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Throwback Thursday: Remembering Julius Erving

In today’s edition of Throwback Thursday, the focus is on the illustrious career of Julius Erving, who was better known as “Dr. J.” 

Best known for his aerial acrobatics, Julius Erving combined his impressive 41-inch vertical with his 6-foot-7 frame to produce some jaw-dropping dunks:

While Dr. J was much more than just a high-flyer, he was defined by his frequent above-the-rim excursions because the world hadn’t seen a play style like that ever before. Regal, dignified and graceful off the court, Erving had an on-court persona that matched his off-court demeanor. Gliding in the air – seemingly effortlessly at times – Dr. J made the extraordinary plays routine.

Before Dr. J was wowing the professional basketball fans, he was putting on a show for the college fans. Spending two years at the University of Massachusetts, Erving averaged 26.3 points and 20.2 rebounds. As excellent as Erving’s stats were, he was still fairly an unknown and was overshadowed by the likes of Bob Lanier (27.6 and 15.7 a game) and Pete Maravich (44.2 points a game).

Instead of declaring for the NBA Draft, Erving decided to take his talents to the American Basketball Association (ABA), which was closer geographically and offered a flashy playing style that fit Erving’s game. As an undrafted free agent, Erving signed with the Virginia Squires.

The Squires had the reigning ABA scoring champ on their roster (Charlie Scott), but that didn’t stop Erving from making an immediate impact. In his very first professional game, Erving looked right in his element, dropping 21 points. The rookie went on to average 27.3 points that season (including five 40+ point games) en route to an All-ABA Second Team selection and an All-ABA Rookie Team induction.

Erving came second in the Rookie of the Year award voting (Artis Gilmore of the Kentucky Colonels won the award with 23.8 points and 17.8 rebounds per game), but it was hard to say the rookie wasn’t already one of the top players in the league. In the playoffs that year, Erving averaged 33.3 points and 20.4 rebounds, including a 53-point explosion in the first round.

When Erving’s college graduation came later that year, he was automatically eligible for the NBA Draft and was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks with the 12th overall pick. The professional basketball landscape was constantly changing during this time, and Erving never ended up playing for the Bucks. He initially tried to play with the Atlanta Hawks, but was legally forced to play for the Squires.

With his return to the Squires, Erving carried the load, leading the team in scoring and rebounding, and had a career best in scoring with 31.9 points per game (leading the league). Although he played for an average team, his high-scoring profile and above-the-rim acrobatics drew attention all across the league.

Erving led the team to the first round of the playoffs that year while acquiring the first of his four consecutive All-ABA First Team selections. He was traded that summer to the New York Nets in a blockbuster trade, and the Nets reaped the benefits immediately.

Erving led the league in scoring once again (27.4 ppg), and the Nets went from fourth in the division at 30-54 to first with a league-best 55-29 record. The success carried on past the regular season, where the ‘73-74 Nets cruised through the playoffs (12-3) en route to Erving’s first ABA championship.

In the finest year of Erving’s career, his scoring title and championship ring were accompanied by the first of his three consecutive ABA Most Valuable Player awards. By this time, his exciting play had spread far and wide, and Erving was regarded as the most popular player in either league.

The ABA had been struggling to stay afloat even when Erving was a rookie, and in the final season (‘75-76), the ABA reached a new low: There were too few teams for the league to have multiple divisions, so every team was consolidated into one division.

Trying to find anything for the ABA to garner more money, the league hosted its very first All-Star Game Slam Dunk Contest, which Erving won (this featured the infamous dunk from the free throw line):

Erving once again had a terrific season, winning his second ABA championship while winning his third MVP and third scoring title.

The NBA merged with the ABA following the ‘75-76 season, adding the Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs, New York Nets and Indiana Pacers. Realizing what he was worth, Erving held out on contract negotiations with the Nets, which resulted in them selling his rights to Philadelphia for $3 million.

Generally regarded as the best player in either league, Erving got off to a somewhat slow start with the 76ers as he became acclimated to taking on a smaller role, “only” averaging 21.6 points and 8.5 rebounds. Despite the perceived struggles of Dr. J, the Sixers had the best record in the Atlantic Division at 50-32 and made it all the way to the NBA Finals in his first year.

The Sixers held a 2-0 series lead against the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1977 NBA Finals, but the Blazers won four straight games with the help of Bill Walton’s 19 and 19 average to claim the title over the Sixers.

The Sixers then set out to find the perfect role players to complement the play of Erving. With the addition of players like Maurice Cheeks (a point guard) and Bobby Jones (a 6-foot-9 defensive workhorse), Erving and the Sixers enjoyed multiple playoff runs.

While the Sixers had Erving – a mainstay on the All-NBA First Team – and good role players, they didn’t have an answer to the dominant center that was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In the next three seasons, the Sixers made it to the NBA Finals twice, only to be beaten by Magic and Kareem’s Lakers.

Philadelphia general manager Pat Williams acquired Moses Malone to begin the ‘82-83 season, and the puzzle was complete. The Sixers jogged through the regular season in typical Dr. J fashion and cruised through the playoffs to meet the Lakers once again in the Finals.

The addition of Malone proved to be the X-factor, as the Sixers easily swept the Lakers behind Malone’s 26 and 18 a game. And with that, Dr. J finally got his NBA title. 

Then on the wrong side of 30, Erving lost much of his athleticism and began to drop off in production. And as Erving went, the Sixers went. The dominant years of the Sixers looked to be behind them, and while the Sixers made the playoffs every year of Erving’s career, they got further and further from winning another title.

Erving retired following the 1986-87 season at the age of 37 after a fantastic professional basketball career. Between the ABA and NBA, Erving scored over 30,000 points, good for sixth all-time in points scored. And in 1993, Erving was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

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