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.
Dime: Did you play against Connie Hawkins a lot in the summer?
JE: Nah, I played against Connie Hawkins once. Once. It was like an all-star game, barnstorming all-star game, and we were in a movie together, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. He was with L.A. and I was with the Pythons so that was it. That was it. I didn’t have the luxury. I would’ve enjoyed playing against him. And Elgin Baylor, I never got to play against him. He was retired before I got in.
Dime: Now you played at Rucker Park a lot in the summer. Was that one of your favorite spots to play at during the summer?
JE: Well my first five years as a pro from age 21 to 26, I played in the Rucker. Then after that, I couldn’t play all year round anymore. It was just too hard on my legs, but those first five years… The Rucker league helped to make me, and it gave me a lot of confidence. I would have games where I scored 50 or 60 points, but they just kept the clock going, so I knew what I was capable of, and the other players, the other coaches and people around the sport knew what I was capable of in large part because of what I was able to demonstrate in Rucker Park.
Dime: As far as the Converse Pro Leathers, were you wearing those throughout your whole career?
JE: Yeah. I pretty much wore Dr. J Pro Leathers throughout my whole career. Every now and then I’d switch off to a little suede version of the same thing. It was pretty much from top to bottom. We came with a Dr. J Classic at some point in time, but Pro Leathers, I’d say for my 11 years in the NBA, I wore those every year.
Dime: Were they strictly on-court?
JE: The low-cut version you’d wear off the court. It was a stylish shoe on and off. When I was playing ball when I hit Philly, I was 26, so when you’re 26 to 30, you still wear sneakers, you know? Plus, I had kids. I had to go out in the park, run with them, play, bike ride, do all of those things that you put on sneakers to do. Converse was really very much a utility shoe â€“ the low-cut version â€“ but the high-top, I always wore high-tops when I played.
Dime: So you’re not surprised that it’s coming back out as more of a lifestyle shoe?
JE: No, because the way technology has evolved. I think performance-wise, there’s so much high-tech stuff associated with shoes now, you gotta market ’em that way. I think the Pro Leather was more of a pure play: leather, rubber, combine, and that was it. My shoes were always made on a last. Now shoes have to be designed on a computer. You can’t design them on a last.
Dime: When you were playing, how often did you go through sneakers?
JE: I could wear sneakers for a good month or two.
Dime: It’s different now…
JE: Oh, I know. They play and wear them for a week, and then sign them up, and ship them out. But no, sneakers would last me for a month or two.
Dime: A lot of people spent the summer debating whether Team USA could beat the Dream Team. If you guys had a Dream Team from your era, whom would you take as your five?
JE: Well if it was 1982 versus ’92, then you’re gonna have a couple of the same guys because Magic and Larry were still promising at that time. But you’d definitely have Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I think he’d be the central figure, and then ’82… I really like Marques Johnson who was with Sidney Moncrief in Milwaukee. Patrick Ewing was a young player, he was in New York at the time. ’82, ’82, ’82… yeah, those guys would be on the team. Boston had Bird, Parish and McHale so you’re going to take Bird off of that team. New York had Patrick. I think Karl Malone was still a significant player at that time (mid-to-late ’80s), and he was on the second (Olympic) Dream Team. So it would’ve been interesting. I couldn’t give you 12 guys right off the top of my head. I’d have to think about it a little bit.
Dime: Some say the golden age of basketball was the late ’80s and early ’90s. Would you say that the talent level during your heyday was comparable to any other point in NBA history? Would you guys be able to beat those teams?
JE: I don’t know what the golden age of basketball means. I think each generation has their own pin names in terms of what they represented. I started in 1971 and I finished in 1987, and to me, that was an era in which we saw the change from the old roundball league to the high-wire act playing above the rim, no-look passes, the whole thing. So I was a part of both. I started in ’71, finished in ’87, so in those 16 years, that was definitely a time for the game to change and evolve, and that era was special to a lot of people who still come up to me today and say that was the best time in their life.
Could the best players from Erving’s era beat the Dream Team and the players of the modern game?
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