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From the first, Erving was more than charming and cooperative; he was mature, levelheaded and bright. The only people who ever found fault with him were a captious few who simply could not believe that anyone could be so endearing without putting it on. But then, anybody who ever saw Dr. J play knew he was much too spontaneous to affect false airs (let alone to pull it off for 16 years). A few months ago The Denver Post conducted an informal poll of sportswriters and sports-casters across the country, trying to identify the "nicest" people in sports. Erving's name appeared on by far the largest number of ballots.
A man named Bill Daniels once owned a team in the ABA known as the Utah Stars. Daniels made the effort one day simply to write Erving, who was then with the Nets, an unadulterated fan letter. "What class you have!" it began, and went on from there. Daniels made a point of sending a copy to every other owner in the league, an extraordinary encomium from a rival, probably unique in sport.
At the same time that Erving was establishing his singular reputation, basketball aficionados were beginning to recognize him as the best player in the world. This was not altogether a universal acclaim, though. Erving had played college ball at Massachusetts as a nobody, and, performing in the ABA was the athletic equivalent of joining Peter Pan's lost boys. The league was, for all intents and purposes, never on television, and its outposts were scattered hither and yon. Colette, the French novelist, once wrote: " Shakespeare worked without knowing that he would become Shakespeare." Erving hadn't yet been formally introduced to Dr. J.
Somehow, the ABA managed to achieve the worst of both worlds. It was no competition for the NBA (as the AFL had been for the NFL), yet it sent salaries skyrocketing for both leagues. It's all very nice for myopic New Yorkers to look back fondly now and sob about how Dr. J deserved to have spent his years in New York, but the fact is that—in spite of all those alleged basketball connoisseurs in New York—there weren't enough Nets fans to sell out a single regular-season game in the three years Erving played on Long Island.
When, in 1976, what was left of the ABA was finally bagged as a take-out order for the NBA, Erving was employed primarily as leverage to get the Knicks to share their market. Roy Boe, the Nets' owner, desperately in debt, tried first to sell Erving to the Knicks for admission to the big league. Michael Burke, the Knicks president, who died a couple of months ago, politely turned Boe down. "Roy, that just isn't what we're up to here," Burke replied, in what may have been the last noble moment in the sports business. Later, when Boe had the Nets safely in the NBA, he dished Erving off to the 76ers. Philadelphia has been a respectable contender ever since, as Dr. J's fame quickly caught up with his underground reputation.
Still, if Erving had merely been the best player in the world; if he had merely been the best player in the world who was also the nicest guy in the world—if he were simply that, his departure from the game would not be treated in the extraordinary manner that it has been. There is always a prettiest girl, a fastest gun, a best player, a nicest guy. No, for all his talent and humanity, what has set Julius Erving apart is the way he combined excellence and entertainment in sports.
Baylor had done it, too, but somehow he was lost in the shadows; perhaps people were not quite ready to understand Baylor. They were when Dr. J came along. He didn't break any records; he didn't force any rule changes. But what he did was to alter the perception of the game, and the way people appreciated it. Surely, that is the rarest accomplishment for any athlete.
For comparison, think of the two indisputably great athletes who were Erving's contemporaries on Broad Street: Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton. Both have been as accomplished at playing baseball as Erving has been at basketball. Yet for all their strikeouts and wins and homers and MVP trophies, baseball is no different because of them.
More than any single player, though, Erving transformed what had been a horizontal game (with occasional parabolas) into a vertical exercise. Basketball is now a much more artistic game than it was before—than any game was before—because of Julius Erving. The slam, before the Doctor, was essentially an act of power—a stuff is what it was usually called—as great giants jammed the ball through the hoop. Erving transformed the stuff into the dunk, and made what had been brutal and a product of size into something beautiful and a measure of creativity.
Because of Dr. J there is no longer the bias that a spectacular athlete cannot also be an accomplished one. Indeed, in basketball, there is a high correlation between dazzle and talent—and that is the legacy of Julius Erving. When the Harlem Globetrotters were a legitimately fine team, they would occasionally halt their comic antics (say, against the College All-Stars) to engage in what was pointedly referred to as "serious basketball." Today, such performers as Michael Jordan or Dominique Wilkins—leading members of the Erving School—or Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, of different academies, are at their very best precisely when they are also at their most entertaining.