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Julius Erving
Julius Erving
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Julius Erving Interview (page: 2 / 4)

The Great and Wondrous Dr. J

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  Julius Erving

You once said that you felt that basketball chose you, rather than you chose basketball. Tell me about that.

Julius Erving: I think I was chosen by basketball, although I never really physically got drafted to any team that I played for. The only team that drafted me, I never played for, which was the Milwaukee Bucks. I think that my God-given physical attributes, big hands, and big feet, the way that I'm built, proportion-wise, just made basketball the most inviting sport for me to play. And from the first time I picked up a basketball at age eight -- I had a lot of difficulty when I first picked up a basketball, because I was a scrub -- there were things that I liked about it. Although I wasn't good, there were things that I liked about it. I could always handle a ball pretty well, even though I couldn't shoot it straight, and wasn't a good defender. I had to spend countless hours, above and beyond the basic time, to try and perfect the fundamentals. So there was a relationship there. It was a two-way street. I liked the game, I enjoyed the game, and the game fed me enough, and gave me enough rewards to reinforce that this is something that I should spend time doing, and that I could possibly make a priority in my life, versus other sports.

If someone gave me a choice of playing football, basketball, baseball, golf, tennis, hockey, or whatever, I think that basketball would be my favorite, because it was best for me, and it had chosen me. As time passed, that became more and more true. Even with respect to my physical growth, I was never given too much too quickly.

When I was a freshman in high school I was maybe 5'9", 5'10". And as a sophomore, 5'11", approaching 6'. As I junior I was 6'1", and when I graduated high school I was 6'3". When I got out of college, I was 6'5-1/2", pushing 6'6". And I continued to grow until I was 25 years old. So, it wasn't a matter of being a finished product, who had reached full potential at an early age. Everything happened in stages. There was always room for improvement. Right up until the time I retired at age 37, I felt like there were still things that I could do better. The relationship with the game was a full relationship, and there was a lot of give and take. There were a lot of stages that were ongoing. I pulled the plug on it at a time that I thought was right for me to exit. Fortunately, in my heart I felt as though I could still continue to play. The public basically thought the same thing. I still hear it today, "How come you don't go back and play?" And this is five years after retiring.

However, I knew what my standards were, and I didn't feel as though I could continue to play at that standard. I didn't want to become a reserve player, or a bench player, and it was time to move on and take on another challenge. That process had already started during the later years of my career. So I was letting go of one thing to be committed to other things, and I thought that was the right move.

It's very admirable, because all too many sports figures and artists and musicians wait until their prime is way passed, and it gets to be kind of sad. The violinist Jascha Heifetz retired at the height of his career, and nobody could ever say there was a weak moment. It's got to be hard to do.

Julius Erving: I didn't really view it as the height of my career, but I felt there was a curve that I had to adhere to. I had gone past my prime, and I was at a segment in the curve where there could be a real serious drop-off. I was no longer in control of playing time, or my role on the team.

I wasn't the one who would have the final say-so, and I had experienced that before. If you've experienced having control, you don't want to be moved to a subordinate position, if you have your druthers. And I think I had my druthers, so I decided to do something else.

You certainly had glorious years, college and pro, and I wanted to touch on some of those highlights. When you look back, what are some of the most thrilling moments for you?

Julius Erving Interview Photo
Julius Erving: I always try to keep a pretty conservative demeanor on the court. I was characteristically unfazed by a lot of things that happened around me. That was just my own personal program: I didn't want to get too high over the good moments because I didn't want to be saddened and depressed when things didn't go as I had planned. From experiencing both sides of the fence, that became my public demeanor.

The first professional game that I ever played remains, to me, the most exciting moment of my professional career. I had signed a contract with the American Basketball Association, and we had gone through an exhibition season. A lot of speculation had been created about me, and my teammates, and my team, and what our talents were, and that we were an exciting team to watch. We represented something new and exciting in the game of professional basketball because we played at a fast pace. We always pushed the ball, and there was a lot of room for creativity and excitement. Our game was a lot different than what was being played in the NBA. We featured a lot of slam dunking.

The first professional game was clearly different from the exhibitions and what had happened in the summer. Even though I had been on the basketball court with a lot of professionals, this is when it really counted. This was the beginning of the career.

I remember my first college game as a varsity player. I had a 27 point/28 rebound game. I wasn't a big guy, but I was able to chase rebounds down, and that set a school record in the first game.

I wanted to make a good impression. I knew that rebounding was the strongest part of my game and I said, every shot I take tonight I might miss, because sometimes that happens. I didn't think that was going to happen, but I knew that that was a possibility. And that was something that if it did happen, I would have to live with it. So, I started trying to think of things that I definitely had control over. And I said, when that ball goes up on the board, nobody is going to pursue it harder than I. And with my jumping ability, and quickness, I know I can out-rebound everybody on the floor.

I grabbed 19 rebounds in my first professional game, and somehow found a way to score 20 points. I felt real good about it. I felt that this was the beginning of something good. It was something that I had dreamed about as a kid, something that I didn't think was promised me, and I was never sure that it would happen. Yet it was happening, yet I was here, and yet it was reality, and now it was time to see what I was made of, and what I was about. It became a real good experience. All the things that followed after, in 16 years of playing: the play-offs, and the excitement of championship play, and the frustration of getting knocked out, and the frustration of injuries, and pain, and becoming close to teammates and then they get traded. The transition from playing with three different teams during 16 years, all those things. I don't think any of those things excited me as much as the first game. Because, once again, I kind of programmed myself: "This is a business."

[ Key to Success ] Passion

My role models in the business were the older guys on my team when I first got there: Gray Scott, Adrian Smith, Roland Taylor. These were the guys who took me under their wing, and really schooled me in terms of what the business was about.

I always had to keep in mind that I'm here because I do have a talent, and some aspects of it are unique. I should keep that in my mind, not feel that I'm here because people just like me, and because I'm a nice guy. Sometimes I will be treated differently by a lot of people because of that talent, but don't let that become a distraction, and don't be deceived by that. See if for what it is, and then play the hand out. So much of becoming a good athlete involves bringing other things to the table, other than physical skills. It involves intelligence, it involves many of the things that you learn during the process of being educated. How to analyze, how to assess, how to equate, how to reason. This is what the whole elementary, and secondary, and even the college educational process is all about -- teaching you and preparing you to be able to deal with what you ultimately have to deal with in life. Even though I was dealing with sports, which many people feel is totally physical, that people don't have to think, everything is done for you and you're catered to, I found that to be so far removed from the truth that it's almost a joke. The ones who become stars or superstars are the ones who have a head on their shoulders and know how to use it.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

You mentioned the skills, other than just sheer physical skills, that go into sports. One that comes to mind in your case is leadership. You've always been described as a leader. What do you think people see in you that causes them to say that?

Julius Erving: I think people see commitment. Every team that I've played on, I've either been the captain or co-captain. Whether it's the coach's appointment, or the players' vote, it's generally turned out that way. So there are a lot of athletes who have always been willing to follow my lead.

I think as a youngster the work ethic was there, practicing hard and being dedicated and not, by nature, being a complainer. My teammates have always related to me in that way. I think probably the best compliment I've ever received from a teammate was what Henry Bibby told me after we had played together for two seasons in Philadelphia. He said, "Of all the guys that I've ever played with, I don't know if you're the best that I've ever played with, but I know you come to play every night. And because of that, I feel like we always have a chance of winning." I thought it was a great compliment.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Julius Erving Interview Photo
I thought about that in terms of the other aspects of my life where I need to display leadership. Sometimes I have been reluctant, because I don't think it should be assumed that because you're a leader in one area that you can lead in all areas. Some areas maybe you're better off following, or at least listening, and getting your feet wet, and letting it be a process of time. But in sports, for the most part, I've been given that responsibility, and accepted it willingly, and gladly, and thought that it fit.

Your career was tremendously impressive, and it seemed to happen all at once. But there were, I'm sure, disappointments along the way. Early years in Philadelphia were a little disappointing, I understand. How do you get yourself back on track, when you've had setbacks?

Julius Erving: There were periods in my life when I would just internalize it, and then I decided that that's not the way to go. I had to go through trial and error. I've never been depressed in my life, that I recall. Being a typical Pisces, I might have experienced mood shifts, but I don't remember any depression, or needing to do anything, or to have someone bring me out of being depressed.

Everything is relative. I started playing professional basketball in 1971, and I played professionally for five seasons before going to Philadelphia. During those five seasons, a lot of what transpired was done in the obscurity of the American Basketball Association, which didn't have a major television contract. They didn't have the exposure of the NBA. There was a lot of success there, particularly when I played with the New York Nets, and we won the ABA Championship two different years. That created a lot of expectation when I went to Philadelphia.

Julius Erving Interview Photo
When I went to Philadelphia I was 26 years old and really sitting on top of the world. Family life, a professional career, plenty of friends and associates, and a good reputation, a wish list that could be the envy of many.

In Philadelphia, our team was put together and I became the last component of that team. It was sort of parallel to what happened with the Yankees: George Steinbrenner getting all these players together and winning the World Series. There were a lot of assumptions that, in basketball, that's how things worked: if you put together a lot of high-priced talent, they were going to win.

The first year that we were together, we were the second-best team in the world. We went to the finals and we lost in six games. We won the first two, and we lost the next four. The team suddenly became stigmatized. It was like, those guys are good, but they're not winners.

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This page last revised on Dec 13, 2007 17:44 EDT
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