Julius Erving decided it was time for reflection. Once one of the NBA’s most popular players, a league poster child for athletic grace on the court and a pleasant disposition off it, Erving has been retired more than 25 years, and he has harnessed his thoughts into an emotional biopic.
“The Doctor” premiered last Monday and offered some sides of Erving of which even his most passionate fans were unaware. Narrated by Erving, he takes viewers through his childhood on Long Island, his days at the University of Massachusetts, those special years in the American Basketball Association, his 11 years with the Philadelphia 76ers, and finally some of his post-retirement setbacks.
“Certainly somewhat emotionally drenched for the roller coaster ride,” he said. “I think every time I engage someone in a conversation about it, it’s going to bring out the emotions, the joy, the ecstasy. Of course, sweeping the Lakers [in the 1983 NBA Finals] and knocking off other people along the way, but the personal side, being able to share the family members and associates and friends who were great influences in my life, behind the scenes. That’s probably the most meaningful part of it.”
Erving scored more than 30,000 points between the ABA and NBA. He was one of the first players to popularize the dunk as not only a forceful shot used by big men, but a breathtaking, athletic means of scoring.
With his physical prowess, work ethic, and magnetic personality, Erving catapulted the Virginia Squires, New York Nets, and the 76ers to new heights, most notably the face of those Philadelphia teams that battled the Celtics in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Of course, Erving entered the NBA at a time when Finals games were on tape delay, there was a perception that many of the players were drug users, and the NBA was a distant third in popularity behind Major League Baseball and the NFL. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were still in college when Erving was carrying the burden as the NBA’s lone megastar.
“I felt a lot of pressure, but none that kept me from performing on the court,” he said. “I thought there were an inordinate amount of demands and requests off the court that somebody had to answer, they had to step into the space and be there, be the poster boy for. I had a certain type of financial security at this time. I experienced bounced checks in Virginia and being undercompensated in New York, so I felt good [in the NBA], so I could do off the court [things]. I didn’t have to do what some of the players of that day did, take a job.
“I think there was some personal sacrifice associated with that and there was personal sacrifice associated with being a Sixer because I was the leading scorer on the team and some looked at it as not being as productive [as the ABA]. It wasn’t really about statistical accumulation. It was wins and losses. And we ended up with the best record in the league that first year, and time was made for all of the things that were required and demanded, and I think I gave that time freely.”
The 1983 76ers were one of the best teams ever assembled, with Erving, point guard Maurice Cheeks, dominant center Moses Malone, and pure scorer Andrew Toney, one of the league’s most overlooked players because of his recurrent ankle issues. They went 12-1 in the postseason, the loss coming in the Eastern Conference finals to the Bucks. They swept the defending champion Lakers in the Finals and looked ready for a dynasty, but it never materialized.
The Sixers lost in the first round in 1984 to the Nets, were defeated by the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals in ’85, and were eliminated by the Bucks in Erving’s final two seasons.
“I think I joined a very elite group of NBA players who only have one title,” he said. “ I think my next title will probably come with the Sixers as a consultant with the organization. That isn’t a bad way to get a ring.
“If I had my druthers, I’d like to have four rings from the NBA, but I wouldn’t feel any different talking to you if I have four rings. I don’t think it would have made my life any different in terms of things that matter.”
EAGER TO PLEASE
Siva believes he’s a keeper
Peyton Siva led Louisville to the national championship, but he enters the June 27 draft as only a potential second-round pick, hoping to use the next week and a half to make positive impressions and improve his stock. Siva does not seem daunted, only motivated.
“I can show a lot,” he said. “I can show how athletic I am. I’ve been shooting better in the drills and I am becoming a more consistent shooter, just continue to play my game. Playing with a team full of guys who can score really helps translate me into a future NBA point guard, hopefully. That’s how I played at Louisville, we had a bunch of guys who could play and create for themselves and score, and I was the one who got them open shots.”
Siva’s biggest perceived weakness is perimeter shooting, and at Louisville he was more of a facilitator. By contrast, Trey Burke, thought of by many as the top point guard in the draft, was the primary scoring option for Michigan.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino immediately assigned Siva the role as floor leader, and he blossomed into one of the better point guards in the nation.
“One reason I wanted to go to Louisville is because the Big East is known for toughness,” Siva said. “Being that West Coast guy, they always end up getting accused of being too flashy or some people try to call them soft, so I wanted to go out to the East Coast and really prove to myself that I wasn’t one of those typical West Coast guards.”
Siva is next in the line of standout players from the Seattle area that includes Brandon Roy, Jamal Crawford, Jason Terry, Nate Robinson, and Avery Bradley. That lineage is not lost on him.
“Being from Seattle, you’re surrounded by a lot of guys, we’re kind of like a family,” Siva said. “Everybody is close-knit. Going to work out with [NBA players], they know the ropes of the game. You want to learn from them and let them mentor you, and playing against them, they helped me out in my career. Going to Louisville, I wanted to be my own man.”
Siva is Samoan American, trying to succeed in a sport that doesn’t feature many players of his background.
“It’s cool and helps out because a lot of kids of Samoan decent or Polynesian aren’t trying to play basketball,” he said. “They’re mostly known for football players. Hopefully more will come and hopefully they will be smaller than me because I won’t be known as the smallest Samoan out here.”
Siva realizes he is facing the most difficult challenge of his life, making an NBA roster.
“I’ve been underestimated my whole life, people always said I couldn’t do something,” he said. “A lot of people said we couldn’t win a championship with two small guards, so my whole life has always been about proving people wrong, so it’s nothing new to me. I just take it in stride and let it continue to fuel me and just live my life. Negative comments aren’t going to affect me.”
Hall of Famer offers insight
We’ve been seeing the decline of some of the league’s stars this postseason. Before his 32-point outburst in Game 4 of the Finals, the Heat’s Dwyane Wade looked as if his better days were in the past. Paul Pierce looked slow and lacked lift in the Celtics’ loss in the first round to the Knicks. And recently, Grant Hill and Jason Kidd retired after difficult or injury-plagued seasons.
Knowing when to quit is difficult, and Hall of Famer Magic Johnson said it calls for an honest assessment.
“It’s very tough. You’re still thinking you’re the same player and that you can do the same things,” he said. “But your body will tell you something’s different.”
Johnson said the Lakers and Celtics each have to make determinations on Pau Gasol and Pierce, among others.
“Danny Ainge has got to make a big decision about what’s going to happen now and also what’s going to happen in the future. And then the Lakers have got to make decisions, too,” Johnson said. “Do you pay Dwight Howard $117 million for the Lakers? And then for the Celtics, do you bring [Pierce] back and try to make this last run with him and Kevin Garnett?
“So, I think that with Paul, he’s going into the Hall of Fame, he’s been a great face of the franchise, him and Kevin Garnett together. I think Danny has got to sit down with them and they have to decide, do we make a last stand or do we try to rebuild this thing and get ready for the next five years?”
Of course, what’s holding up the potential rebuilding of the Celtics is the future of coach Doc Rivers.
“I remember when Pat Riley had to make that same decision a time ago, and he decided to go,” said Johnson, “and I think Doc Rivers is almost in a similar situation.
“I remember Coach Riley came to my house and told me he was leaving. We talked for three hours, and that was the toughest moment of my life. And it will be the same thing if Doc Rivers leaves, it’s the same thing for Kevin Garnett and Paul and all those guys.
“Wow, those are three major decisions that Danny Ainge has to make. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes right now.”
Since Johnson is no longer part-owner of the Lakers, he has become more critical of the team. He made it clear he’s no fan of Mike D’Antoni’s coaching style that emphasizes uptempo offense and deemphasizes big men.
“I don’t like Coach D’Antoni’s system in terms of him not coaching defense,” Johnson said. “I just think that he has to do a better job defensively, because no matter what he says, his system is to try to outscore the team, and you can’t outscore people.
“Both of these teams in the Finals have proven to us that you’ve got to be great defensively if you’re going to win a championship. And the Spurs are doing a wonderful job of displaying that. And the Miami Heat, when they play great defense like they are capable of doing, they can beat anybody.”
The Lakers are going to have some agonizing days following the opening of free agency, waiting on the decision of the mercurial Howard, who hasn’t flourished under D’Antoni. The Lakers have committed to D’Antoni for at least next season, and that may discourage Howard from returning, especially with the chance to play for Kevin McHale in Houston.
“Coach D’Antoni is going to have to change his approach because he didn’t win a championship in Phoenix; they were fun to watch but he didn’t get it done,” Johnson said. “He didn’t get it done in New York, and he sure didn’t show us that he can get it done with the Lakers yet.
“So he has to concentrate on the defensive end, just as much as he emphasizes offense, and then if they sign Dwight Howard back, they are going to have to get on the same page. If he’s going to be the coach and he’s going to be our star player, they have to get on the same page, and last season they were not on the same page.”
What’s interesting about Jason Kidd taking the Nets coaching job is that he has promised to hire former New Jersey head coach Lawrence Frank as his lead assistant. Frank worked well during his one year with the Celtics as a defensive assistant before an unsuccessful run with the Pistons as a head coach . . . Draft prospect Anthony Bennett has been cleared to begin shooting after undergoing rotator cuff surgery but won’t be 100 percent before the draft, leaving teams unable to make a complete assessment. Bennett, who enjoyed a stellar freshman season at UNLV, is projected to be a top-five pick and is likely to go No. 4 to Charlotte . . . New Bobcats coach Steve Clifford hired Patrick Ewing as an assistant, another opportunity for the Hall of Famer to impress and possibly land a head job. Ewing has made it clear he eventually wants more responsibility than just working with big men . . . With Al Horford, Lou Williams, Jeff Teague, and Ivan Johnson the lone players under contract, the Hawks are expected to make a major push for Chris Paul and Howard, and there’s speculation the two have reignited talks about potentially playing together. The Hawks are $40 million under the salary cap, so they have the money to attract both players. However, the Hawks were fined by the NBA for sending out information to season ticket-holders about the potential of signing free agents such as Howard and Paul. The Rockets are going to pursue Howard hard, meaning they may undergo another fire sale of younger players to create salary cap space. Second-year forwards Thomas Robinson and Terrence Jones could be on the block . . . Retired players do not automatically come off the salary cap, so it’s up to the team and player to determine a settlement that will count against the cap. The Celtics had that with Rasheed Wallace, who retired two years before his contract expired. It would be the same situation with Garnett should he retire with two years left on his deal. Also, there is the misconception that the Celtics would have the option to buy out Pierce’s contract and then re-sign him to a reduced deal. When a team waives a player, as the Celtics would have to do with Pierce, it is ineligible to sign him for one year.