WINCHESTER — Julius Erving left after two seasons at the University of Massachusetts to play professional basketball.
But the man who would be revered as “Dr. J” and named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history, acknowledges he needed more education.
And he got it in one of the more unusual places to embark on a pro basketball career — Virginia.
After leaving UMass following his junior season in 1971, Erving landed with the Virginia Squires of the American Basketball Association.
When Erving, who served as Sports Marshal for the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival on Saturday, recalls his two seasons with the team that was based in Norfolk, he focuses mostly on the people and education and not the high-flying dunks and spectacular moves that made him a legend.
“It was the relationships and the teaching part of it,” said Erving when asked about his fondest memories with the Squires, who also had future NBA Hall of Famers George Gervin and Charlie Scott on the roster during his time there. “It was getting indoctrinated in pro sports and a job as opposed to high school and college. As a student-athlete, it was an adventure and extra-curricular. This was the whole curricular. This was the curricular at the highest order. It was your focus. Everything counted.
“Once you become a pro, every aspect of your life needs to be focused on that professionalism. You have to maintain that whether you’re at home or abroad. That was a big difference for me.”
Erving, who averaged a mind-bogging 26.3 points and 20.2 rebounds in college, found that the ABA, which was competing for talent with the NBA, was a good place to start his pro career. In five ABA seasons, he averaged 28.7 points and 12.1 rebounds per game and was a human highlight reel most nights.
“Both were unknown entities to me in terms of what it took to make it,” said Erving of the two pro leagues. “I knew what I had. I was hopeful that I could make it, that I could make an impact. My first game, I scored more than 20 points and I grabbed more than 20 rebounds and I felt like I belonged. That might not have happened in the NBA, but it did happen in the ABA.”
The financially strapped Squires traded Erving to the New York Nets after two seasons and Erving would lead that club to ABA titles in 1974 and 1976. Finally, after that final season, something long anticipated happened between the ABA and NBA.
“Agents were saying the merger would be in two years,” Erving recalled. “It wasn’t two years. Two years came and went and there was no merger. It was another three. … It was five years and then suddenly pro basketball’s best were under one roof. I wouldn’t give away those five years for anything. They were very special to me, but it was relationships during that time, and I wouldn’t trade those for anything.”
Erving, now 72, says he maintains contact with several of his former teammates, like former Squires center Jim Eakins and Nets players Brian Taylor and Al Skinner, the former Boston College and Rhode Island head coach. During his trip to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, for his annual physical, Erving usually finds time to play golf with Hall of Famer Artis Gilmore, who was an ABA nemesis with the Kentucky Colonels.
Both Erving and Gilmore, along with former Spirits of St. Louis radio man and NBC broadcast legend Bob Costas, are active in trying to get pensions for former ABA players.
“It’s still a burning issue in terms of the NBA kind of stepping up and taking care of guys who aren’t able to take care of themselves, destitute guys,” Erving said.
Erving made an immediate impact on the NBA after the Philadelphia 76ers bought him from the Nets. Erving led the Sixers to the NBA Finals three times, falling 4-2 to the Los Angeles Lakers twice (1980 and 1982) and 4-2 to the Portland Trail Blazers (1977) before finally hitting paydirt with the arrival of Moses Malone in 1983.
Malone would give the Sixers four future Hall of Famers (Bobby Jones, Maurice Cheeks) and the sharp-shooting Andrew Toney in the lineup. They ripped through the playoffs winning 12 of 13 games and swept the Lakers, who had future Hall of Famers Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes and Bob McAdoo.
“Eighty-three was the ultimate icing on the cake, so to speak,” Erving said. “Everything that happened after that was adding on to statistics, going over 30,000 points or whatever. Eighty-three was a defining moment because I came in in ’71 and gave five years to the ABA and the next seven years to the NBA with three finals appearances and coming in second place. Everyone loves a winner, right? So the validation of me being in that conversation as a winner comes down to ’83. We did it, 12-1. We had to get through three series because we had a bye and we ended up 12-1. Nobody’s done that.”
Erving retired after the 1987 season, but has stayed close to the game. He’s been a coach for Tri State in the Big 3 League, which features former NBA players. The league has its championship trophy named for him.
He says he has his “happy place” at his home where he’ll head down to watch a game on his big screen with a good bottle of wine and a cigar. He says he rarely watches an entire game, but he’s gotten pretty good at predicting who the winner will be by watching the early flow.
While critics of today’s NBA say the game is no longer as physical as it was in his era, Erving has a different take.
“I think the physicality has a lot to do with the body movement on the court,” he said. “Guys are moving so fast now — shaking-and-baking, dancing and doing things that you do in street ball — that you don’t get a chance to hit them. They are not initiating contact when they are moving because they are dancing. Everybody can handle [the ball] … it’s almost like watching the Globetrotters.”
He said the goals are still the same, getting that dunk, open jumper or 3-pointer that the fans love.
“We just arrived at that through a different route,” he explained. “With our routing there was probably more structure than freelance. Freelance is fun. I enjoyed freelance. We would have a fastbreak, but the guys would attack the hoop instead of the three-point line.”
And while he hasn’t dunked on someone professionally for 35 years, Erving is cited by many current players as an influence. You can still find many of his posters available for purchase online as he soars to the hoop on the way to posting career averages of 24.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. With his ABA and NBA totals combined, Erving (30,026) is one of only eight players to top 30,000 career points.
“I coach in the Big 3, so I’m still visible, basketball-wise,” he said of his popularity. “I hear from these guys who are a generation or two generations removed from me. Yeah, it’s great. It’s a compliment.”
But, Erving says he doesn’t dwell on those kinds of things and heard some similar words from the Apple Blossom Grand Marshal during Saturday’s Sports Breakfast.
“Like Terry Bradshaw, I’m looking to the present and the future,” Erving said. “I’m not trying to think back 30, 40 or 50 years ago unless I’m addressing an audience like I did today and sharing my life with them. … I have a documentary. I’ve written a book. Now it’s more about the present and the future.”