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.' "
A month after his triumphant return to Massachusetts, Erving announced to his Virginia fans that he would be skipping out on them to join the NBA Hawks. Atlanta had signed him to a contract worth $1.5 million more than the $500,000, four-year deal he had with the Squires. It all sounded distressingly familiar to Virginians, who had seen two previous stars, Rick Barry and Charlie Scott, take off to greener pastures, bad-mouthing the Old Dominion and the team en route. Erving stayed with the Squires long enough to perform for them in the ABA playoffs and then quietly headed south. He did not return to Virginia until the Squires had lost their first four regular-season games, and then only because a federal court told him he had to. (Upon his return, Virginia won four in a row, and Erving is leading the ABA in scoring.)
Most players who have switched leagues are no longer welcome in the cities from whence they jumped. When Erving came back to Virginia, he was warmly greeted by his coach, his teammates and the Squires' front office. The fans seemed to mistake him for General MacArthur.
"There was never any question that I wanted Julius back or how well he would play once he got here," says Bianchi. "He had a great season as a rookie, averaging 27 points and 16 rebounds. But he was even better in the playoffs. He scored 33 a game with 20 rebounds. That means he actually played better for us after he had signed with the Hawks. That's the kind of guy he is."
While Erving was in Atlanta, Virginia's ticket salesmen spent a frustrating summer trying to peddle season seats, but they're not sore at him, either. "Julius has been wonderful," says Vin Ahern, director of advertising and marketing. "If we have a promotion going or a personal appearance to be made, all we have to do is ask him and he'll do it. We owe him more than he owes us."
Which must be just about the way Virginia fans feel about the man they call Dr. J. The Squires play their home games in three different cities, Norfolk, Hampton and Richmond, and at his first appearance in each this season Erving received a tumultuous welcome. The people stood and cheered and whistled and slapped each other's hands when he was introduced. Then they did the same things all over again when he scored the first of his net-ripping, backboard-shaking, mind-blowing dunk shots.
That Julius Erving has twice run out on his admirers and twice returned home to standing ovations would seem to indicate he has the best moves since the prodigal son. In one sense, that is certainly true. At 22, Erving is already a marvelous basketball player who is at once tightly efficient and wildly creative, who evokes coachly praise as a superb team player at the same time he lifts less expert onlookers out of their seats with the most exciting individual maneuvers going. But over-the-shoulder, one-handed dunks notwithstanding. Erving would not have been welcomed back had he decided to drip his venom all over Virginia and the Squires when he lit out for Atlanta. He didn't, possibly because he has no venom to drip.
The combination of Erving's extraordinary talents and the fact that he has no known detractors has turned discussions regarding him into an interminable series of gee whizzes. Coaches, teammates, opponents, referees, trainers, scorekeepers, all young women and not a few old ones, publicity men, sportswriters, TV announcers, children, autograph seekers and snapshot takers of all ages and hues, drunks who roam the streets near arenas, total strangers and his mother agree that Erving is nice. Depending on the speaker, Julius is a super kid, sumkinda cat, a beautiful dude, a great guy, a good person or a fine young man. In essence, they are all saying, as Erving's mother does, that "Julius is a nice boy. He was never a snappy child. He always liked to listen and he didn't give anyone cause to dislike him. He is smart and deep-thinking. It's wonderful how he made it up in the pros. He's a good boy and I am happy for him. When he graduated from high school, he said to me, 'This is the beginning. I mean to go far.' I guess he thought that out like everything else."
Just how far Erving will go—and where—are subjects of continuing debate. One school holds that he is already the best forward ever to play the game, another claims he needs a year or two more to polish up his defense and outside shot before he inevitably becomes the best.
Such assessments have made Erving a big gun in the pro basketball war and even the Squires don't seem to fault him for taking advantage of the situation. He will apparently remain in Virginia for the next three seasons, but after that he could end up with the Hawks, who still have him under contract, or the Milwaukee Bucks, who hold the NBA draft rights to him.