"The life of a pro athlete is a short one, and after hearing about the money that is being tossed around, I don't think my contract with Virginia is fair," says Erving. "I have proven myself and I don't think I'm being paid the market value for the type player I think I am. I deserve considerably more money. Of course, I'll abide by what the courts say. I invited myself into this situation and I'm willing to pay the consequences."
In this era of wealthy young athletes, the consequences do not promise to be harsh ones for Erving, who stands to become wealthier than most at a younger age. When evaluating hot young properties, basketball men rate him up there with the best centers, Milwaukee's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kentucky's Artis Gilmore and UCLA undergraduate Bill Walton. "I'm extremely high on him," says Atlanta General Manager Richie Guerin. "He could determine the success of our franchise or its demise. Julius will draw people."
Anyone who has ever seen Dr. J. operate cannot doubt the validity of Guerin's prediction. But, curiously, these observers are a select few because Erving is likely the most underexposed super athlete playing a major professional sport. Although he was the leading rebounding forward in the country both of his college years, he wasn't voted anything higher than third team All-America. The University of Massachusetts has never been a showplace for top basketball players, and Erving did not help himself when the Redmen played in the National Invitation Tournament at the end of his junior year. He fouled out early in his team's opening-round game, scaring off some pro scouts who should have known better.
Because of the ABA's measly television contract, Erving has played in only four nationally televised games since joining the Squires. One of them was the NBA-ABA All-Star game last May in which he performed for only 22 minutes yet stole the show with a single play in which he dumbfounded Oscar Robertson with a dunk that started near the foul line and ended up with Erving whipping the ball around his head and into the basket. And since the cities in which ABA teams are located tend to be smaller than those in the NBA, Dr. J. has appeared only in New York among the nation's metropolises. Although NBA players hold him in esteem, many have never watched him perform. Like a lot of fans who routinely include Erving on their personal all-star teams, they rely on what they have heard and read about him, not on what they have seen.
Seeing Julius Erving is believing. The first time Bianchi ever had the pleasure was during the press conference at which the Squires, who had only the most rudimentary scouting data on Dr. J., announced that they had signed him. "When he walked into the room, my first impression was that he might be too thin," says the Virginia coach. "Then I got an eyeful of those hands. I couldn't believe them. When we were leaving the meeting, I turned to our president. Earl Foreman, and said, 'My God, did you see those meat hooks!' "
At the end of outsized arms, which help him play "taller" than he is, Erving wears the largest gloves made (size 11) and a size 13½ ring. He has been able to palm the ball since the seventh grade—just a year or so after he began to refine his dunk shots on an 8-foot basket. There are several pros with hands as large, but none with his combination of size, strength and sensitivity. Erving can one-hand a rebound even when the ball is caroming away from him. And unlike most other one-handed rebounders, he doesn't need to curl the ball into his wrist to control it. He simply plucks it out of the air like a tennis ball. The consensus among scouts is that if Erving can get so much as a couple of fingertips on the ball, he will control it. In fact, a new term, rebounding range, has been coined virtually in his honor. Most rebounders contend only for those missed shots that fall directly overhead, but Erving is considered to have a good chance at any ball within a three-or four-foot radius.
"I guess I consider my hands my best physical attribute," says Dr. J., "but I don't like to forget my legs either." Seated, Erving looks about as tall as a 6-foot man. When he stands to his full 6'7", it becomes apparent that he has the legs of a normally proportioned 6'11" man, and it is their length that lends his game its most pervasive characteristic, smoothness. "He comes at you with those long, open strides, and you have a tendency to keep backing away from him because you think he's not really into his move yet," says Erving's former Squire teammate, Doug Moe, now assistant coach of the Carolina Cougars. "If you keep backing, if you fail to go up and challenge him, he'll simply glide right by you."
Dr. J. glides and swoops and floats so effortlessly that he hardly sweats. Even in the fourth quarter, his mat, medium-brown skin is glazed by perspiration only at the base of his throat, and following a recent game in which he played 37 minutes, scored 34 points and had 17 rebounds, his uniform was barely damp. His disposition on the court is equally calm. He rarely changes his disinterested expression or becomes sufficiently upset to grouse at the officials.
A man of such cool moves and moods is ideally suited for playground basketball where behind-the-back dribbles, reverse dunks and icy dispassion are considered prerequisites for "freaking out" an opponent. Like many of the most flamboyant black stars, Erving is a legend on his home turf in Roosevelt, N.Y., a largely black Long Island suburb. THIS IS WHERE JULIUS ERVING LEARNED THE GAME OF BASKETBALL reads the neatly painted sign at Roosevelt Park. It was there and at Centennial Park and at other playgrounds in nearby Hempstead that Erving developed his many dunks. They range from a simple hop directly under the basket that results in the ball being casually flipped through the hoop like a wad of paper dropped into a trash can, to all manner of reverse slams; change of hands, twisting spectaculars; rim-assisted reverses; high tomahawks; and—whoosh!—the ultimate foul line takeoff job. It was on these same asphalt courts that Erving practiced his ballhandling—behind the back, through the legs, reverse pivot—and the body-control stunts that make him an effective shooter in the crowded area under the basket.
"I was always small," says Erving in his quiet, serious voice. "I was only 6'3" when I graduated from high school. Yet T always had big hands and could jump, so I learned to be trickier than bigger guys. I liked to experiment. I loved to watch guys and what they'd do in emergency situations. When I practiced, I worked on ways to take advantage of my advantages. I set no dimensions for my game. I decided not to limit myself when I found I could do anything that I had ever seen any guy do—except spin the ball on the end of my finger, which you can't use in a game anyhow.