I was 12 years-old when I stepped inside Madison Square Garden for the very first time.
The year was 1976, it was Christmas night and the Philadelphia 76ers were in town to face my New York Knicks.
Mom had a friend named Jerry who worked at the Garden; it was Mom’s gift to us.
My brother and I, who was four years older sat in the “red seats” just inches from the court; we were right behind the Knicks bench.
The 76ers were a very good team. They had George McGinnis, Doug Collins and World B. Free in their line-up but their biggest star was the Doctor, Julius Erving. I felt good that night because the Knicks had Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Spencer Haywood, Lonnie Shelton and Bob McAdoo.
It was only just a few months before that game I travelled from Brooklyn to Manhattan all alone to see Doc at Power Memorial High School. Erving was a guest speaker at a clinic sponsored by Converse. Only I don’t recall him speaking, just dunking. All I remember is Doc running really fast down the court and taking off from the foul-line, throwing down a vicious slam and walking out of the gym.
The place went bonkers!
I was in the crowded gym that morning but by myself. No parent, no coach and no older brother. To this day I can’t believe I hopped on the New York Subway at 9 a.m. and made my way to the gym where Kareem Abdul-Jabber played his high school basketball. But it was the Doc, one of the best players in basketball.
We had watched Erving on TV many times but I never had seen him in person while a member of the Nets. They played their home games out on Long Island at the Nassau Coliseum. We didn’t have a car nor could we afford tickets.
There were kids in my schoolyard that thought they were the Doctor. One kid, Jimmy Corrar even wore number 32 for our school team.
“You watch Julius and you begin to think everybody can do it. But watching him is dangerous. You start to think you can equal his accomplishments.”
Corrar tried to duplicate Julie’s moves, wasn’t even close.
In the book, ‘Doc’ written by Vincent M. Mallozzi, there is a copy of a scouting report filed by Howard Garfinkle of the famous 5-Star Basketball Camp. “Garf” used to rate and publish a report that he distributed to colleges around the country. Here is what Garf said about the Doc when he was in high school at Roosevelt.
“Huge hands, long arms. Lots of talent but in two looks have not seen shooting range. Tough scorer around basket with either hand. Classy kid.”
Garf also gave Erving a “10” in the attitude department.
During his senior year in high school Erving had a decision to make on where he wanted to attend college; it came down to St. John’s University and UMass. Doc signed with UMass and it must be noted that his high school coach, Ray Wilson followed him; he was hired as an assistant coach.
At UMass Doc played two seasons on the varsity team. In his first season playing on varsity (his sophomore year) he scored 25 PPG and pulled down 20 RPG. This was a time when freshmen were ineligible to play varsity. In his junior year he scored 32 PPG and grabbed 20 RPG.
Doc’s college coach Jack Leaman said: “He’s as important to us as Russell was to the Celtics…People see really se only half of his ability – his scoring & rebounding. But he can also make the super pass like Cousy. Then he can hit a man at 3/4 court when we fast break. Add to this his excellent defense. When a player his size is ranked nationally in rebounding, he has to be doing something right. I can’t believe that there’s a better sophomore in the country.”
Doc declared hardship. But in the days of short shorts and no cable television, you had to wait for your class to graduate before you were eligible for the NBA draft. There was no rule to playing in the ABA though. Doc signed with the Virginia Squires.
“We had heard about Julius Erving and asked for a tape of him. We got this grainy back-and-white film of the UMass-North Carolina game in the NIT. The quality was so bad that you could hardly tell what was going on, but we saw enough of Julius to sign him after his junior year. Since we;d never seen him live before he wore a Squires uniform, we thought he’d be able to help us on the boards and we’d hope he be able to score some. We had no idea what he’d become,” said Johnny “Red” Kerr who helped the Squires sign Doc.
All he did was average 27 PPG as a rookie.
Boston U coach Charlie Luce: “To me he is a 6-5 Connie Hawkins. He can shoot inside and outside and the way he controls those boards is something else, He can drive well, too…His overall ability, timing and reaction are just fantastic.”
An amazing comparison.
The late Chuck Daly once said of Doc while he was at UMass: “As good as he is now, he’ll be better. He has unlimited potential and I think he’s just scratching the surface. He has a neat scoring touch from 18 feet. If he gets within six feet of your basket, you just can’t stop him. I like his rebound range. He doesn’t just go up like a guy in a test tube. If that ball is within four or five feet, he’ll get it. The way he can extend his arms, use those long fingers and control a game is remarkable. I’m sure he’ll get bigger, better and stronger. He has the makings of a superstar.”
During his rookie season in Virginia Doc’s teammates were Charlie Scott (Virginia’s’ leading scorer 34 PPG) and Doug Moe. The following year the Milwaukee Bucks drafted Erving 12th in the 1972 draft. To refresh your memory, that was the draft where the Portland Trailblazers selected LaRue Martin with the first overall pick in the draft. It was also the draft that saw Russ Lee and Tom Riker go ahead of Doc. Now here’s my thing; in his rookie season he scored 27 PPG, NBA GM’s didn’t see that?
Jack Donohue: “He’s sensational…he runs a lot faster than most big guys…what a future he has.”
Instead of signing with the Bucks, who had Oscar Robertson, Bobby Dandridge and Kareem Abdul-Jabber on their roster, Erving signed instead with the Atlanta Hawks. Could you imagine what that Bucks team would have been like with Doc? The year before the draft they went 63-19.
“Julius is just too good,” said Red Auerbach.
Erving managed to play a couple of exhibition games with Pete Maravich. The league stepped in and said he couldn’t play anymore so it was back to the ABA. Basketball writer and one of the best historians of the game David Friedman writes about the two playing together on his blog, 20 Second Time-out.
The Squires sent Doc to the New York Nets after two seasons. Erving played four years for the Nets where he led them to two ABA rings. He won it in his first year with the Nets and in his last. In the 1976 finals against the Denver Nuggets Erving dominated. In game one, he scored 45 points including the game winning shot at the buzzer from the corner. This against one of the best defenders of all time, Bobby Jones. Doc shot 17-25 from the field and 11 for 11 from the line. In game two Doc scored 48 points. His battle against David Thompson was one of the all-time classics. My friend and reader of the blog, Al McNeil told me, “the best series I ever saw in the ABA.”
Erving was named MVP of the finals.
Doc was named ABA regular season MVP three times and was voted All-ABA First Team four years.
“I can’t give you the three best players of all-time in the ABA but I can give you my two favorites; Connie (Hawkins) and Julius Erving,” said Mark Cuban.
In 1976 the NBA and ABA merged. The Nets acquired Nate ‘The Skate’ Archibald from Kansas City in exchange for Brian Taylor and Jim Eakins. The Doc and Nate the Skate together on the same team? Nets fans were looking forward to taking on the teams of the NBA.
But it never worked out.
Money was a huge problem with Nets owner Roy Boe. The Nets had to pay the NBA to enter the league and they also had to pay the New York Knicks to be in the same area.
The Nets sold Doc to the 76ers in October for $3 million. The best player from the ABA went on to play 11 seasons in the city of Brotherly Love. The Nets fell apart; with Erving gone, and Archibald playing only 34 games because of an injury they went from ABA champions to 22-60.
During his first season in Philadelphia Doc led the Sixers to the finals only to fall to the Portland Trailblazers, 4-2.
Over the first six years in Philly, Doc’s team fell three times in the finals. Finally, in 1983 he won his NBA ring by sweeping the Lakers. He was named All-NBA First Team five times.
“Julius was a fierce competitor like all great players. People might not have noticed that on a regular basis because of the way he conducted himself,” said Billy Cunningham, Doc’s coach in Philadelphia.
Pete Vecsey, who coached Doc in the Rucker league and has been writing about the NBA for a million years compared Erving to Michael Jordan when #23 entered the league. Talking to Doc Vecsey said, “Julius, you don’t understand, he’s you with a jump-shot!”
As a young boy on that Christmas night 36 years ago watching Erving and his teammates beat the Knicks 105-104 left an impression on me; despite only scoring 16 points I watched Doc make two big baskets down the stretch to kill any chance the Knicks had of winning. It was World B. Free, the Brooklyn native who led Philly in scoring that night with 30 but it was the Doc who I thought about while sitting on the train on my way home.
“Erving saved the ABA and helped spur the merger. He was the game’s unofficial ambassador and paved the way for Michael Jordan,” said Elliott Kalb
20 Second Timeout Blog (David Friedman)
Doc: The Rise and Rise of Julius Erving (Vincent M. Mallozzi)
Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Basketball (Elliott Kalb)
The Book of Basketball (Bill Simmons)
NBA at 50 (Mark Vancil)