EDITORS NOTE: Every year when the Finals come around, we wait, and watch, and wonder: Will we ever see a play as great as the one Julius Erving made in 1980, swooping behind the backboard against the Lakers, making Kareem Abdul-Jabbar look as if he wasn't even there? And every year, the answer is: No. The Doctor is the standard-bearer, in so many ways. Eric Neel caught up with the living legend for an interview on the state of the game, both yesterday and today.
NEEL: First things first. Who do you like in the Finals?
DR. J: I like Texas, man. San Antonio is fresh and deep. It would be a real testament to Detroit's greatness if they could win this series. They have to be considered the underdog. Part of what I'm waiting to see now is who rises up. The Spurs have guys like Ginobili, who, if they shine in this series, can attain legendary status. Parker, too. And Tayshaun Prince, the Wallace boys these guys can become something more than what they are right now in this series. That's what this moment is all about.
NEEL: We're one game into the Finals now, with two very good, evenly matched teams. But I have to ask you: Have you seen a team in the last 20-odd years that you think could have competed with your Sixers team in 1983?
DR. J: I think the Bulls team in '97 certainly earned its stripes. They had a lot of pieces; they played really good defense. Now, of course, they won without a dominant center, so Moses would have given them fits. And our team, if we hadn't started resting guys for the playoffs, we probably could have won 70 games also but the Bulls, when they had it going, they were as good as I've seen.
That 1983 season was a dream season for me. That was the first team I played on where every night we stepped on the court, we felt we could win. And when we lost a game, it was like, "How the hell did that happen?" [laughs]
NEEL: Basketball suffered a major loss last week when George Mikan died. How would you describe his influence for someone coming up today who might never have heard of him?
DR. J: He was, to me, the face of basketball of his era. One of my idols, Bill Russell, idolized this guy, and because of that, the name George Mikan got my attention at a young age. Growing up, I'd heard of his exploits, but the footage I saw was old and kind of grainy [laughs], so you really couldn't get a feel for him. But I remember my JV coach used to make me do this drill he called the Mikan drill you had to shoot hook shots from both the left and right side of the basket, left- and right-handed, without letting the ball hit the ground. After a while, you start to do it very efficiently. Eventually, you could do it with your eyes closed, all feel and touch. And that, too, aroused my curiosity about this guy who was one of the godfathers of the game.
I remember when I first met him. He was a senior gentleman, but he came over to me and he stuck his hand out and grabbed my hand and shook it real hard. It was a manly handshake. There was still such bravado, such energy about him, even long after his playing days. He just acted like a big man, you know? He knew he was big. His loss is a great loss to the sport.
NEEL: When you were a young player coming up, did you feel responsible in some way to the guys who had come before you?
DR. J: I feel greatly indebted to the players who played before me, guys who were barnstorming before there was a real professional league, guys who went through the ABL experience and the NBL experience it wasn't always private planes and five-star hotels in this league. The indebtedness to our forefathers rings loud and true. Any time I get a chance to talk to those guys, after I tease them about the old black-and-white footage, you always have to give props to those guys. They made it happen for all of us who came after.
NEEL: Do you think young players today appreciate their "forefathers" in the same way?
DR. J: I think the guys who were icons of the past, they know about. But there are so many other guys All-Stars, contributors, guys like K.C. Jones and Bobby Jones and such and they don't seem to know about those guys or give them the respect they deserve. Of course, K.C. is walking around with a bunch of championship rings, so I guess he doesn't need much more than that. But I asked someone the other day who Bobby Jones was, and I would have settled for either the golfer or the basketball player. We're talking about a tremendous player, and the guy I was talking to had no idea.
NEEL: When the ABA-NBA merger took place, I remember that old Sports Illustrated cover, "Dave and the Doctor in one big league." Did you think of yourself at that time as a pioneer? Were you conscious of infusing the NBA with something new?
DR. J: I always felt, and I feel now, that I was one of the guys who bridged the gap between the old-time player and the new-age player. Kareem is in that group. Iceman would definitely be in that group, too. We bridged it. We gave the audience a glimpse of the future. But our games were definitely rooted in the fundamentals of the past. We'd go both ways, something traditional and something spectacular. And there were a lot of guys who were doing that at that time, but they weren't necessarily doing it in organized basketball. We brought our playground experience to what we were doing in the league. Ice had Detroit in him. I had my New York thing.
NEEL: Did you take pride in bringing something "playground" to the organized game?
DR. J: Every day. Every day. Even in practice. Any opportunity to showcase something guys hadn't seen that was fun. Ice used to say, when he came along, that guys were talking about making bank shots inside the square on the backboard. But he would say, "There are two squares up there. There's that little one and there's that big one around it, too, and I can make a shot from anywhere up in that big one, just as easy." He was outside the box. Inside one but outside the other, you know?
NEEL: Is there a difference between Dr. J and Julius Erving?
DR. J: Definitely. There's an alter ego involved in what I did. My personal ego, Julius Erving, is categorically different. Julius Erving is astute, mild-mannered, almost always in control. Dr. J tends to be more flamboyant. The expectation when Dr. J stepped on the court was that somebody was going to get dunked on, and Dr. J was ready to oblige, and the fans were going to get their money's worth.
In my everyday life, I'm Julius, though, not Dr. J. It used to take some time and thought to adjust to different situations, to be Julius when I should be Julius and Dr. J when I should be Dr. J. I'd go to a party or something and people would want me to be Dr. J, the life of the party. But that's not my personality. I like to observe. I like to be quiet. I like to react to what's going on. I'm not trying to go somewhere and be the center of the action. In fact, it's always like pulling teeth when I've contracted something and that's who I have to be [Dr. J], because it's not really who I am at all.
NEEL: So you don't miss him now that you're retired?
DR. J: No way, no way. Obviously, there are certain benefits there that, if I was denied them forever, I would miss. But no. If there's a day that goes by now where I don't have to be the alter ego, I'm fine.
NEEL: How much of your on-court creativity was invention and how much was rehearsal?
DR. J: There was a lot of spontaneity. Only when we had a dunk contest would I really rehearse a move. In game action, I was just trying to slip into the daylight, get there first. If it was a free run and there was nobody in front of you, then I'd do something I've done before, because in those moments, it's showtime. But if you're contested, you're doing something you've never done before because you're doing something the defense is making you do. I used to tell those guys defending me, "Man, you made me do that." [laughs]
NEEL: So did you often surprise yourself?
DR. J: Heck, yeah. It's funny, because you'd get hit, and getting hit might make you go a little higher in the air, or a little sideways. And if you can still complete a play when you get hit, there is definitely a surprise factor. It's something you'll probably only do once, in fact. That's the nature of the game, I think the sense at any given moment that you're doing something that may never be repeated.
NEEL: For many of us, your singular play came when you swooped under the backboard in the Finals against the Lakers in 1980. Is there any one play, at any level, that sticks out in your mind as the height of your form and creativity?
DR. J: I had a shot down in Virginia once. Bob "Chopper" Travaglini, the trainer with the Squires, had this photo in the training room where I came out of the corner and went along the baseline. And there was a guy trying to take a charge, so I went up in the air towards the foul line, facing the foul line, and I was able to reach back and dunk the ball and pull my legs up in the air. And as the ball was going through the net, my butt was up at the bottom of the rim, my legs were straight down, and my body was straight out, making a 90 degree angle, and I was facing the foul line. And he had a picture of this. And I used to look at it, and I was like, "What the heck?!" That was the most unusual thing I ever did, and I didn't even remember doing it.
NEEL: You had so much style, but you often hear today that people are suspicious of too much flair in the NBA game. Can you make the case for style?
DR. J: Style, it's like bowling. Everybody's bowling, but from one bowler to the next, everybody's a little different. Their bodies are built differently, their mentalities are different. We're all exploiting the options, but we're doing it our own way. The pose a bowler holds at the end of his motion no two are exactly alike. That's what makes us the individuals we are, that little difference. That's style.
With hoops, you're going to see similar differences some subtle, some very dramatic. And it's a good thing. I don't think people should freak out over it. I think they should appreciate it and appreciate the evolution of it. And I'll tell you, individual effort and individuality happens to be necessary to succeed in this game at the pro level. Guys are too good for you to go by the book. You have to have enough of that individuality in you that when the forces meet, you have that resiliency, that resolve, that something extra. The forces, from both directions, are going to be so well-prepared, they're going to know each other so well, it's going to be individual effort and creativity that's going to allow you to win out not sticking to something you already know.
And it's not just you and the other guy. It's the moment, too. You have an audience. You're in, say, the Finals, and that inspires you, too. You have to have that audience sometimes to make you want something, to make it possible for you to come up with something totally new.
NEEL: From the hair to the kneepads to the smooth attitude and style for a lot of us, you represented a kind of counterculture cool. Did you think of yourself in those terms?
DR. J: I thought more in terms of pushing the envelope than cutting against the grain. I utilized a lot of what was already there. Maybe I'm the only guy who believes this, but I always thought my game was deeply rooted in fundamentals. I never really went into a long slump, because I always just went back to the fundamentals to rebounding and defense and passing when my shot wasn't there. I got more conservative in those times, not more flamboyant. It was more left foot-right hand, right foot-left hand, in those moments for me, you know? That was the rudiments of my game, and maybe that's what allowed me to go off on tangents the way I did, because what I rehearsed, and the way I thought of myself and my game, was always through the fundamentals first. And after a while, for me, the extraordinary things became fundamental, too. [laughs]
NEEL: Do you enjoy the game today?
DR. J: I enjoy watching the Spurs play, the Kings. A win for Philly is always nice for me. I enjoy it as a fan. I'm not looking for the perfect game. I'm not critical of what I see. I understand how hard it is. I understand even when guys are making so-called "easy" plays, and they're contested, I understand that they're doing something special.
NEEL: Are you frustrated with today's superstars and how they approach their games?
DR. J: Not really. I think my frustration comes more with guys who were at that next level down, who fill niches but don't necessarily want to improve their overall games. When I was with the Magic, I used to try to get Horace Grant to work on putting the ball on the floor, but he wasn't hearing it. No way. He just wanted to pump iron and stick with what he was doing. And he was a valuable, valuable role guy at every stop. But in terms of improving his game, he wasn't hearing it.
NEEL: The league is talking about instituting a minimum age limit moving forward. What's your take on it?
DR. J: I think you protect the college player and the college game with it, and maybe there's something righteous about that. But in terms of the global view, if you're going to continue drafting players from all around the world, I don't see how it can work. Tony Parker was in the league at . A lot of these guys aren't thinking about college at all. It's going to be difficult to keep these guys out and make them wait.
NEEL: Is the influx of foreign-born players a good thing for the NBA?
DR. J: Yeah, I think it is. Obviously, it takes away some opportunities from some players who were born here. But I think this: If you're good enough to make it, you're going to make it. You have to rise up to the challenge other players, from wherever they come, present to you. You have to be good enough and make yourself good enough to play in this league. So I'm positive about the arrival of the foreign players because I think the challenge they represent raises the quality of everyone's game. And I like to see the sport globalized. I don't want to see it restricted. It should move more towards internationalization.
NEEL: Does Allen Iverson ever reach out to you, to talk about the quest for a ring? You waited a long time for an NBA title, too
DR. J: I don't think it's a matter of waiting, really. I think it's a matter of getting your shots at it. If you get your shots, if you keep at it, you should get through. Unless you're like the Buffalo Bills or something. I think even if it's not meant to be, that void is probably not going to stop anything from happening. Allen's had a Hall of Fame career whether they win one or not.
NEEL: Let's do a hypothetical: You, Jordan, Dominique, and Vince Carter in a dunk contest. You're all in your primes. Who wins?
DR. J: I'd have to come up with something, now. I don't like playing for second place but let's say if you were going to take the course of a career, Dominique has probably had the most spectacular dunks. Vince has been amazing, but he's got some dues to pay. I don't know let's put it this way: If you took 100 dunks, and they had to be in game conditions, I would put my 16 years' worth up against anybody, against any of those guys.
NEEL: Almost everyone I've ever known has, at one time or another, wanted to be you. If you could inhabit the body and spirit of some other player for one day, who would it be?
DR. J: Probably the Hawk [Connie Hawkins]. That would be a good experience. I would have fun with that. I mean, he just toyed with people. I would like that. I would like to be the Hawk and walk into some gym full of young guys who can play and who think they're bad, and just put the Hawk stuff on 'em right then and there. That'd be fun.
NEEL: Do you still play at all?
DR. J: No, I don't. I had a knuckle replacement surgery a while back, and after that, the doctor said, "No more hoops." Plus, I'm double-nickels, man. You know, you gotta know where your place is. I could still shoot the ball, but I'm not competing any more.
Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2.