By the time I was old enough to start watching basketball, Julius Erving was in the twilight of his career. He still scored -- 18.1 and 16.8 points per game during the last two seasons of his career -- and his teams still had moderate success, winning 54 games in 1985-1986. But he was nothing close to the player he once was.
But his presence was still larger than life, and I was drawn to him. My father talked with reverence about him. My older friends tried to emulate him on the basketball court. For as much as Charles Barkley entertained me, Dr. J was who I wanted to be. I do not think there is any exaggeration when I say that I doubt I would be as in love with basketball today if Dr. J wasn't with the 76ers.
He was a legend.
When I was 10, Dr. J was scheduled to attend a basketball camp in my home town of Emmaus, Pennsylvania. Dr. J, in my home town?! No way. I had to attend. I eagerly signed up and waited, only to find out the week before the camp that Erving couldn't attend. We got Greg Anthony instead. Anthony at that time was entering the second season of a nondescript NBA career. I was devastated, or at least my 10 year old self was devastated. But he was a busy man, I reckoned, and I held no grudge. I still got to meet an NBA player, after all.
My loss of innocence in regards to athletes would come much later.
Fast forward to 1997 and things started to unravel. Erving had signed on to be Executive Vice President of the Orlando Magic in what was largely a public relations role. The man had spent practically the entirety of his adult life carrying leagues on his back, from trying to keep the ABA relevant to gaining back the goodwill of disillusioned NBA fans. This kind of role seemed perfect for Erving as he transitioned to the next phase of his career in basketball.
This is when his personal life started to unravel. It started with his son, Cory, who had been in and out of rehab and was charged with burglarizing a car in 1998. Questions about how much Erving was around, and whether or not that had any impact on the troubles Cory was having, lingered, but we had no idea about the particulars. For all we knew Dr. J had found some way to balance the seemingly impossible task of living an NBA life while being there for his kids. He had certainly earned the benefit of the doubt up to that point.
The story of Cory, of course, ended tragically. While some trace amounts of cocaine were found in his system, indicating that he had done the drug in the days leading up to the crash, the coroner determined that they were at insufficient levels to impact his driving ability. The crash appeared to legitimately be an accident, something everybody in America could empathize with Erving about.
But by that time the ruse of Julius Erving was already starting to wear off. Months before the Cory Erving tragedy, one of Dr. J's offspring was in the news over very different circumstances. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel had figured out that Erving was the father of Alexandra Stevenson, an 18 year old tennis phenom having a coming out party at Wimbledon.
Erving denied it, briefly, then finally admitted to it as he was left with little recourse: there was the minor, but pesky, detail that Stevenson's birth certificate had listed him as the father. As the details came out, the aura of Julius Erving started to fade. He had only met his daughter once, at a basketball camp when all he could say to her was to ask her whether she would like an autograph, even though he knew who she was at the time.
It didn't end there. During Julius and Turquoise Erving's 2003 divorce we learned about another child of Erving's born out of wedlock, Jules Madden, then aged 5. His mother, Dorys Madden, would eventually become Julius Erving's second wife, and the couple would have two more children together.
Not to mention the leaking of a sex tape featuring Julius Erving and someone other than his wife.
It was at this point that I lost any and all faith in athletes being role models, at least off the court. I was in college then, at no point expecting to ever set foot in an NBA locker room, but the aura of athletes had worn off. 5 years earlier there was no athlete who I held in higher regard than Julius Erving. He was a legend in my mind, both on and off the court.
Definition of legend
1a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but not authenticated:
the legend of King Arthur
It's not that I developed a hatred for Julius Erving after all of this happened, or even a dislike. While I was initially stunned and disappointed, the fall from grace Erving experienced didn't make me re-think everything I thought I knew about the great Doctor, much in the same way that Magic Johnson's troubles a decade earlier hadn't.
The fall of the previously untouchable great Doctor served as a reality check for my college self. Legends, by definition, are not authenticated, and when you try to examine them as fact their weaknesses often show.
I have now interviewed Erving twice in my time covering the 76ers, exchanging a hand shake with the man who practically made me fall in love with the sport. In my years of interviewing college and professional basketball players, I rarely if ever get star struck when I meet an athlete anymore, but The Doctor still had that impact on me. The man, despite not being perfect, despite making decisions that I strongly disagreed with, was still larger than life.
Erving's tale, to me, became more about the constant evolution of the role that media had in sports. The more we cover these athletes, the more human they become. Legends are virtually impossible to maintain in the internet age, with 24/7 sports networks hovering around a multi-billion dollar industry.
Sometimes you want to go back. Go back to an age where legends can still exist, where we knew about their on-court feats, but not every intricate detail about the human being. But we can't. The age of innocence is gone.
In many ways, it helped me, both as a sports fan and as a member of the media. Why would we expect professional athletes to be models of virtue? They are young adults -- sometimes borderline children -- who just happen to be very good at at a game that we love. Physically mature long before being emotionally so, young adults who often times aren't ready to handle the fame and fortune. I shudder when I think about the mistakes I would have made with the world at my feet in my early twenties. I know that I would not have been ready for that responsibility, so it doesn't shock me when others stumble at times.
This doesn't necessarily describe Erving's situation, at least not the affair that resulted in his second child out of wedlock, as Erving was in his late 40's when that happened. But it served as a cold reminder that just because somebody can palm a basketball doesn't mean that they are infallible.
If you didn't get a chance to watch the NBA TV documentary, "The Doctor", last night, please do. They put together an excellent montage of video footage showing Erving's career take off like a rocket ship, while providing (mostly) excellent first-hand accounts from players, coaches, front office personnel and broadcasters to give you an excellent picture of the impact Dr. J truly made on both the sport and the people around him.
The video footage from Erving's time at Rucker Park is something every basketball fan should watch, and the documentary was overall incredibly informative.
But they left out a few key details that in my mind made the documentary less than it could have been. Namely, Alexandra Stevenson and Jules Madden.
It's not that I think his affairs overshadow the basketball player or the person. We tend to like to paint things as good or bad, black or white, and that is very rarely the case. I have no doubt that Julius Erving is, was, and will be a thoughtful, caring, and compassionate person to many people in his life. He's impacted the lives of millions of people, from those trying to emulate his feats on the basketball court to fans that he took the time to shake hands with and talk to, and everybody in-between.
But he also caused immense pain to Turquoise Brown and Alexandra Stevenson. He spent years lying, hiding, cheating, and manipulating the one he loved, causing her immense pain and anguish. He ignored his biological child for the first 27 years of her life, allowing her to grow up without a father figure in her life, meaning nothing more to her than a paycheck.
To ignore this aspect of his life was a mistake. The documentary went to considerable lengths to talk about Erving's personal life and the tragedy he has experienced, which, admittedly, he has had more than his fair share of.
The documentary got to the death of their son Cory (2000), mentioning it as the tipping point in his relationship with Turquoise, which led to their divorce (2003), while failing to mention a minor detail like Turquoise finding out about the existence of a second out of wedlock child (earlier in 2003)?
His wife found out that her husband had a second child out of wedlock when a friend asked her about "their grandchild" that she had seen Erving playing with. She filed for divorce almost immediately after finding out that information. If you're going to bring up the divorce, it was disingenuous not to mention the *minor* contributing factor of 29 years of extramarital affairs, lying, and deception.
And that's where the documentary fell short. By going to great lengths to showcase his triumphs and what he was able to overcome, both on the basketball court and in his personal life, the documentary adequately showed off the legend of Dr. J. But by failing to acknowledge the mistakes he made, the documentary left Julius Erving as a legend. In truth, the story of Dr. J is much more complicated than that.