NBA great Julius “Dr. J” Erving

The Hall of Famer and one of basketball’s living legends shares stories from his first-ever book, his autobiography Dr. J.

There are many reasons why Sports Illustrated named "Dr. J" to its list of the 40 most important athletes of all time. During his 16 seasons playing basketball in both the ABA (Virginia Squires and New York Nets) and NBA (Philadelphia 76ers), Julius Erving filled sports arena seats everywhere he played and won three championships, four MVP Awards and three scoring titles. He also turned the "slam dunk" into an art form. Since retiring, the native New Yorker became one of the few players in modern basketball to have his number retired by two franchises. He worked in TV as an analyst and is a businessman and a strategic advisor to his former team, the 76ers.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Julius Erving is considered by many to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time. A true innovator of the sport with more honors than I have time to even mention tonight, the man fans simply know as Dr. J. has now written a candid new book that details his life in all its complexity.

It is simply titled “Dr. J: The Autobiography.” Julius Erving, you have no idea, but all of my staff does, what an honor it is, after 20 years (audio freeze) you, man.

Julius “Dr. J.” Erving: Great to be here, great to be here.

Tavis: Thank you, Doc, good to have you here. I want to start this conversation at what might be an unlikely place. Jonathan, put the cover of the book back up again. When you see this cover of “Dr. J.” as a Philadelphia 76er; of course wearing his famous number six, and if you see the picture up close, you see he’s got a leg brace.

He’s got a brace on his right knee. What’s amazing about this story, which I did not know, is how close it came to never being, given the injury you had as a child. This almost didn’t happen, but tell me about this injury that you had when you were just a kid.

Erving: You’re right. Ironically, last night I was with the guy who coached me in Biddy Basketball. We were on a set where I was signing some balls, and the same thing came up because if it wasn’t for him, there probably would be no me, because he was my first coach.

But even prior to him, in the housing projects that I lived in in Hempstead, Long Island, there was a chain-link fence, and we used to play sandlot football. So we played with this little mini football, and I was pretty good at running and catching it and putting moves on people.

I was the fastest little kid in the neighborhood. One day I used that speed to get free, and looking at the ball, and suddenly I tripped over that chain-link fence and my knee slid through some broken glass, so it was either beer or soda bottles or whiskey bottles or whatever.

It just kinda sliced and diced the knee, severed the ligament. I walked home and my mom looked at it, and she went to clean it up with some alcohol, which certainly made it worse. (Laughter)

I was feeling some pain then after that alcohol hit, and I knew the power of alcohol. (Laughter) She cleaned it up, she took me over to the doctor’s office, where she worked, Dr. Richards’ office, and he said, “You’ve got to go to the hospital.”

So now third stop was getting to the hospital. They took me right in and they actually repaired the ligament and sewed my knee up, put me in a cast from my ankle to my leg.

So I went from being the fasted kid on the block to Hop-Along, Pegleg, whatever nicknames, cruel nicknames (laughter) the kids could think of they just, they just laid on me at that age.

I was only eight or nine, so yeah, yeah, it was tough. After the 12 weeks I get the cast off, and I’m looking at this leg and I’m looking at this leg, and this leg looks like an arm, (laughter) and this one looks like a leg, and this one looks like an arm.

I don’t think I ever got all the speed back that I had. Honestly, I got a lot of it back, but I never got it all back.

Tavis: Well obviously it didn’t hurt your leaping ability.

Erving: It helped build up the other leg. (Laughter) Which is known as “the leaping leg.”

Tavis: Yeah, you push off the left. Yeah, you push off the left.

Erving: The leaping leg, with that right, it’s always, it went from being skinny to being bowed, and then developed, and it’s never gotten all the way back. But it probably was a blessing, because learning early how to keep your humility in check, not taking anything for granted, and realizing, when people start talking about the career-ending injury, you can get the career-ending injury before the career even begins.

So once you do have the career, you’re always well aware of it, and you want to do everything to try and protect yourself in terms of preventing something that hopefully you can avoid having happen.

Tavis: You’ve said three or four things already, Doc, that I want to pick up on, and let me just move as fast as I can, because I want to make the most of my time with you.

You used this word “humility,” and again, all of my family and friends know that you’ve been my hero since I was a kid, in part because when I was a kid watching you, I’m a kid growing up in Indiana, watching you, and Indiana, as you know, is a huge basketball state.

Erving: Basketball country right there, no question.

Tavis: Basketball country.

Erving: No question.

Tavis: So I’m watching you, and the one thing I noticed about you, even as a child, was your humility on the court. There is so much – speaking of football, there’s a lot of this in football, and even a lot of it in basketball, but people, athletes, will do something spectacular on the court or on the field, and it’s almost hard to resist doing a dance (laughter) or getting in somebody’s face.

With all the moves that you ever did, you would go to the hole, jump this way, jump this way, turn this way, flip back this way, left hand, right hand, back to the left hand, behind the backboard, put it in.

Whatever it is that you did, you would do it and just run right back down the court. I’ve never one time seen you get in somebody’s face, with all the gift and talent you had. So tell me about that humility. That’s more than just a word, it seems.

Erving: Yeah, the influences on your life, if I’ve been an influence on your life, then there might be a moment in which you get into a situation and you might say, “What would Julius do” or “What would Julius think,” “What would Mom think,” “What would Dad think.”

I had really good influences in my mom, first and foremost. The guy I was talking about from last night, Don Ryan, who was my first coach. The big three over in high school, Ray Wilson, Earl Mosley, Chuck Mcawane (sp), they always said, “Look, win without boasting and lose without crying.”

If you play sports, you’re going to lose sometimes, and I have cried, but I didn’t have control over the tears. But I’ve always had control over boasting, always, because boasting is something that emotions don’t make you do that.

You program your brain to do it, and sometimes when I see it, I crack up, because guys are just following other guys, saying, well, I’m going to make my dance funkier than his dance. (Laughter)

Or whatever, and I’m like, “Really?” So I don’t get too mad at it because I got kids and I got grandkids, and they’re part of that generation that celebrates the moment.

I had some coaches, like “We’re not celebrating unless we win the game.” The game is certainly not over in the first quarter, second quarter, third quarter, or through the fourth quarter. It’s not over till it’s over, and if it’s over and we win, we get on our bus and we can celebrate. But prior to that, I don’t want to see it.

Tavis: You’ve done it two or three times already in this conversation, and what comes through clearly in this book is that you are so full of gratitude, which again doesn’t surprise me, given how humble you were on the court, even with your artistic genius on the court.

But this sense of gratitude comes from where? Because again, in this conversation, you’ve listed eight names, 18 names, of people already, and it’s clear that you had angels along the way looking out for you.

Erving: Oh, no question.

Tavis: Beyond your mom and dad.

Erving: Absolutely. My mother and father separated when my younger brother was born, so my mom pretty much raised me and my sister and brother alone. So that’s why she gets the highest honor, second to God, because she was an angel on Earth.

We followed, and I always had a motto – I never wanted to make her life more difficult than it already was, looking at the challenges of other single moms and divorced parents in the projects that we lived.

I could see how bad it could get, so I just kind of made up my own mind I don’t want to make it any harder, let me make it easier. Started doing the early morning paper route when I was preteen, and so it was too early to be out there, but I was making my $12 a week and giving her 10 and keeping two to have a little pocket change.

I was 11 or 12 years old when I was doing that, so I was helping the economics at the house, and that pattern just got better as time went on, because the opportunities got better. I think people always want to be around a kid who was a nice kid, a kid who was an athlete.

There were a lot of doors that opened because of the skills that you’re blessed with, but once you walk through those doors, what do you do with it? There was such a thing, and you’re probably familiar with this from being, growing up in Indiana, there was the traveling team.

I always wanted to be on the traveling team, the team that could get in a bus or get in a car or get in a van and go to the next community, and go see what it was like playing on the other side of the tracks.

Then coming back and telling those stories, and then yearning to go back again and again, and go farther away. So going from Long Island to New York City, and Long Island to New Jersey, Long Island to Pennsylvania, Long Island to Connecticut.

Those were things that just made me want to see the world, because of those experiences. The individuals who took me to those places, because I couldn’t go on my own, those were my angels. They looked out for me.

Tavis: You mentioned your brother and your sister, and it is the case that you never close on the death of a loved one like you close on a house. It’s never too far from you.

Erving: Yeah.

Tavis: But I got the sense, watching the documentary that was done on you earlier this year, brilliant documentary -

Erving: Thank you.

Tavis: I loved that.

Erving: Thank you.

Tavis: Reading the book, it is so clear that you still carry your brother in your heart with you to this day, who was lost to you at what, 16.

Erving: Yeah, I was 19 and he was 16.

Tavis: Yeah, he was 16. Tell me about your -

Erving: Yeah, he had lupus erythematosus, and he suffered for a couple of years without us really knowing what the problem was. That was part of the closure aspect that was a problem for the whole family.

Because unlike me and my sister, Alexis, we could run and jump and we were kind of athletically built, and he was less athletically built, so he was small. In game, he was always playing with us, but he didn’t have a lot of the natural ability that we had.

Whereas his mind was always running ahead of ours, though, because he did things like join the civil air patrol in school, and that’s the last thing I was thinking about was going in the Army when I was in junior high school.

Always carried his briefcase around, and I was like always wondering what kind of papers he had in there, because I had, like, a book bag, or maybe a couple of books, my sister had a book bag, and he had a briefcase. (Laughter)

Tavis: Right.

Erving: So, and he’s the youngest one. So the memories are precious of those 16 years, and if I tried to project it to 60, he would be 60 now, because I’m 63, it just, it’s something that I can’t let go of, and I don’t want to let go of.

But when we lost him, there was a series of bouts with the lupus that were misdiagnosed, because they always just talked about other things. He would break out, his skin would break out with rashes, and sometimes he’d have problems breathing. So he was asthmatic when he was young, so they would talk about asthma, and they would just talk about other things and really couldn’t pinpoint it.

Until he succumbed to it, and then there was an autopsy which revealed that lupus erythematosus, which is now my mortal enemy since age 19, was the one that took my brother away.

Tavis: Yeah. You’re the last surviving member of your immediate family.

Erving: Yeah.

Tavis: Because Alexis is no longer here either.

Erving: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah.

Erving: Alexis passed to colon cancer and pneumonia, so she had colon cancer, went comatose, and then it was pneumonia that she succumbed to. She was 37; I was 34, so we’re talking almost 30 years ago with her, and my father, my stepfather, and my mom.

My mom was the last to pass in 2004, which awakened my sense of my own mortality and sense of purpose, in terms of why I’m here, why I’ve been blessed with the platform to do different things, and I’ve always thought philanthropically, because of the Salvation Army influence in my young life.

But taking it beyond that, and I always – I projected in my story about always having the carrot out in front of me, that tomorrow is going to be the best day of my life, and hopefully I can make a difference tomorrow that I haven’t been able to make today.

I don’t know exactly what it is or how it’s going to happen; all I know is that it’s a possibility, and during the course of operating my life and living the lifestyle that I live now, where I do have a beautiful wife and three beautiful children at home, and I have four sons and three daughters and five grandchildren.

So we have fullness to somewhat compensate for the absence of the immediate family members, but the immediate family members are the ones that the book is dedicated to, as well as the future generations from my mother’s family and my father’s family.

That they could hear firsthand from me what my story is. So often, stories are (audio freeze) adventures, those are things that are reported by others, and they’re not always accurate. So part of the book, Tavis, is to try to set the record straight -

Tavis: Speaking of stuff -

Erving: – and put it out first person. (Laughter) You heard it from the horse’s mouth. I can’t be misquoted on that.

Tavis: Speaking of setting the record straight and how stories get conflated and conflicted and confused, I guess the best example of that would be the Rucker.

Erving: (Laughter) Yeah, the Rucker league, the Rucker league.

Tavis: Because the stories that the Rucker league – so let’s shoot to basketball now.

Erving: Yeah, okay.

Tavis: So you get to the Rucker in New York, because everybody knows about the Rucker, and you get to the Rucker, and you’re out there doing your thing, and to this day, there are certain stories that just don’t sound accurate.

So you’ve set the record straight on some of the Rucker stories.

Erving: I did, I did.

Tavis: Because there was no – those games were not recorded for television.

Erving: No, no.

Tavis: But it’s the best stuff ever done, though, some of those games.

Erving: Yeah, some of the games are the best that I’ve ever played in, and the drama associated with it just kind of stayed in the confines of the neighborhood, so 155th and 8th, in Harlem, New York.

Tavis: I got -

Erving: Being a Long Island kid, it’s not where I was born and raised, so I was like an invader. (Laughter) I was like an outsider when I hit the park.

Tavis: But when you show up -

Erving: But then, but then something happened.

Tavis: Right. (Laughter)

Erving: I got adopted. I got adopted.

Tavis: (Unintelligible) cut you off, but when you’d show up though, when you’d show up to play, though, folk would be on top of rooftops, buildings.

Erving: Yeah, we’ve got pictures there of some of that stuff.

Tavis: Yeah, I know, man. (Laughter) They’d be on top of rooftops just to watch you fly through the air and do your thing.

Erving: They wanted to watch everybody, so it wasn’t just me. I was part of the show, because you had Earl Monroe and Tiny Archibald and Wilt Chamberlain would come through, Walt Frasier would come through, Willis Reed.

Tavis: Those were the days.

Erving: So you got guys who were Hall of Famers, and there was always something about playing a couple of years in the Rucker league that just validated you being one of the guys, one of the guys.

You had to get your street creds. (Laughter) We played street ball all our lives, but until you play in that park, there’s not the true credibility. Then there’s always the guys who play in the park and they never play in the NBA, the ABA.

They never play, organize and play on the – never play for the NCAA in the NCAA tournament. So on that particular stage, which is the more traditional and revered as such. But they’re playground legends.

So there was one rumor out there about (audio freeze) halftime and scoring 50 points off me. (Laughter) So you know I had to dispel that one.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) There’s so many things that come through in that book, and I don’t have time to do justice to everything in here. You’ve lived such a rich life, are living such a rich life.

But it’s clear to me that you want your fans to know that basketball was but 16 years of your life, 16 good years, professional basketball. So I haven’t spent a bunch of time tonight talking about the ABA and the NBA.

I think most of your fans know those stories. I wanted to get to the other part of Julius Erving that we don’t know. I would assume that in your adult life, maybe in your entire life, you tell me, as difficult as losing your brother was, and that had to be tough, no doubt about it, but losing your son, Cory, I can’t imagine – parents aren’t supposed to bury their babies, it’s supposed to be the other way around.

Erving: You’re right.

Tavis: You talk a little bit about that in the book, but that had to be tough.

Erving: Yeah, yeah. When we get to that stage of the story, honestly speaking, even though I worked with a ghost writer, a lot of it is still a blur. The years from the time it happened to maybe the next three or four years, a lot of the richness of our autobiography fades, because – becomes a blurred period in terms of being on an emotional roller coaster.

Trying to sort it out and rekindling your spirituality and acceptance. It really is a nightmare. It’s something that, a parent’s worst nightmare. It led to the dissolution of our relationship eventually because of Turquoise handling it a lot different than I handled it.

It created a gap that couldn’t be repaired, just in terms of the statistics associated with parents losing children, and then getting divorced. It’s phenomenal. The numbers are higher than the normal divorce rate.

So yeah, it’s not something you want to have happen to you, and when it does, you still have to go on. You still have to go on and try to find something to grasp or hold to, to turn a negative into a positive.

So we created a foundation, and been able to, for several years, support people from all walks of life in terms of economic needs and educational needs, and creating opportunities through that.

But yeah, it’s something that’s always hard to talk about, and you wouldn’t wish that on anybody, even your worst enemy.

Tavis: Because I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about, and we could have – there’s so many stories about the ABA years, so many stories, of course, about the NBA. I didn’t get a chance to talk about the ‘fro.

Erving: What ‘fro?

Tavis: Yeah, and whoosh (unintelligible) through the air. (Laughter) We didn’t get a chance to talk about that. Let me offer this, then, as the exit question, to kind of I guess encapsulate all of this.

Your fans know, I know what your career, what your life and your legacy have meant to me, and I’m going to hold that dear for as long as I live, and I suspect all your other fans, and we could argue about who’s the biggest Dr. J. fan.

Meet me in the parking lot, we can fight about this. (Laughter) But what do you most regard about the gift that you were given to play this game? What do you most regard about your career?

Erving: Well, I didn’t realize until I was 20 that I was going to be a professional basketball player. Prior to that, I was always trying to be the student athlete, understanding that the pros are a selection process, and on the athlete side you try to be as good as you can possibly be and you still might not be good enough to get selected.

On the academic side, this is how you’re going to feed your family. This is how you’re going to support yourself. You’re going to get a job, consistent with your course of study, and you’re going to go out into the world. Even if you’re fortunate enough to have a cup of coffee in the athletic world and get paid for it, you’re still not going to make enough to take care of you the rest of your life, so you’re still going to have to work.

You’re still going to have to transition from that at some point in time, so I always had this reality check in place, and then that I was able to sign a pro contract and play for 16 years, that was gravy.

All of that was icing for me, because I really didn’t expect it. So in terms of putting it in perspective about how you want people to think of you or to feel about you, I’m probably one who never starts the basketball conversation or the sports conversation.

I always choose to try and talk more about the complete package conversation – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Try and be the best person that you can. Try and keep all of those things growing and moving towards a common objective.

If you can do that with those areas of your makeup that are characteristics that you do have some control over, then you’re going to end up in a positive place. It’s always been about and always will be about having the peace of mind that makes you happy. Because if you have personal peace of mind, then you’re going to be happy.

Tavis: The book is (laughter) simply titled “Dr. J: The Autobiography.” As I’ve said I think three or four times in this conversation tonight, I still have not done justice to it at the end of this conversation.

Makes a great holiday gift for all the – I suspect anybody in your family who’s a guy who loves basketball will appreciate this as a gift, so I highly recommend the memoir, the autobiography from Dr. J, called “Dr. J.”

Erving: Thank you.

Tavis: Doc, honored to have you here, man.

Erving: It’s a pleasure.

Tavis: I mean that immensely.

Erving: It’s a pleasure.

Tavis: I appreciate that.

Erving: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: January 13, 2014 at 1:49 pm