MY TRIBUTE TO JULIUS ERVING (REVISED)

FROM THE HOSS MARTIN ARCHIVES:

On Monday, June 10, 2013, the highly anticipated and long overdue retrospective on the career of Julius Erving will air on NBA TV called The Doctor, which has been adequately advertised on sports broadcasting outlets throughout the land. Personally, I believe this will be an excellent opportunity for many in my generation and those following to understand how this athlete impacted society.

The significance of Erving in my life is based on the fact that he was the very first sports figure that I had ever seen on television and in person. From my initial experiences of elementary school, I was so absorbed by Erving that I took the opportunity to draw and pay homage to him during art period while teachers had time to prepare the next lesson. I immediately thought of how this interpretation of my hero would appear.

Unfortunately, my artwork did not become the masterpiece that I had intended. I maladroitly portrayed the American legend in exaggerated ebony hues with the largest natural (afro) in recorded history donning the number six in the front. My teacher inevitably asked, “Who is this supposed to be?” “He’s Dr. J,” I responded.

Now, I certainly had no delusions of becoming the next Monet, but I did not believe that I would devolve into the Lord, help him (class clown) label for at least that morning in a private school. This was one of many comedy classics I provided my parents over the years that would not be surpassed until I feebly attempted to impersonate veteran broadcaster George Blaha (Detroit Pistons) via cassette tape recorder a few years later. Both of these unspectacular efforts are hidden deeply in the Martin Family archives never to be opened until my daughters place me in a retirement home or something of the sort.

Regardless of these puerile episodes, The Doctor was a fixture in my backyard as Dwayne, Richard, Michael, a host of neighborhood characters, and myself would attempt to play basketball just like Mr. Erving did, especially while using an autographed Artis Gilmore red, white, and blue ball. Richard would ultimately have the ability to pattern his game after Erving due to his size and agility as he often yelled, “Doc!” while hitting the game-winning basket; those would be the only moments that I dreaded hearing a Dr. J reference in my life.

I was not quite as fortunate as Richard in possessing Erving’s skillset. No, my game resembled Dennis Johnson of 1989-1990 (his last season and not that of the 1979 World Champion Seattle Supersonics, etc.) than anything else. When I attended a summer basketball camp at the University of Toledo one year, Stan Joplin, one of the camp’s coaches (a man I still have a tremendous amount of respect for to very this day) once told me, “Son, you are running this drill like you have arthritis in your knees.” At the time all I could envision was seeing Redd Foxx playing a character curling his fingers in an attempt to deceive his son in one of the best television series of all time, and I knew then that I would never be like The Doctor.

As for Julius Erving, I tend to view his career in three phases as follows: the ABA era, transition into NBA, and championship to retirement. Since the American Basketball Association did not appear to have the proper fortune of being as well-organized as its American Football League counterparts, Dr. J’s exploits in his early days as a professional relied heavily on the lore of personal accounts due to the lack of broadcasting opportunities at the time. There was enough footage depicting the gifted Erving seemingly soaring through the air in suspended animation with the famed tri-colored ball in one hand with the only movement coming from his finely coiffed hair en route to a slam dunk.

Unfortunately, The Doctor had little choice but to languish in the old ABA perhaps for a longer duration than what he may have anticipated with the entwinement of jurisprudence between the Virginia Squires, Milwaukee Bucks, and Atlanta Hawks that ultimately prevented fans from seeing Erving team-up with Oscar Robertson & Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Bucks) or with Pete Maravich and the Atlanta Hawks. Either option that would have allowed Dr. J to leave the ABA would have drastically altered professional basketball history. Instead, Erving proceeded to win two ABA titles before the eventual merger between the National Basketball Association and American Basketball Association.

After another circumstance of the imbroglio, Erving’s career was part of another soap opera as the former New York Nets (Brooklyn Nets today) and New York Knicks somehow failed to secure Dr. J, which sent both franchises into a tailspin as he went on to make the improving Philadelphia 76ers championship contenders. Most NBA fans assumed that Erving, Caldwell Jones, and then Lloyd Free were virtual locks to win a world championship during the 1976 season until Bill Walton and friends defeated Philadelphia.

A few years later, my dad would drive the family to the Pontiac Silverdome to see the Detroit Pistons compete against various teams. The Pistons were in transition from Dick Vitale’s short tenure as head coach to the arrival of Isiah Thomas and Kelly Tripucka that would finally release the snake-bitten franchise out its doldrums. Of course, Detroit would use any promotion possible from wristbands to gym bags to lure fans to the gates, but nothing needed to be done or said when the 76ers arrived. Amazingly, the Pistons usually gave their best effort against Doc in comparison to the uninspired games against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Dr. J’s celebrity status grew exponentially playing against NBA competition along with endorsements and even a theatrical endeavor in the film, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. Yes, the movie was not any better than Semi-Pro or Space Jam; it just had an appeal seeing Doc with Meadowlark Lemon in a fictional account, though.

By 1980, my allegiance was vacillating between Erving’s 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals because Magic Johnson had just led my favorite college basketball team to an NCAA title the season prior. Even as I wavered, I was captivated by Doc’s levitation along the baseline as one of the most memorable shots in league history for a man who was approximately 30 years old at the time. LA would prevail countervailing Dr. J’s NBA title hopes for another season.

The infusion of new talent in the NBA like Earvin Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, and Dominique Wilkins made Erving’s odds of winning an outright world championship even more unlikely as his abilities were changing due to several seasons of professional basketball. In 1982, Erving finally received the kind of assistance that he needed so many years before when Philadelphia acquired Moses Malone to be the lynchpin and catalyst for a world championship in a rematch against the Los Angeles Lakers. 76ers’ confidence was so high that even Malone stepped into presumption as he made his grand promulgation, “Fo’, fo’, fo’” in relation to Philadelphia having the ability to sweep teams in four consecutive games during the playoffs; the bold presage was only off by one game as Doc earned a coveted world championship.

Although Erving would compete for three more seasons following, it was evident that he would probably never win another ring as a competitor since Charles Barkley was in the nascent stage of his very own Hall of Fame career beginning with an aging 76ers. In addition, the aspiring Michael Jordan would take the NBA and the world by storm with a convergence of determination and clever marketing that is yet to be matched regardless of sport. By 1987, The Doctor would retire from the hardwood with the kind of class and dignity that did not allow him to attempt to settle age-old enmities in his Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction speech.

After his induction, the evolution of yellow journalism and changing attitudes about capturing celebrities in moments of indiscretion has even been deleterious to a man, such as Erving, who was as careful about his public image as humanly possible. While I did not expect Dr. J to be perfect regardless, I naively assumed he had built such good rapport with media that it would have shielded him from the tabloids. This could provide a partial explanation for Allen Iverson’s aversion or at least distrust of the press when his career began.

Sadly, I have learned over the years that it is ill-conceived for us to expect superstars to be sanctified every second of a day while we are full of imperfections ourselves. This is a proper metaphor for sanctimonious behavior. Nonetheless, Julius Winfield Erving II will always be my favorite athlete of all time whether or not I ever have the fortune to make acquaintance with “the” number six.

Saturday, June 01, 2013