“Legend” is an overused word, but that’s exactly what Dr. J was before he arrived in the NBA. In a time before social media and viral videos, a time when ABA games weren’t televised and even NBA games were shown in tape delay, the Dr. J that we know and love today existed only in myths and fairytales.
Narrated by Chuck D of Public Enemy, NBA TV’s The Doctor chronicles the life, career and legacy of Julius Erving, from his hardscrabble upbringing in Long Island to his rise to stardom in professional basketball. As a film, it mostly sticks to the documentary format, with rare photographs and archival footage interspersed with interviews from fawning teammates, coaches, rivals and commentators. Bill Walton, George “Iceman” Gervin, Doug Collins, Pat Riley, Billy Crystal, Bob Costas, Bob Ryan, Darryl Dawkins and Magic Johnson are just a few of the star-studded names featured in the film.
What’s in a Name?
Erving grew up in Hempstead, Long Island, and it was at Roosevelt High School — where he was a mostly unheralded prospect at the time — that he was given his nickname “The Doctor” by teammate Leon Saunders. As Erving and Saunders explain in the film, it was something of an inside joke between them that really didn’t carry that much significance. Erving called Saunders “The Professor” because he liked to argue so much, and Saunders called Erving “The Doctor” because he always had such an air of dignity about him. It was only later that the name found second life at Rucker Park, the Mecca of basketball nicknames, because he was “operating on people on the court” or because he could “bring a crowd back to life.” Nicknames that mercifully didn’t make the cut: “Little Hawk,” “The Claw,” “Black Moses” and “Jules.”
“…the playground game…refined.”
There was a grace, fluidity, and effortlessness to his game, which he honed on the playgrounds of New York City, most famously at Harlem’s Rucker Park, and the film features some excellent footage of him playing at the Rucker — most notably his legendary full-court alley-oop dunk — with crowds of people lining the fences and surrounding rooftops just to get a glance at “The Doctor.” There’s also a requisite cameo by Pee Wee Kirkland, loquacious streetball legend and master of the third person.
From there, we follow him to the ABA, where to this day he says it was the most fun he ever had playing basketball. He entered the league in 1971 with the Virginia Squires and in 1973 was traded to his hometown team, the New York Nets, where he went on to win two championships en route to becoming the ABA’s biggest star of the 1970s and the primary reason for the league’s eventual merger with the NBA.
“There’s something called ‘essence,’ and essence, I think, is how you want people to feel about you.”
With him, he brought to the NBA the free-wheeling, fan-friendly style of play that the ABA was simultaneously celebrated and derided for. In an era when professional basketball was seen as too black, too filled with overpaid athletes, and mired in rampant drug use, Dr. J made everything seem okay again. At a time when our country was still divided, Erving transcended racial boundaries and became a mainstream star. It’s hard to imagine another player who was more beloved and adored by fans. With his shades, trademark afro and tailored suits, Dr. J was the epitome of cool, but he was also the embodiment of class, eloquence and sophistication. There was always a thoughtfulness and profundity to his words, making him the league’s best natural spokesperson and ambassador. As ESPN’s Michael Wilbon says in the film, “I was so happy as a young black man who cared about language, image and presentation that he sounded the way he sounded.”
The respect and admiration he earned among his peers was unparalleled. Players, coaches, rivals and teammates speak about him with awe and reverence. They call him an artist and a gentleman, the man who Michael Jordan idolized and admittedly modeled his game by.
When he announced that he would retire after the 1986 season, road games turned into a farewell tour, with opposing teams holding pregame ceremonies in his honor, with presentations, plaques, tributes and speeches by rival players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and even Larry Bird (the only person he ever came to blows with during his career). In one of the more emotional moments of the film, an overwhelmed Dr. J watches as his hometown Nets retire his jersey to the rafters.
“…just another move.”
Erving was all ’70s — the hair, the clothes, the swagger — but in many ways, he was the first modern NBA star. He was one of the first players to have his own shoe contract (with Converse). He was the first person ever to dunk from the free throw line, and he did it during the inaugural ABA Dunk Contest in 1976, a full decade before Michael Jordan’s iconic Jumpman logo dunk. Then he did it again eight years later at the age of 34 in the 1984 NBA Dunk Contest. He elevated the game to an art form. He had flair, he had pizzazz, and he had tremendous speed and agility. With his enormous hands and extended wingspan, he was able to palm the ball and maneuver it around his defender’s outstretched arms midflight.
He’s the owner of some of the most iconic moments in NBA history. There was his steal and breakaway cradle dunk over a hapless Michael Cooper in 1983, who in the documentary seems genuinely delighted just to have been a part of that play. Then there is the most famous layup of all time, his impossible up-and-under reverse on Kareem and the Lakers during Game 4 of the 1980 NBA Finals, a play that he refers to blithely in the film as “just another move.”
“Clearly, basketball offered me an escape from some of the harsh realities of life.”
Erving has rarely spoken publicly about his personal life, and in the most poignant scene of the film, he tearfully recalls his younger brother’s final words to him from his death bed. While he and the camera crew are revisiting his childhood home in Long Island, he says wistfully, “Sometimes when I dream, I dream about living in the attic with my brother.”
Erving’s entire life has been beset by tragedies. His father died in a car accident when he was just nine years old, and his little brother Marvin died at age 16 from Lupus. Then, in the spring of 2000, his 19-year-old son Cory disappeared and was later found dead inside a car at the bottom of a nearby lake, an experience he called, “the worst thing that ever happened in my life.”
“My life is a lot more complicated than to be summed up in a sentence.”
If there’s one criticism about the film, it’s that it glosses over or ignores entirely anything that could be construed as negative, including the fact that he’s fathered at least one child out-of-wedlock — former tennis player Alexandra Stevenson — or that in 2011 he auctioned $3.5 million worth of memorabilia, which included an ABA Championship ring, his one and only NBA Championship ring, and his 1983 MVP trophy, a move that he denied had any connection to a $200,000 lawsuit that was filed against him for an unpaid loan.
Perhaps it’s better that way.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of good reasons to watch: Magic Johnson’s cloying, starry-eyed memories, Darryl Dawkins being Darryl Dawkins, Pat Riley with the head-scratcher of the film (“When a phenomenon happens…a phenomenon happens.”), and copious footage of the Doctor’s illustrious career as one of the most renowned and beloved athletes of the century. In the words of Bill Walton, “He had the ultimate gift. He made people happy.”
What do you think?
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