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the net-ripping, backboard-shaking, mind-blowing dr. j.
Peter Garry
December 11, 1972
Last March, at the conclusion of his old school's disappointing basketball season, Julius Erving (left, illustrating two of his resplendent dunks) returned to the University of Massachusetts. He had left there the previous spring, at the end of his junior year, to become a professional basketball player, his premature departure shattering the dreams of U Mass fans who had hoped he would lead the school to some modest level of national acclaim in 1971-72. Under those circumstances, most men in Erving's position would have slunk through a side door, but Massachusetts had invited him in the front way to watch as they retired his uniform. And to listen as they cheered him, which is what a banquet gathering of 150 did—on its feet. "I never saw so many people who thought so much of a kid," remembers Al Bianchi, the coach of the Virginia Squires, who accompanied his rookie forward to the ceremonies. "There was a lot of concern for him up there. Not about his play, but about him. "Don't let him get out of hand,' they said. 'We don't think he will, but make sure he doesn't.' To reassure them, I told them, 'Julie still wears the same size hat he did when he first came to us.' "
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December 11, 1972

The Net-ripping, Backboard-shaking, Mind-blowing Dr. J.

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"There is another reason to experiment in a playground game. There's a whole psychology there that makes you want to beat a guy in a way that makes him pay twice. You want to outscore him and you also want to freak him out with a big move or a big block. That way even if the score is tied, you and he both know you're really ahead.

"That kind of thinking used to dominate my mind in informal game situations, but I feel I've been very fortunate that it has never been part of my concept of how a formal, five-man game should be played. I honestly feel there are guys in the pros who have never stopped thinking that way and it restricts their usefulness. They may end up as high scorers, but they haven't helped their teams."

"The whole playground thing is a means of expression," says Erving's high school coach, Ray Wilson. "For black kids it's an important way of getting your contemporaries' approval. Take a blocked shot. A coach will say what the hell good is it if you block a shot and it goes out of bounds. But for the kid, all he cares about is that moment, one-on-one. You've taken the challenge and beaten your man. You've hurt him and ruined his pride. With black kids, life's all a struggle for pride. Second best is nothing. You've got to establish yourself as No. 1.

"Julius never had those hangups. When he was a junior he didn't start, even though he had to know he was the best player I had. Most kids in his place would've quit because they would've felt that their friends thought them fools to do all that practicing only to play second string.

"I guess why Julius was not affected by this was because he's always been a very self-confident kid. He knew how good he was, but he never bragged about it. He's gotten strength and love at home that a lot of others didn't get. His family was not financially well-off, but his mother's a strong woman. Culturally, Julius' family is rich."

Erving's ability to differentiate between playground and formal basketball has driven him to become a much better fundamental player than his flashy individual moves would lead many spectators to surmise. "The first time I ever saw him warm up," says Moe, "I thought, 'Oh no, here we go again. He's just another showboat.' But I couldn't have been more wrong. Julius was the most mature rookie I've ever seen. When he does something out of the ordinary, he's really only using his body to best advantage."

"Erving's moves are beautiful and they don't disrupt the team," adds Hawk Forward Jim Washington, who stood to lose his starting job if Dr. J. had remained in Atlanta. "He utilizes most of his moves on fast breaks or semi-fast breaks, so they're not out of context. It's not like we set up half court, gave him the ball and he took off on his own."

"Julius is the most exciting player I've ever seen," says Cougar General Manager Carl Scheer. "He'll keep people in the arena until the 48th minute because they're afraid if they leave he might do something nobody's ever seen before or ever will again. He looks like a hot dog, but everything he does has a purpose if you analyze it."

Erving is now almost apologetic about the dunking burst with which he began his pro career. In his first exhibition game, he freaked the 7'2" Gilmore three times and he continued the pattern for months. "The no-dunking rule came in my senior year in high school, so I hadn't been allowed to slam in competition for four years," Dr. J. explains. "At first I couldn't get enough of it. Now if i can shoot a simple layup I usually will, except if I think our team needs a big dunk. It's all psychological then. If we're down a few points and I'm fast-breaking, I'll sometimes decide that the time has come to get freaky. It gets the crowd up and our team and me. Because of the excitement, we'll often start to defend better, to make good plays and to pull ahead. But overall, I'd have to say that as I get older my game gets more conservative."

Squire teammate Neil Johnson agrees. "Last year he used to blow my mind with a new move about three times a game;" he says. "Now it's only about once a game that he'll do something that will leave the guys on the bench looking at each other and just sort of shaking their heads."

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