at any ball within a three-or four-foot radius.
"I guess I consider my hands my best physical attribute," says Dr. J., "but I don't like to forget my legs either." Seated, Erving looks about as tall as a 6-foot man. When he stands to his full 6'7", it becomes apparent that he has the legs of a normally proportioned 6'11" man, and it is their length that lends his game its most pervasive characteristic, smoothness. "He comes at you with those long, open strides, and you have a tendency to keep backing away from him because you think he's not really into his move yet," says Erving's former Squire teammate, Doug Moe, now assistant coach of the Carolina Cougars. "If you keep backing, if you fail to go up and challenge him, he'll simply glide right by you."
Dr. J. glides and swoops and floats so effortlessly that he hardly sweats. Even in the fourth quarter, his mat, medium-brown skin is glazed by perspiration only at the base of his throat, and following a recent game in which he played 37 minutes, scored 34 points and had 17 rebounds, his uniform was barely damp. His disposition on the court is equally calm. He rarely changes his disinterested expression or becomes sufficiently upset to grouse at the officials.
A man of such cool moves and moods is ideally suited for playground basketball where behind-the-back dribbles, reverse dunks and icy dispassion are considered prerequisites for "freaking out" an opponent. Like many of the most flamboyant black stars, Erving is a legend on his home turf in Roosevelt, N.Y., a largely black Long Island suburb. THIS IS WHERE JULIUS ERVING LEARNED THE GAME OF BASKETBALL reads the neatly painted sign at Roosevelt Park. It was there and at Centennial Park and at other playgrounds in nearby Hempstead that Erving developed his many dunks. They range from a simple hop directly under the basket that results in the ball being casually flipped through the hoop like a wad of paper dropped into a trash can, to all manner of reverse slams; change of hands, twisting spectaculars; rim-assisted reverses; high tomahawks; and—whoosh!—the ultimate foul line takeoff job. It was on these same asphalt courts that Erving practiced his ballhandling—behind the back, through the legs, reverse pivot—and the body-control stunts that make him an effective shooter in the crowded area under the basket.
"I was always small," says Erving in his quiet, serious voice. "I was only 6'3" when I graduated from high school. Yet T always had big hands and could jump, so I learned to be trickier than bigger guys. I liked to experiment. I loved to watch guys and what they'd do in emergency situations. When I practiced, I worked on ways to take advantage of my advantages. I set no dimensions for my game. I decided not to limit myself when I found I could do anything that I had ever seen any guy do—except spin the ball on the end of my finger, which you can't use in a game anyhow.
"There is another reason to experiment in a playground game. There's a whole psychology there that makes you want to beat a guy in a way that makes him pay twice. You want to outscore him and you also want to freak him out with a big move or a big block. That way even if the score is tied, you and he both know you're really ahead.
"That kind of thinking used to dominate my mind in informal game situations, but I feel I've been very fortunate that it has never been part of my concept of how a formal, five-man game should be played. I honestly feel there are guys in the pros who have never stopped thinking that way and it restricts their usefulness. They may end up as high scorers, but they haven't helped their teams."
"The whole playground thing is a means of expression," says Erving's high school coach, Ray Wilson. "For black kids it's an important way of getting your contemporaries' approval. Take a blocked shot. A coach will say what the hell good is it if you block a shot and it goes out of bounds. But for the kid, all he cares about is that moment, one-on-one. You've taken the challenge and beaten your man. You've hurt him and ruined his pride. With black kids, life's all a struggle for pride. Second best is nothing. You've got to establish yourself as No. 1.
"Julius never had those hangups. When he was a junior he didn't start, even though he had to know he was the best player I had. Most kids in his place would've quit because they would've felt that their friends thought them fools to do all that practicing only to play second string.
"I guess why Julius was not affected by this was because he's always been a very self-confident kid. He knew how good he was, but he never bragged about it. He's gotten strength and love at home that a lot of others didn't get. His family was not financially well-off, but his mother's a strong woman. Culturally, Julius' family is rich."
Erving's ability to differentiate between playground and formal basketball has driven him to become a much better fundamental player than his flashy individual moves would lead many spectators to surmise. "The first time I ever saw him warm up," says Moe, "I thought, 'Oh no, here we go again. He's just another showboat.' But I couldn't have been more wrong. Julius was the most mature rookie I've ever seen. When he does something out of the ordinary, he's really only using his body to best advantage."
"Erving's moves are beautiful and they don't disrupt the team," adds Hawk Forward Jim Washington, who stood to lose his starting job if Dr. J. had remained in Atlanta. "He utilizes most of his moves on fast breaks or semi-fast breaks, so they're not out of context. It's not like we set up half court, gave him the ball and he took off on his own."
"Julius is the most exciting player I've ever seen," says Cougar General Manager Carl Scheer. "He'll keep people in the arena until the 48th minute because they're afraid if they leave he might do something nobody's ever seen before or ever will again. He looks like a hot dog, but everything he does has a purpose if you analyze it."
Erving is now almost apologetic about the dunking burst with which he began his pro career. In his first exhibition game, he freaked the 7'2" Gilmore three times and he continued the pattern for months. "The no-dunking rule came in my senior year in high school, so I hadn't been allowed to slam in competition for four years," Dr. J. explains. "At first I couldn't get enough of it. Now if i can shoot a simple layup I usually will, except if I think our team needs a big dunk. It's all psychological then. If we're down a few points and I'm fast-breaking, I'll sometimes decide that the time has come to get freaky. It gets the crowd up and our team and me. Because of the excitement, we'll often start to defend better, to make good plays and to pull ahead. But overall, I'd have to say that as I get older my game gets more conservative."
Squire teammate Neil Johnson agrees. "Last year he used to blow my mind with a new move about three times a game;" he says. "Now it's only about once a game that he'll do something that will leave the guys on the bench looking at each other and just sort of shaking their heads."
Another reason Erving has been dunking less this year is because defenses now sag away from him to prevent his drive and to force him to take his still improving jumper. But his drives, rebounds and passes are still full of extraordinary displays of body control. He is a dart coming off the defensive backboard. He will often grab a rebound with his trailing hand as he twists in midair, propelling his body far out into the lane—and far beyond startled opponents—to kick off the break. On drives, he switches the ball from one hand to the other so easily that he draws far fewer fouls than he deserves. The hand change makes it difficult for the defense to hack him as he shoots, and referees rarely call fouls to the lower body, which is where opponents really operate on the Doctor.
And he still has his moments of brilliant creativity, instances, says Ray Wilson, when Erving should be playing on canvas. In a recent game against San Diego, Erving leaped far out from the board with a defensive rebound, and as opponents have begun to do this season to prevent Dr. J. from taking off on the fast break, one of the Conquistadors jumped in front of him as he went back up in the air to pass. The right-handed lob he planned to throw would have been deflected, so Erving, still airborne, turned 360°, changed hands and flipped a high left-handed pass off his hip before he landed. The ball sailed over the retreating defense and dropped into the hands of Squire Bernie Williams, who took it at full speed and scored a layup.
Later that night, San Diego Assistant Coach Stan Albeck walked up to Erving's table in a Norfolk restaurant. "Man, I thought I'd seen everything," he said. "But that 360° job! Nobody's ever done anything like that. It was unbelievable."
"Thanks," said Dr. J. "It was the only way that I was able to get the job done." And of course, he did it with no sweat.