Julius Erving Dives Into Joel Embiid’s Case For MVP, And Why The Finals Are The Real Goal For The Sixers

HOUSTON – Julius Erving has a word for every kid on the court. He brings them in close so they can hear him over the bass rippling throughout the expansive convention center. While many of the children in oversized gray shirts have no idea who he is, their parents certainly do, and they all must’ve let their kids know to be polite and pay attention. It’s Dr. J, after all.

Erving does this often. At All-Star, he still draws a crowd, in restaurants and in hotel lobbies. And he makes time, every time. He’s quick with a story, an answer, a photo, or an autograph that is often on a picture of him dunking. Erving mentions that Bill Russell was the ideal elder statesman for the game, and his loss has impacted Dr. J as much as anyone else in basketball. But Erving relishes his chance to take up the mantle, even if basketball isn’t his only passion as he ages gracefully and enjoys the fruits of retirement.

Before trying to grab a little peace at the hotel, Erving speaks to the crowd that’s gathered, holding jerseys and posters at the Degree activation at Fan Fest. He mentions Russell’s impact, his time at UMass, and the importance of walk-ons to the DNA of a program.

“Walk-ons are the heart of a team,” Erving says. “Their determination is what keeps them around.”

Erving announces the fifth winner of Degree’s Walk-On program, Fairleigh Dickinson’s Braden Reynolds, who played 12 minutes in the team’s incredible upset of No. 1 Purdue during the first weekend of this year’s tournament. Reynolds and the other four winners each got a $25,000 NIL deal, and in Reynolds’ case, complete with an oversized check and a picture with Dr. J.

In the midst of this, Dime got the chance to speak with Erving about NIL, staying young, and this year’s Sixers.

What are your feelings on the NIL generation? And if you had that opportunity, what would that have been like for you?

Well, it would be a different result than what it is now. I don’t know how much different, because I did play for one college team. I played for three professional teams, so the NIL speaks to that, I probably would not have left the school that I went to. I was very happy with UMass. I got a scholarship there. I was moderately recruited my senior year of high school. I grew to 6′ 4”, 175 pounds and graduated at 6′ 4. And in college I grew two more inches, gained 30 pounds and became Dr. J, as they say. So it wasn’t automatic, there weren’t any assumptions being made. I didn’t think seriously about professional basketball until after my sophomore year when I went to the Olympic Development team and I found that I could compete with the guys. And I was the lead scorer and rebounder in this 13-game series that we did over in Europe, and I said, “Whoa, I might be the best guy on this team.”

It was 1970, so that opened a door and it opened my mind. But I never took it for granted, I always wanted to put the work in and wanted to prove myself.

In terms of your evolution, not just as a player but as a representative of the game — I saw you in the media hotel at NBA All-Star again this year and you always take time to take pictures, you always take time to sign autographs, you always take time especially to be around the kids. Where did that come from? And do you feel an extra bit of almost responsibility or accountability now that we’ve lost (Bill) Russell, and being that person now to be the guy that can keep carrying the torch for not just the NBA, but all of basketball?

I think I might be one of the guys who are next in line to follow the path of Bill Russell, of being respected on the court as well as off the court. And it’s not an easy task, not something you take for granted. I mean, I don’t spend 100 percent of my time being involved in basketball-related things. I would say it’s probably closer to 25 percent of my time. And the other 75 percent of the time is family, or personal goals and ambitions, and just taking some downtime away and finding a way to relax and stay healthy. That is a big thing, staying healthy. So, I think my Salvation Army experience had a lot to do with it because their motto is “not for ourselves, but for others.” So the whole idea of doing something and knowing it’s not necessarily for you it’s for someone else, it’s ingrained in me.

And I like that, I believe it, and I like to do that because I like the result at the end, which is people coming back and giving you feedback and saying thank you. And you can never get tired of people saying thank you for being a blessing in their life, being a guiding light in their life. Being somebody who has given them something to believe in, being an influence.

You had mentioned trying to make sure your health is important to you, and aging gracefully is something that I think you’ve probably taken a lot of pride in. What do you do physically now to make sure you keep things going? And then what also do you do mentally to make sure you’re continuing to be the person that you want to be as you continue to get older? You look like you could live another 50 years or so.

Well, maybe not 50. I hope so. Hopefully 15, right? [Laughs] I stimulate my mind, I play Spider Solitaire, I enjoy that. I partake in some casino activities. There is a mental side to that as well as the luck side. And I have a trainer, so several times a week I do a workout with the trainer, a young guy from Philadelphia who I met down in Atlanta, and we go to LifeTime Fitness. And I try to get a sweat and that’s always good. I enjoy playing golf, so on my days that are golf days, I’m really dedicated to getting out and getting the most out of that experience because that’s physical, it’s mental, it’s emotional, and it’s fun.

And it’s competitive too.

Yeah. So I compete with my friends, and we don’t bet a lot, there might be a little bit of betting to see who gets the upper hand on a given day. And the other part would just be traveling. You know? Every other week I’m getting on planes going somewhere for a promotion or appearance, or keeping the [Dr. J] brand alive. Keep our brand alive, and try to stay good with the public. So if I can continue to do that, and if the public wants me, then I’m their guy.

In watching the Sixers’ development this year and the season that they’ve had, they’ve been close a lot here the last couple of years, but it feels like they really figured something out this season. Not just with Joel being able to create the shots that he’s creating, but also James giving him those opportunities and taking some of that pressure off. What do you see out of Joel specifically? And then when you bring in that MVP conversation, where do you sit on that dialog about the MVP? What should Joel’s goals be? Because I know he’s a very competitive guy and he does care a lot.

When I won my MVP awards in the ABA, I was the lead scorer in the league three years in a row. It was almost like when you lead the league in scoring, you’re going to be the MVP. And your team has a winning record. So his frustration comes from being one of the top scorers, top three, top five or whatever, record being in the top five, top six. But this year they’re putting it all together. He’s leading the league in scoring, their team is locked into third in the East. And has he been the best player night in and night out? Not missing a whole lot of games? He has a good argument for himself, but the competition is formidable with Luka, and Antetokounmpo, and the Joker. And probably a couple of sleepers in there. I’m sure Ja Morant is probably going to get some votes.

But this could be a year where Embiid gets all of that. I think the year I won MVP, in the NBA we got knocked out of the playoffs by Boston, of all teams. [Ed. Note: 1981, when the Sixers lost the Eastern Conference Finals after leading the Celtics 3-1 in the series.] So MVP doesn’t mean anything if you can’t advance and carry your team, at least to the Finals. So I wish him better luck with that than I had.

And I think the team, what I see, because when we celebrated our anniversary of the 1983 team, we went to practice, and saw how they look in practice and I was very impressed with the way they move the ball around, the way they find the open guy, when they isolate with the two-man game they get something out of it. Turnovers happen, and you just can’t be sloppy with turnovers, particularly in the playoffs or whatever. So that’s probably the last thing that they need to overcome because they’re a good rebounding team and they’re physical and they got plenty of power in reserve with the guys on the bench. This is the deepest this bench has ever been.

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity. Dime was invited on a hosted trip to the Final Four through Unilever USA for reporting on this piece. However, Unilever USA did not review or approve this story in any way. You can find out more about our policy on press trips/hostings here.