Julius Erving, who after 16 years of stardom is in his Last Hurrah with the Philadelphia 76ers, is a lot like Joe DiMaggio in that everybody agrees he is something special: both as a player and a man. It is particularly significant that, despite his flashiness, people who understand basketball have always called him a showman and not a showboat. Right at the start of his this pro career, Erving received the ultimate compliment from his peers, who took one look at him scoring his first basket and immediately labled him a ``franchise player.'' Connecting on a 20-footer wasn't that special, of course - especially in the old American Basketball Association, where defense was an ugly rumor and shooters were plentiful. It was just that Erving arrived at the hoop still attached to the ball, his mode of transportation not unlike that of Mary Poppins, minus the umbrella. While Julius wasn't exactly pro basketball's first man in outer space (a designation usually reserved for Elgin Baylor), he may actually have exceeded Baylor's time in flight.
A player that spectacular has to have a nickname, and it wasn't long before Erving got his. Actually, the first part evolved during his days at the University of Massachusetts, where friends took to calling him ``the Doctor'' and ``the Professor.'' He brought the former one with him to his first ABA team, the Virginia Squires, where teammate Fatty Taylor embellished it to the now-famous ``Dr. J.''
When Erving switched to the established National Basketball Association after five years divided between the Squires and New York Nets, skeptics figured he'd never be able to do the things he had in the ABA.
They couldn't have been more wrong. His special brand of scoring, far from disrupting the team, only made the 76ers stronger, possibly because even though Dr. J. can be wildly creative, he can also be tightly efficient.
With Erving as the focal point, the 76ers became a perennial contender throughout the late 1970s and the '80s, reaching the Eastern finals repeatedly, getting to the championship finals three times only to lose to outstanding Los Angeles and Portland teams, and finally winning everything in 1983.
Individually, Erving has been chosen for the All-Star Game every year of his career, and four times (three in the ABA) has been his league's Most Valuable Player. He started this season 26th in career NBA scoring, and if you include his ABA totals he ranks third on the all-time pro list behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain.
But scoring is only one part of Erving's game. Basically, Dr. J.'s specialty is discouraging his opponents. He doesn't run down the court so much as he flows; he doesn't jump so much as he soars; and he doesn't shoot so much as he programs the basketball to its ultimate destination. Four times during his career (three times in the ABA) he has been his league's most valuable player.
One reason Julius has always played taller than his rather average NBA height of 6 ft. 6 in. can be found in his outsize arms and enormous hands. He wears a size-13 ring and a size-11 glove, and has been able to palm the ball since he was in the seventh grade.
``Most of what I do offensively, I do instinctively,'' Erving told me. ``It's not like it's planned at all. You see daylight, you go to the basket. You get boxed in, you shoot the jumper. I like to penetrate the lane because the closer you get to the basket, the more the percentage comes over to your side. But mostly I do everything off a reaction, and usually when you do that you catch the defense off balance.''
Erving has such extraordinary body control on the way to the basket that he has probably drawn fewer fouls over the years than most superstars have. This is because he switches the ball so easily from one hand to the other to get away from the defensive man that his shooting arm seldom gets hit. He's also up in the air so much that often the defense can't get to him.
Julius once told Sports Illustrated: ``I always had big hands and could jump, so I learned to be trickier than bigger guys. I like to experiment. I love to watch guys and what they'd do in emergency situations. When I practiced, I'd work on ways to take advantage of my own advantages. I set no dimensions for my game. I decided not to limit myself, but to just let things happen.''
Even though Erving was a high school all-star and received nearly 100 scholarship offers from colleges around the country, he was never pursued quite like a Chamberlain or a Michael Jordan. Possibly this was because he matured a little later than most high school players (he had a thin body, and he was only 6-3 when he graduated), or possibly too many recruiters didn't see him enough to get a full impression of his varied talents.
Whatever the reason, Julius reportedly accepted the advice of his high school coach in Roosevelt, N.Y., to be content with being a big car in a little garage. He chose UMass, where he majored in personnel management and basketball, although not necessarily in that order.
Three years later, Erving was so ready for the pros that he skipped his senior season and signed a two-year, $250,000 contract with the Squires. Next he was traded to the Nets, where he played until they sold his rights to the 76ers before the 1976-77 season.
One thing the 37-year-old Dr. J. seemed eager to get on the record with the media during this year's NBA All-Star break in Seattle was his reason for retirement.
``I wouldn't want anyone to make the assumption that just because I've made this my last time around that I don't think I can play anymore,'' he told reporters. ``That is not the reason why I'm quitting. I'm leaving because I don't want to play anymore, not because I can't.''