Sunday, March 22, 2015

Review: Dr. J - The Autobiography (2013)

By Julius Erving with Karl Taro Greenfeld

Julius Erving might be the last of the great unseen legends in sports history.

Yes, Erving's career with the Philadelphia 76ers is quite well known. There are videos of his performances with the Sixers, and he compiled enough credentials to be a Hall of Famer just on those years - NBA champion, league most valuable player, etc.

But that's not when Erving was really at his best. When he was playing in the American Basketball Association, it was easy to believe that a man - Dr. J, as he became known as - really could fly.

Those who only remember Erving from his Philadelphia days probably will get the most enjoyment out of his autobiography, "Dr. J." For if you examine his life story, it seems that his timing was just a bit off.

For example, Erving was a fine high school basketball player in the New York City area. Admittedly, he hadn't finished growing yet, but he was good enough to attract attention. Had Erving reached 6-foot-6 as a senior and still been capable of flight in a manner of speaking today, he'd have documentaries done about him before he reached college. As it turned out, Erving went to college at Massachusetts - a respectable program but not the place to become a household name at the time.

Then Erving opted to turn pro before his senior year. While it's difficult to argue with that move as a financial decision, he just missed on playing for the 1972 United States Olympic basketball team. It's fair to say he would have helped that team, which lost to the Soviet Union in the final in one of the most famous finishes in sports history. Erving landed with the Virginia Squires of the American Basketball League, teaming up with such players as Charlie Scott and George Gervin. Again, Norfolk will never be confused with one of the media capitals of the nation, and he played in obscurity. Yet anyone who saw those games knew just how good Erving was.

It was more of the same in his next stop, the New York Nets. Erving led the team to a couple of ABA championships, and hardly anyone saw it. ABA games weren't televised very often, so basketball fans merely had to hear second-hand stories about this dynamic forward who was reinventing the game before people's eyes. When has someone who played in New York been overlooked? But when Erving finally made it to the NBA after 1976 merger, he and the 76ers packed arenas from coast to coast.

The story finally gets told in the autobiography. Considering there was a time span of more than 25 years between retirement and publication, it's easy to wonder what took so long. But Erving certainly has plenty to say in an autobiography that stretches out for more than 420 pages.

The basketball stories are generally well told and fairly straight forward. Erving doesn't go out of his way to rip people, although there are hints that Gene Shue, coach of the 1976-77 Sixers, didn't know how to coach the boatload of talent he had on the roster. Erving's time in the ABA was spent with some characters, including one guy who used to keep his drug stash in his socks during practice.

There are some surprises here. Erving had some odd contract moves in his career. He tried to jump from the ABA to the NBA's Atlanta Hawks at one point, even though he hadn't been drafted yet. When Milwaukee picked him, it set off a good-sized legal fight. Then when the merger arrived, it's hard to say if a way could have been found to keep Erving in New York. The Nets could have used him in that era.

Erving does write a bit about some cases of infidelity, as he gave in to some of the temptations of superstardom. He received some publicity when the fact that he was the father of a pro tennis player was revealed. Welcome to the fish bowl. And Erving has had all sorts of personal tragedies in his life - more than his share, to be sure. Fame does not offer immunity to that sort of pain and loss.

All of this is told in the present tense, by the way. That's an unusual technique, and a little jarring at first. But after a while, it's easy to adjust to it.

"Dr. J" has received great notices from reviewers. I'm not sure it quite lives us to those reviews. Still, Erving comes off as humble and modest throughout his book. If you want to find out what all the fuss was about, or what the gaps in a lively life story, this should work nicely.

Four stars

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