This piece was originally published in Dime #71. To see the feature in its entirety, check out the magazine on newsstands nationwide…
Julius Erving had a marketable nickname, incredible mid-air acrobatics and a flair for the dramatic. He was the first modern superstar. Even though he stopped dunking on centers’ heads 25 years ago, with his connection to the current NBA, it feels like Dr. J never really left. But now that the Philadelphia 76er legend is hooked on with the team as a Strategic Advisor, we can expect to see a whole lot more of the Doctor.
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Yes, I drove 101 miles on a dreary Friday night from Baltimore, Maryland to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for a handshake.
Traffic wasn’t stopping me. The thunder wasn’t going to either. I-95 was more like a parking lot than a highway, but I wasn’t turning around unless someone reached out and struck me with lightning. I had to get there, had to be there. I had to see those hands, and wasn’t leaving without at least one firm handshake.
That is, until you learn the hand I hoped to shake is the same right mitt that once crowned Michael Cooper on one of the most famous plays in NBA history. It’s the same one responsible for the greatest reverse layup ever, as well as the 30,026 points Julius Erving scored as a professional basketball player. I wasn’t going for just anyone’s hands. I was going to see the Doctor.
While those hands helped define Erving’s style on the court, his style off the floor is all Converse. They were the giants of the sneaker game throughout Erving’s playing days, and his first signature shoe paved the way for Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and later Michael Jordan and Penny Hardaway.
“And with my uniform, I had on sneakers,” Erving told the crowd gathered at UBIQ in downtown Philly on that Friday night. “Sneakers when I played. Sneakers when I practiced. Sometimes sneakers when I was out there shoveling snow. And each and every time I had on my sneakers, I had on my Converse.”
When Converse decided to bring back Erving’s Pro Leathers as a lifestyle shoe this summer, they unveiled the collection at UBIQ with the help of the Hall of Famer. He’s back now from time to time in Philadelphia, and promises to be in the City of Brotherly Love even more as the recently-hired strategic advisor for the 76ers.
What did I do the moment I saw the regal Erving walk into the store? I shook his hand of course. And then did it two or three more times before the night was over. In-between, we talked, and Erving educated.
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Dime: How often do you still get out to Philly?
Julius Erving: You know what? I’ve been here for the last two weeks, I’ve been here twice. With my business collaboration in Atlantic City, as well as my consulting role with the 76ers, I think over the next 12 months, I’m going to be here a dozen or more times for various reasons.
Dime: Does the city always bring back great memories?
JE: Absolutely. Absolutely. Everywhere you look when you’re walking around Philadelphia, you see something unique, and Atlanta is not like that. Atlanta is more of a driving city. Traffic is out there, and you’ll be driving everywhere. But here you walk, and the walking is great. I just love walking around downtown in the inner city, West Philly… I just love getting out of the car and walking. There’s something about Philadelphia that other places just don’t have, other places just don’t have. It’s odd. You could have a $25 million business sitting next to a place where they’re lucky if they can do $60,000 you know? So, the mixing and matching makes the neighborhoods what they are, and I like it.
Dime: The fans have a strong reputation for being vocal and loud. When you were playing, what was it like to perform in front of them?
JE: Ah, it was hard. It was hard in that there were certain things you didn’t say. You didn’t grab a microphone and say, “I’ve never been booed” because then you were gonna get booed or whatever. Philly fans are very demanding, and if you were having a rough night, they let you have it. They let you have it. So that was not only reputation, that was a fact, and players who came here, they knew that. Some players couldn’t take it. Fortunately, I was one of those guys who could take it and most nights I played, it was representative of what my God-given gifts were, so I didn’t experience very much of the downside or none that I can recall, as they say in court (laughs).
Dime: Everyone always points to you as one of the guys who started the line of great athletes like Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Vince Carter. Doing all of that unbelievable stuff around the rim, did that always come naturally? Did you have any influences?
JE: Yeah. For me, Connie Hawkins and Elgin Baylor were the two guys who were the most creative who played my position, so they were the guys I tried to emulate. And in addition to that, I guess God or somebody put certain things in my heart or in my mind that made me do things a little differently than they had done them or maybe how anybody else had done them, so I was able to be an innovator. But it started out by being inspired… those two in particular. They were great inspirations.