The NBA Dr. J
As often happens with great artists, Julius Erving had already done his best work by the time he was discovered by the mainstream public. After five ABA seasons spent mostly in midair, he came to the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA and toned down his game. It wasn't long before even his magnificent Afro was trimmed down to something more conservative and, dare we say, commercial. Erving went from serving up a steady diet of acrobatics in the upstart league to doling out the occasional treat in the established one, but his new fans—and most of the media—gushed. They had heard about how spectacular Dr. J was, so they ignored the fact that as his NBA career progressed, he spent increasing amounts of time shooting jump shots, and not particularly well. Erving produced his share of highlights but no more than, say, Dominique Wilkins. The fans who came late to Dr. J's game didn't know what they'd missed.
The ABA Dr. J
In the early 1970s genius was on display in the mostly second-rate gyms of the ABA, but precious few people knew about it, and even fewer witnessed it. When the young Julius Erving (left) was traded from the Virginia Squires to the New York Nets in 1973, he remained underappreciated and underexposed, a Long Island curiosity toiling in the shadow of the big-city Knicks. Dr. J played to the crowd, waving the ball as if it were a grapefruit while swooping to the basket like some goateed hawk, but he also won, leading the Nets to two championships. The Doctor didn't only make electrifying shots; he also made clutch shots. It's been suggested that the ABA-era Erving was merely part of the evolution of the airborne star, a link in the chain that includes Elgin Baylor, Connie Hawkins, Michael Jordan and now Vince Carter. That, however, doesn't give the young Doc his due. He married form and function in a way that no player before him had. Every highflier who followed him is in his debt.