Julius Erving never played the role that Babe Ruth did, the savior of his sport. Nor was he ever a pioneer, as Jackie Robinson and Billie Jean King were. And certainly he was no revolutionary; no Ali he, no Curt Flood. A commissioner of the ABA once said that "Julius isn't the franchise; he's the league," but history will show that two other players—Rick Barry, for jumping leagues; Spencer Haywood, for signing as an undergraduate—were the principals most responsible for sewing the ABA together out of scraps and rags of superfluidity and disinterest. Dr. J wasn't Broadway Joe.
Erving wasn't an original in quite the same way that Ruth was, or Bill Russell, or Bobby Orr or Pele. However distinctive his style, Erving owed a tremendous debt to Elgin Baylor, and lesser amounts to Bob Cousy, Connie Hawkins and all the Globetrotters, Gus Johnson and Earl Monroe. He wasn't even the first great leaper; when Erving was a child on Long Island, Jumpin' Jackie Jackson was already a playground legend, able, the breathless tales went, to rocket so high that he could "take a quarter off the top of the backboard and make change on the way down."
It is also possible, that, of all the people who have played games in the 20th century, perhaps two or three have been nicer human beings than Julius Winfield Erving II.
Still, for all that Dr. J wasn't, what he was, in sum, was significant. Each part of him was nearly consummate, so that, taken as a whole, he may well have been more whole than any other athlete of his era.
Like one of his dunks from the free-throw line, when time and gravity are put on hold, it is an eon that Erving has passed through. Consider the moment when he arrived in pro basketball, a UFO from the Yankee Conference, to join a team known as the Virginia Squires. The Knicks ruled the game, and pro basketball had suddenly become fashionable, that year's Baby Jane Holzer. For all America, pro basketball was touted as "the sport of the 70s."
By the end of that decade, when Erving was becoming a folk hero, he had been drafted by Milwaukee, played a couple of exhibitions for Atlanta, been peddled to the New York Nets and then dealt to Philadelphia, where the roof was wont to blow off the arena in high winds. The sport of the '70s was lucky just to get through the decade alive. Franchises could not be given away.
But now, as Erving troops the line for the last time, pro basketball is the one sport whose TV ratings have been constant, with record attendance and marketable assets and petitioners from Florida to Minnesota willing to pay $32.5 million apiece for franchises. Meanwhile, Erving has settled comfortably into a suburban squire's life in Philadelphia where he is a noted father, an honored citizen and a captain of industry.
In other words, Dr. J can take his leave now because he has tended to the business very well.
An athlete's personality and deportment always count, of course, but they shouldn't matter. In Erving's case, though, it was important that he was so exemplary a person. First of all, although it isn't fair, it is a fact that the black athlete suffers greater scrutiny than his white colleague. Also, by chance, Erving's years of greatest ability and visibility coincided, roughly, with a time when professional basketball was being criticized for being too black, and when black basketball players were easy targets: selfish, greedy, filthy rich. Critics wrote off the pro game as repetitive and jejune and altogether too black for a world of mostly white ticket buyers and television commercial watchers.
Just by being himself, Erving—as the premiere player, exhibit A—made it more difficult for whites to generalize negatively. In this, there was resonance of the young Joe Louis.