On a recent Monday night in Lancaster, Pa., Julius Erving breezed into the banquet room of a large downtown hotel to greet the fans who had gathered to meet with him, before a presentation later that night.
Erving, 72, has been gray for a while now; the Afro of his ABA heyday is a distant memory. (Same for the shorter ’do he wore throughout most of his 11 years with the Sixers). But Dr. J is still trim, and still possesses the same hi-how-ya-doin’ grace he always has. As he swept through the room, dressed all in black, he shook every hand, posed for every photo, made everybody feel as though they were the VIPs their upsold ticket said they were.
“We’ve got a seat here, if you need one,” one man yelled to him from his table near the buffet.
And once Erving filled his plate he did indeed come over and sit with the guy and his two companions. Sat there for a while, in fact, before continuing to make the rounds.
“You made my day,” one guy, wearing a ballcap that identified him as a Navy veteran, told Erving after they posed together.
The fan might as well have been speaking for the group.
Understand that Erving’s life has not been without its rough patches since his 16-year playing career ended in 1987. His marriage to his first wife, Turquoise, ended in divorce after nearly 29 years in 2003, in the wake of his infidelity (and according to his 2013 autobiography, physical confrontations between the two of them).
There was also speculation he was in financial trouble (which he has denied) when in 2011 he auctioned off much of his memorabilia, including the championship ring he won in 1982-83 with the Sixers, for $3.5 million. And tragically, one of his sons, Cory, drowned after accidentally driving his car into a retention pond in Orlando, Fla., in 2000.
But if any of that weighs on him, he hides it well. That night in Lancaster — a city in which the Sixers held training camp for most of his time with the team — he was a picture of decorum. A cynic might suggest that that’s easy to do when you’re commanding at least $30,000 per public appearance, as Erving is. But the truth is, he has always been this way. Always. When he played, no autograph request seemed too bothersome, no interview seemed too tiresome and no hanger-on seemed too loathsome. He handled it all with aplomb.
That, above and beyond his spectacular play, is why in his final season he was accorded a farewell tour of the league and a parade through the streets of Philadelphia. And why he was greeted so warmly in Lancaster.
Warmly, but not unanimously. At one point two male hotel workers watched from across the room as The Doctor made his way to the bar to order a glass of red wine.
“What’s his name?” one asked.
“Julius Erving,” the other said.
The first worker responded with the slightest of shrugs, a reflection of the generational divide; both guys appeared to be in their 20s. But those of a certain age will always find Erving irresistible. They still recall his impossible baseline move against fellow legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1980 Finals, and the oft-replayed rock-the-baby dunk, also against the Lakers, during the ’82-83 regular season.
But mostly they remember his decency.
As it happens, somebody compelled a boy of about 5 to ask Erving about the latter play that night in Lancaster. Doc was only too happy to play along.
“Rock the baby?” he asked the boy. “Is that a dunk shot?”
Erving was later asked about a long-ago encounter at Franklin & Marshall College, just across town, with Glenn Robinson, the school’s now-retired men’s basketball coach. The Sixers trained there from 1978-94, and the way Robinson tells the story, he happened one year to run into Dr. J in a downstairs hallway within Mayser Gym, F&M’s homecourt, between camp sessions.
“You bring your defense?” Doc asked him.
Robinson said he had, and the two of them repaired to an auxiliary court for a game of one-on-one, knowing full well what the outcome would be.
Robinson started out by pulling up for a mid-range jumper against Doc’s indifferent D.
“You’re hangin’,” Erving informed him, meaning that his release was not nearly quick enough.
Robinson buried the shot, retained possession and squared up again.
“You’re hangin’,” Doc said again.
Another make, followed by another shot attempt. And this time, perhaps predictably, Dr. J plucked the ball out of the air a millisecond after it left Robinson’s hand.
Erving, sitting along a wall in the banquet room, did not recall that long-ago game, but pulled a response from his back pocket anyway.
“He went easy on me, huh?” he said of Robinson.
Bobby Jones, Erving’s friend and former Sixers teammate, called his fellow Hall of Famer “an encourager” in an interview a few years ago. Other superstars, Jones said, “put pressure on younger guys to come up to their level.”
Not Erving, though.
“That’s what stood out in my mind, I think, the entire time I was with him: He wasn’t arrogant,” Jones said. “He didn’t consider himself better than anybody. He worked as hard as anybody, if not harder. Didn’t put anybody down for the mistakes that they made. That’s easy to do at that level, when the game’s on the line or something’s on the line.”
We have seen it with alpha dogs like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, who dispensed tough love as regularly as facials. But Erving was never wired that way.
“He knows he can do it,” Jones said, “but you’re in a position where you have to do it, and you don’t. It takes strength of character to say, ‘We’re in this together. We win together, we lose together.’ I think that was probably, to me, his greatest quality.”
During the main presentation that night in Lancaster, Erving told the crowd of a few hundred people that Celtics legend Bill Russell had mentored him from the time Julius was at the University of Massachusetts.
“He was,” Erving said, “a change agent in my life.”
His, and several others. But Russell died in July, leaving Erving to muse about who might fill the void.
“Who’s gonna be next?” he asked the crowd. “I think it’s me. Whaddaya think?”
There was polite applause, which seemed about right. Can Erving really follow in Russell’s footsteps? Can anybody?
The night wound down and Erving made his way toward an exit, again greeting fans as he went. Near the door he posed for one last photo, this time with one of the guys who earlier in the evening had wondered who he was.
Dr. J, winning people over, one at a time.
Same as it ever was.