Before MJ, Kobe and LeBron, there was “Dr. J.” Julius Erving was one of basketball’s first great showmen – a 6-7, 210-lb. aerial artist who seemed to defy gravity with his soaring dunks or swooping layups. Even today, more than 30 years after his final NBA game, the Good Doctor remains the author of some of basketball’s most iconic moments. What NBA fan could forget Erving’s free-throw line dunk in the first-ever slam dunk contest; his behind-the-backboard scoop layup in the 1980 NBA Finals; or his “rock-the-baby” cuff dunk over the Los Angeles Lakers’ Michael Cooper? And he did it all with a style and grace that made him the game’s most popular player of his generation.
Without further ado, here are 15 interesting facts about the legendary Julius Erving:
♦ Erving was born on Feb. 22, 1950 in East Meadow, New York. (He celebrated his 70th birthday this year.) He attended Roosevelt High School in Hempstead, Nassau County New York. Actor-comedian Eddie Murphy and radio personality Howard Stern are also Roosevelt alums.
♦ His nickname “Dr. J” was given to him by a high school friend named Leon Saunders. Erving referred to Saunders as “The Professor,” and Saunders started calling Erving “The Doctor.” In Erving’s April 2018 podcast, “House Call with Dr. J,” Saunders recalled Erving telling him, “You act like you know it all, like you’re some kind of professor,” to which Sanders replied, “Well, what does that make you? A doctor?”
♦ Erving played two years of college ball at the University of Massachusetts, where he averaged 26.3 points and 20.2 rebounds per game. He is one of only five players in NCAA history to average more than 20 points and 20 rebounds in his career. (The others are Bill Russell, Paul Silas, Artis Gilmore and Kermit Washington.)
♦ Erving left UMass after his junior season in 1971 to join the Virginia Squires of the American Basketball Association. He signed a four-year contract with the Squires that would pay him a total of $500,000. For one season (1973), one of Erving’s teammates was a young rookie named George Gervin.
♦ In 1972, the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks drafted Erving. At the time, Erving was embroiled in a contract dispute with the Squires and was attempting to jump to the older, more established league. Instead of joining the Bucks, however, Erving signed with the Atlanta Hawks and began playing in preseason games with the team. A district judge soon ruled that Erving was obligated to fulfill his contract with the Squires. (Interesting note: If Erving had joined Milwaukee, his teammates would have included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. And during his brief stint in Atlanta, Erving got to play with “Pistol” Pete Maravich.)
Julius Erving was named MVP in both the NBA and ABA.
♦ In 1973, the financially struggling Squires traded Erving to the New York Nets. “Dr. J” promptly led the Nets to their first ABA championship, and then led them to another title in 1976 – the league’s final season before being merged into the NBA. Erving’s ABA portfolio included two league titles, three MVP awards and four All-ABA First-Team honors. In his five seasons in the league, he averaged 28.7 points, 12.1 rebounds and 4.8 assists per contest.
♦ Under the merger agreement, NBA absorbed four ABA teams: the Nets, San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers. In addition to paying a league entry fee, the Nets had to pay the New York Knicks $4.8 million for infringing on their territory. Suddenly strapped for cash, the team reneged on its promise to raise Erving’s salary, prompting Erving to hold out. NBA teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks tried to land the marketable star, but in the end the Nets sent Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers.
♦ In Erving’s first season in Philadelphia, he led the team to the NBA Finals, where the ’Sixers fell to Bill Walton and the Portland Trailblazers in six games. Erving’s teammates that year included All-Star forward George McGinnis, guard Doug Collins, a young Darryl Dawkins and Lloyd Free (later known as World B. Free), and Joe Bryant, the father of Kobe Bryant.
♦ In 1979, Erving starred in “The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh,” a basketball comedy that is today considered a cult classic. The plot centered around a struggling pro team that finds success by rebuilding the entire roster with players born under the astrological sign of Pisces. Also appearing in the film were Jonathan Winters, Stockard Channing, Flip Wilson, Debbie Allen, Meadowlark Lemon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
♦ Erving led the 76ers to the NBA Finals in 1980 and ’82, but the team fell to the Lakers on both occasions. Finally, in 1983, after the team acquired All-Star center Moses Malone, Erving and the ’Sixers captured the league championship by sweeping the Lakers. In that four-game series, Erving averaged 19 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5 assists.
Erving finally got his NBA championship in 1983.
♦ Erving was voted NBA MVP in 1981, a season in which he averaged 24.6 points, 8 boards, 4.4 assists and 2.1 steals a game. He is the only player in history to have won league MVP awards in both the ABA and NBA.
♦ Erving retired after the 1986-87 season at the age of 37. At the time, he ranked third on the career scoring list, with 30,026 points (NBA/ABA combined) over 16 seasons. Today, he is eighth on the all-time scoring list, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Dirk Nowitzki and Wilt Chamberlain.
♦ Erving was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993, his first year of eligibility. The 1993 class of inductees also included Bill Walton, Calvin Murphy, Dan Issel, Walt Bellamy and Ann Meyers.
♦ Erving is the father of professional tennis player Alexandra Stevenson, who in 1999 became the first woman qualifier in the open era to reach the Wimbledon semifinals. Until that time, it was not public knowledge that Erving was her father.
♦ The “Julius Erving Award” was established in 2015. The award is annually presented to the top small forward in college basketball. The winner for this past season was Saddiq Bey of Villanova.
Here’s a short but excellent career retrospective on Julius Erving, the great Dr. J:
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