Coming Up Strange: The Education of a Doctor
In his hand the basketball looked like a large grapefruit that somebody had painted red-white-and-blue. When the ABA merged with NBA, in 1976, Julius Erving merged right along with it, and the grapefruit may have turned a burnt-orange, but Dr. J’s rococo athleticism stayed the same. The NBA couldn’t change Dr. J; if anything, Dr. J changed the NBA. Coming in at the end of a fastbreak, he’d begin to take those long loping strides toward the basket, cradling the grapefruit with one hand, and then he’d pull himself away from the earth. When Doc had designs on the rim, it took more than strong defense to put a stop to what he was about to do.
And to think that, coming up, his game developed precisely the way it did because of strange limitations–that he found the sky not by sheerly vertical means but by maneuvering through a series of (in retrospect) serendipitously arranged ceilings. This is the story that Vincent M. Mallozzi tells best in Doc: The Rise and Rise of Julius Erving.
When he was at the Prospect School on Long Island, he executed his first dunk, on a court that was small even by the standards of elementary-school athletics. What’s more is that the roof hung down so low that the space between backboard’s top and ceiling’s bottom was less than two feet. Obviously this demanded a style of shooting that did not encourage naturally arcing jump shots. Someone who coached 11- and 12-year-old kids on Long Island in the summer in Erving’s day tells Mallozzi, “As soon as a kid trying out for one of my teams took a line-drive shot at the basket, I said ‘Lemme guess, you went to Prospect, didn’t you?’ It wasn’t exactly a great place to learn how to shoot.” Once Erving attained the heights of his profession, his shooting would be better than its reputation held, but only slightly, and Mallozzi is shrewd to locate the causes here in Erving’s years of earliest development.
All that talent for dunking didn’t do him any good as a college player, however, because Erving’s time at UMass coincided with the NCAA’s short-lived ban on the dunk. A teammate of Erving’s from those days named John Betancourt says that when Erving arrived there, “he couldn’t shoot a lick,” but out of necessity that soon changed. Not allowed to dunk, he had no choice but to learn how to shoot. If he was, as Mallozzi claims, “America’s best-kept sports secret,” then he had to excel far enough for the secret to one day be told. “Julius took it very seriously,” Betancourt says of Erving’s systematic self-imposed shooting drills, “and he worked on his shot for two hours before practice and sometimes as long as two hours after practice.” Perhaps not familiar with the gym at Prospect School, Betancourt says, “I think it was the enormous size of Julius’s hands that made it difficult for him to shoot the ball smoothly, but he just kept working at it.”
This obstruction occurred early enough in Erving’s development that he was able to develop a versatile repertoire of shots before his style of play had had a chance to grow up all wrong. It made him hard to stop by the time he got to the pros. But this wasn’t the only crucial way that Erving’s game evolved late but early, when he was young enough to still capitalize on its demands. He also grew several inches between the ages of about 18 to 21 or 22, topping out eventually at six-seven, the perfect size for someone playing the position Erving’s skills were optimized to play, that of small forward. Betancourt, unsurprisingly, is articulate on this as well:
That late growth spurt was the key to his greatness, because he had learned to do all the things that a faster, younger play can do before he reached his maximum height. He was like a guard trapped in a forward’s body. He could handle the ball, and he was a great passer and had finally developed a pretty good outside shot….[T]here aren’t too many big men who have those all-around skills, because most of those players were taller when they were younger, so they were trained early on to camp out under the basket and post up. But Julius, by the time he was fully grown, had developed an all-around incredible game.
This is the game that Erving took with him into the ABA, which at the time was competing against–and losing to–the NBA for prominence among the pro leagues. Those properties of showmanship and outlawry that pervaded the ABA have been marvelously elucidated by Terry Pluto in his oral history of the league, Loose Balls, but suffice to say here that Erving was not out of place in the context of this style of play. Just as he had improved in reverse during the first stage of advancement in his career–becoming a better player, relative to his peers, when he went from high school to college–so he increased in rank when he went from college to the pros, too. Just as Erving’s game was developing in reverse sequence, so was his own personal standing as a player.
As instructive and insightful as Mallozzi’s book can sometimes be, this is not the kind of text you turn to for an aesthetically satisfying experience. Any book whose stylistic high-point is its foreword by Dave fucking Anderson is a book with seriously problematical shortcomings in hastiness and sloppiness, of both construction and composition. But anyone who comes to this book for the Doctor’s strange CV isn’t going to put it down disappointed, unless they expect Mallozzi to have written more about Connie Hawkins and David Thompson as Dr. J’s progenitors, rather than giving the impression, intentionally or not, that Dr. J occurred as simply the first species in his own evolutionary line–the sole antecedent to Michael Jordan and Vince Carter and Kevin Garnett and the rest. It may seem like that now, but if it does, it’s only an optical illusion, and not by any means the only one that Dr. J, through some kind of determined elevation, was able to achieve.
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 Brooklyn Man Now Living Entirely Off Own Beard Garden
- 2 “Cra Cra” Now Official Diagnosis in New DSM (DSM-5)
- 3 OfficeMax Marketing Director Struggling to Make Staplers ‘Sexy’ and ‘Conversational’
- 4 First Openly Straight Figure Skater Comes Forward
- 5 Area Man Tailors Life To Be More Relevant To His Hulu Advertisements
- 6 Fan Banging Furiously on Glass Could Be the Difference in Hockey Playoffs
- 7 Survey: 88% of Eagles Fans Too Drunk To Spell Nnamdi Asomugha Last Season
- 8 Attorney Actually Starting to Believe Own Bullshit
- 9 Homeless Guy Woos Silicon Valley VCs with Low-Tech Crowdfunding Strartup
- 10 Local Mom Won’t Stop Being First Person to Like Every Goddamn Thing Son Posts to Facebook