His admirers flailed about, trying to nickname him, groping for a handle that best captured what it was that he brought to the game. They tried the Claw, Black Moses, Jewel, but none caught on. Finally people came around to something that had been there all along. Back in his old New York neighborhood, in the Long Island town of Roosevelt, the young Julius Erving had called a guy the Professor, and the guy had reciprocated by calling him the Doctor, a moniker by which Erving would ultimately be known to all of the basketball world. Dignified, a practitioner, every bit a professional, Dr. J (an ABA teammate, Fatty Taylor, later added the initial) was as useful for the ideal he represented as for the player he was. "There have been some better people off the court—like a few mothers and the pope," said Pat Riley, who faced Erving while coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. "But there was only one Dr. J the player."
Erving's beginnings hardly prefigured his ultimate hold on the game. Born into the relatively comfortable surroundings of suburban New York, he went off unnoticed to play college ball at Massachusetts. After three statistically impressive seasons performing at UMass in the out-of-the-way Yankee Conference, he was still largely unknown. He attracted enough attention, though, to be drafted by both the fledgling ABA and the NBA. "My god, did you see those meat hooks?" said Al Bianchi, the coach of the ABA Virginia Squires, as he was leaving the 1971 press conference at which Erving's signing with the Squires was announced.
His physical features helped set him apart—not just the hands, but the 6'7" long-stemmed build, and the magnificent Afro that ebbed and flowed with the prevailing fashion. A knack for passing, shooting and even rebounding one-handed distinguished him too. When Erving topped a poll of sportswriters and sportscasters taken at the end of his career to determine the nicest guy in sports, basketball must have fully realized that it had been favored with the presence of a rare figure: someone who embodied the most old-fashioned virtues while performing the most futuristic and apparently superhuman feats. Those feats conferred credibility on the upstart ABA; the NBA had the tradition, the major markets, the network contract, but unless you bought a ticket to an ABA game, you couldn't see the Doc-ta. If Erving didn't actually force the 1976 ABA-NBA merger, he was surely the most valuable asset the young league brought to the table. And when Magic and Larry and Michael took charge in the early '80s, all three took their cues for comportment on and off the court from the Doc and his ambassadorial carriage.
Erving's ABA valedictory, the '76 series in which he led his New York Nets past the Denver Nuggets for the league's final championship, may be the least-seen great achievement in sports. With his move to the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers, Erving went public. He was no longer a cult act playing smoky halls half full of aficionados who had become hip to him by word of mouth. And in that public light a question arose: When his NBA career ends, will this surpassingly gifted athlete be able to boast of sports' great affirmation of the team, a championship? Erving had been part of a laughable Philly team, a collection of free spirits that blew a two-game lead to the Portland Trail Blazers in the '77 NBA Finals. From that, Erving suffered. "Winning a championship," he would say, "is the only thing that will erase that." And here Erving drew on that reservoir of goodwill he had engendered over the years. Rather than blaming the Sixers' failures on their star's individualism, fans rooted like hell for him to win the title, which would be the only appropriate capstone to his career. And in '83 the Doctor won his NBA crown. The Sixers clinched it in Game 4 against the Lakers in the most appropriate way possible, with Erving throwing in a dagger of an 18-footer late in the game. "I didn't find that shot," he said. "It found me."
One last time, just weeks before retiring in 1987, he would reach back. Scoring 38 points in a home game against the Indiana Pacers, Erving seemed to anthologize his career. The tomahawk dunks, spin moves and converted alley-oops echoed the Doctor at his height. The finger rolls and feathery jumpers bespoke the Doc in descent. The essence of Julius Erving, the quality that placed him and his game in a category above that of the commonplace juke artists and session jammers, always was his grace.
NEIL LEIFER, 1977