There are any number of ways to analyze results—of a moment, a career, a life. There are questions to ask and answers to question, enough whys and what-ifs to put a person through a lot of needless exercise. Or, one can go through life quite content for having tried his hardest and say, when asked, "Hey, what is, is."
Take, for example, Julius Erving, the Philadelphia 76ers' incomparable Dr. J. He sat silently in front of his locker at the Boston Garden last Sunday before the 82nd and final game of his 10th professional season, a pair of hot towels warming the springs in his knees. There were no predictions of victory from him, but neither was there any sign of uncertainty on his face or in his voice about what might happen in the big game.
"We'll see," he said. "We'll see."
Nor was there any reason for him to consider why this game was as big as it was. The winner would be champion of the NBA's Atlantic Division and receive a cherished bye in the opening round of this week's playoffs. The loser would finish second and get just one day's rest before negotiating the potential booby trap known as the best-of-three mini-series. Of course, this game would have been meaningless, the title and time off locked up, if the Sixers hadn't folded in four of their previous eight games. But what had happened, had happened. And to Erving, what is, is.
And then the 76ers stormed onto the parquet floor and lost again, 98-94. Those who had reason to expect that Dr. J would merely assume control, soaring and scoring 40 points as he has so often in the clutch, were disappointed. For three quarters The Doctor was inept, missing nine of 13 shots, never once flying through the air like a cruise missile, slamming the basketball-payload through its target. A minor surge in which Erving scored three straight fourth-quarter baskets boosted his production to 19 points, 12 below his season average against the Celtics, but it only helped to make the final score respectable. This was clearly not a game in which The Doctor was in control.
But all did not go afoul for the Sixers. In Indianapolis the Chicago Bulls, the most feared of the playoff dark horses, had beaten the Pacers. That meant that the 76ers would get tamer Indiana in their mini-series, leaving the Bulls for the New York Knicks. Of course, that result, a happy one, was outside of Erving's control as well. "Thank goodness," he said, "for small favors."
If we didn't know any better, we would think that Julius Winfield Erving II is in control of things to a degree matched by few athletes. Certainly he can control his body and a basketball in ways no one before him ever thought possible. His life is ordered, he has a wife as lovely as her name, Turquoise, and three beautiful and well-behaved children, with a fourth expected in May. He carries himself with uncommon dignity and class, he handles his superstardom more graciously than any of his peers. Furthermore, he controls a fledgling business empire worth a small—say, $10 million—but growing fortune. With all this in the palms of what must be among the world's largest hands—11 inches from pinky to thumb with fingers only slightly stretched, a little longer than this page—is it too much to believe that Erving is in complete control of his world?
The key word is "control," for the good Doctor insists that nothing is within his control, a claim which sounds a trifle too modest to be true. Dr. J: he has a patent on the name in all forms. Doctor, Dr., The Doctor. The image—be it the revolutionary aerial daredevil artist; the articulate best friend of the press; the man in the mink coat and the Mercedes; the national chairman of the Hemophilia Foundation; the coach of the Special Olympics basketball program; the adviser to The March of Dimes; the spokesman for the Lupus Foundation, American Dental Association and Philadelphia Police Athletic League; the endorser of the American Red Cross, Population Institute, Pennsylvania Adult Education and dozens of other charities; the ubiquitous television pitchman (Hey, Dr. Chap-Stick!); the devoted Christian and family man—all seems too wonderful, like the high school senior whose yearbook entry is six times as long as anyone else's.
Yet Erving insists he has no control over any of this. Not that his life has been left to chance. Not at all. "I believe in predestination," he says, and everything that has occurred to him in his legendary life—"legendary" being the word most often associated with Dr. J—is, he believes, all part of God's master plan.
Stay with this now, for the real Julius Erving isn't as difficult to pin down as he is to believe. He is sensitive. He is vain. He is protective of an ego as big as the Ritz. Sometimes, overprotective. Sure, everyone has an ego. And the vanity? "It's part of what makes him great," says 76er Trainer Al Domenico. "He cares very much what people think—of how he plays, how he speaks, how he acts, how his children act. But he cares about his body, too. Jeez, if Doc gets a pimple, he wants to know why it's there and the fastest way to get rid of it." Of course, pimples are beyond The Doctor's control, just as The Legend is beyond his control.