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It seemed like before Michael Jordan came along, everybody had a life with Doc.
It was just one of those things that everyone in general seemed to claim. Young, old, black, white, male, female, Democrat, Republican, Catholic, Baptist, Laker, Celtic. All of the in-betweens.
Unlike most (maybe any) other icons of their times, there seemed to be something unique about the relationship those who didn't know him had with Doc. He seemed to, without literally doing so, let us in. The wall that separated us from the Reggie Jacksons, Muhammad Alis, John McEnroes, Richard Pettys, Bill Russells and Wilt Chamberlains didn't seem to be there with Doc.
Either that or too many of us refused to admit a wall existed. A life with him was more need than want.
We spoke to the posters and pics of him that hung on our walls and in our lockers at school. We treated our Dr. J Pro Leather '76 Converses like current sneaker-nerds treat Yeezys. We didn't necessarily want to "be" like Doc because hardly any of us believed that was ever possible, but we did want to somehow be a part of him.
|Julius Erving drives against the Spurs.|
Or more vitally, he a part of us.
So for years I thought I had Julius Erving to myself. Stupid me. I thought he meant to me something different than what he meant to every other person who worshipped him as I did. Stupid me. I thought my relationship with him was individual, unshared. A second dad. Like father, like fan.
Like the wise surrogate uncle every brotha had but never utilized properly or failed to listened to insistently. The Oracle. The Sensei. Yoda. Mudbone. Mr. Wendal. Da Mayor minus his beverage. Or as Charles Barkley told me over the phone, "He's like a father or grandfather figure. The perfect gentleman. And elder statesman. Like the cool, old guy in the neighborhood … who just happened to be great at basketball."
Julius Erving found a way into a prior generation's hearts, veins, thoughts, beliefs and souls in ways that Jordan and LeBron James never have or ever will. He found a way to be a tattoo on Juwan Howard's arm. He found a way to be the reason Andre Young chose the name Dr. Dre. He found a way to be Barry Obama's childhood sports hero.
Even Will Smith admitted on his first Jimmy Kimmel appearance last week, "I modeled how I wanted to be after Dr. J." And they weren't talking basketball.
And I thought I was alone with him.
When I asked Julius Erving the other day how he felt about the impact he had on individuals that he didn't know as his playing career evolved, he responded in a way that was expected but still enlightening.
He's known me for years, every now and then he calls me "Nephew" and allows me to call him "Uncle," but even in the middle of a news conference to promote the documentary that chronicles his beautiful and scared life, he took his time to say something that he knew would make me a better man.
"Well, you never know who is watching, so you can do one of two things," he said. "You can assume everyone's watching or you can take the attitude that you really don't care who is watching and who is not. I kind of always liked to assume that there were a lot of eyes -- particularly young people -- on any professional athlete once they start to get on the big stage, once they have a platform. They have a responsibility that you are a role model. Now I have been far from perfect in my professional life and personal life in terms of role modeling, but, you know, only our Creator is perfect. So perfect is not an option.
"But to be good and to be consistent, to be dedicated and to have goals that are achievable and to reach them and then handle that situation with humility … those are doable things. So knowing that there are people out there who are watching, it became important to me. And it will always be important to me. I can't help it. It's something I don't wish on everybody because there are clearly some people that don't want the role, but it is a role."
Those imperfections upon their discoveries hurt -- I can't lie. The children he bore outside of his marriage, the divorce from Turquoise Erving, the auctioning off personal memorabilia that led to speculation of severe financial troubles, the "Reign On" ad.
But those made him human instead of mythological. Something needed to help make many of us face the realization that Erving, as great of a role model and human being as he'd been in many of our eyes and lives, was mortal. A god, but not God.
The one thing I learned directly from Julius Erving is that he never wants a story about himself to be told too soon or before its time.
He held off on an interview once with me because he wanted to make sure other players were interviewed before him: Elgin Baylor, Earl Monroe, Pete Maravich, Connie Hawkins, etc. He felt their stories should have been told before his. Almost as if the Dr. J story was not worthy without others being given similar attention.
Even though no other is similar.
Which puts this documentary into a fitting perspective and gives it deeper purpose. How all of these sports documentaries, from "Beyond The Glory" (on the life of Roberto Duran) to "The Lost Son of Havana" (on Luis Tiant's return to Cuba) can be done, how the Tribeca Film Festival can have so many sports docs submitted annually, it has established a sports division, how ESPN can be going into Season 3 of its "30 For 30" series and a film on Dr. J is just getting done is insupposable, inconceivable. Which is also why basketball is only a portion of the story the film tells.
In one of the news conferences held prior to the film's premiere, former head of NBA Entertainment Paul Gilbert asked Erving this question: "You see guys like LeBron [James] and Michael [Jordan] and the kind of attention they get, especially with the online media increasing, what do you think it would be like if you [played] today and would you have wanted that kind of attention?"
Erving's answer is the perfect contextual example of who he is as a man and why so many of us needed him to play the significant role that he did in so many of our lives.
"Only if it came coupled with respect," Doc said. "Attention alone, notoriety alone, popularity alone are meaningless. If people respect you, they will respect when you say, 'Yes,' they will respect when you say, 'No.' [If] they do not respect you, that shows as well. So I would not want to have more [attention] because it would be burdensome if I was not respected as a person and have my family respected and my body of work respected. So there is a condition for wanting to be in the limelight. And I'm clear in terms of what my position is."