For those who never saw the real Julius Erving, meaning, you were born too late or didn't have access to the ABA, where he played his best ball, an upcoming documentary on Dr. J will have to do. But that's the thing about "The Doctor," which debuts Monday on NBA TV. You get some of the authentic Julius, a good bit, actually. But not all.
You get the highlights -- rare and incredible footage, super interviews with Erving and others -- but none of the not-so-highlights. You get the Julius that everyone fell in love with, the smart and friendly showman who aimed to please, but not the one who threw us for a loop with some questionable personal decisions that scratched his pristine image.
You don't get the 100 percent essence of the man and the player, and really, who did? Even Erving's playing career was 50 percent mystery. He played before ESPN, didn't become a star until late in high school, went to an obscure college for basketball and spent his early years in a rival league without a TV contract. Only until the ABA-NBA merger in 1976 did the country get a taste of the Doctor and even then, the NBA was clearly a distant third among pro sports leagues, with the Finals shown on tape-delay.
This is where "The Doctor" shines, though. The 90-minute film flushes out those missing segments of a Hall of Fame life and explains what we missed. And we missed plenty. Erving returns to Hempstead, his hometown on Long Island, and takes us through a journey not witnessed by this generation. That's why documentaries are important. They bring perspective and breathe life into history, and in the case of someone like Erving, they explain why he was Jordan before Jordan.
"Most of what we knew about him came from word of mouth and box scores, maybe a small clip," said Bob Costas, who announced ABA games in St. Louis before moving mainstream. "Dr. J was the coolest guy in the country."
He's still pretty cool now, still carries an aura about him, still gets people coming up to him about -- what else -- dunks, his house call as a player. Not to mention what he thinks about today's game.
Erving went on record Thursday as saying Michael Jordan was the best ever and Kobe Bryant is better than LeBron "right now," mainly because LeBron isn't done yet. He also likes the Spurs to beat Miami in the Finals and says the Sixers, his old team, need to move on from Andrew Bynum.
He enjoys today's game but admits to being confused by the statistical approach to building teams that's now the rage.
"Analytics?" Erving asked. "You want me to explain what it is? Analytics is the kind thing that only matters if you win."
As for his life as a whole, he admits: "I was far from perfect. But you set goals and that's important. I wanted to be good. I wanted to be consistent. I wanted to be dedicated."
He was all that. He was an underground star who was 6-foot-3 until he went to college and grew to 6-foot-6. He became an asphalt legend at the Rucker League in Harlem, and the documentary shows folks lining treetops and filling rooftops just to see him play. If you've ever been to a Rucker game, it gets pretty colorful. The PA announcer talks constantly during the action and calls players by nickname only. After watching Erving dunk on people, the PA threw out a few: "Little Hawk" (after The Hawk, Connie Hawkins) and "Black Moses" and "The Claw" because Erving's hands were huge even at an early age.
Finally, Erving had enough. "If you want to call me anything," he told the PA guy, "call me the Doctor," a nickname given to him by a childhood friend.
Doctor J it was.
Those who saw him play at Massachusetts didn't get the full Erving because back then, dunking was prohibited in the college game. Imagine the gall of going to see a young Erving, before knee issues, and watching him shoot layups. What a letdown.
He went to the ABA because the league offered him $100,000, big money to someone whose mother made $8,000 a year. Erving played for the Virginia Squires first (where he initially wore No. 27), then the Nets. He won two championships, two MVPs, three scoring titles and one iconic dunk contest (launching from the free throw line) in the ABA before being sold to the Sixers. Here's what the film misses, though. There's no mention that Erving was very close to playing for the Hawks. At the time, Atlanta had Pete Maravich. Can you imagine that twosome?
We get to see the first year when he became an instant sensation, leading the Sixers to the Finals against Bill Walton. And the struggle to win a title, which didn't happen until 1983 when Moses Malone ("fo, fo and fo") came along.
"We went 12 and 1 [in the post-season]," Erving said. "No other team has done that."
And we see his final season, when the league gave him a farewell party at each of his final stops, the most emotional at his last game against the Nets -- in New Jersey, not Long Island -- where he teared up.
Mostly, we get the footage. That's the real reason to watch "The Doctor" because Erving, in spite of being articulate, was visual and made for TV, even when TV wasn't ready for him. He was before his time. He served up facials, before the term was entered in the basketball dictionary, to Artis Gilmore, to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to Walton and to Michael Cooper on his swooping, soaring cradle dunk that brought the house down.
"If you're going to get dunked on by anyone," said Cooper, "why not let it be by the best in the game?"
Many of his dunks, had they taken place now, wouldn't seem so spectacular. Erving specialized in the tomahawk, which was really about extending his right arm high and coming down strong. He didn't do anything with his legs, like a scissors kick. Didn't double-clutch. Rarely dunked behind his back. Didn't strap on a blindfold. Or rather, maybe he did do those dunks early in his ABA career and we just missed them. Yep, that's most likely the case.
Purely from an entertainment standpoint, "The Doctor" delivers. From a personal one, it fails. The film only tips a toe into Erving's personal life. It shows how Erving as a teenager was affected by the death of a brother, Marvin, to lupus, and later, losing son Cory, who had been troubled by substance abuse, to a car accident.
"I lost my brother when I was 19," said Erving. "Cory was 19."
And that's as deep as the documentary goes. There's no interview with his ex-wife Turquoise, who was married to him throughout and beyond his career. The producers and Erving didn't want to venture into certain other areas. Like the revelation that he had a daughter outside of his marriage -- Alexandra Stevenson, a professional tennis player who reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon before flaming out. That was a huge scandal at the time, but erased from memory in this case. Erving also had a business gone bad in Atlanta, where his golf course went belly-up and cost him millions. But "The Doctor" is an NBA creation with the full cooperation of the star and therefore we were destined to get the sanitized Erving. Which is OK from a basketball fan's standpoint, perhaps.
"From an emotional standpoint, it's very draining, very taxing to try and recall and recount things that were part of your past that you really don't deal with in your current life," Erving explained. "[The producers] found some stones to look under and stories to remind me of and questions to ask that were sometimes gut-wrenching, some of the things you know and say 'I'm taking that to the grave.'"
At the end of the film, there's a surprise. Erving is now 63 but still trim, even down to his former Afro, and he puts on a T-shirt and shorts and goes up for a dunk. Nothing fancy or anything like that -- hey, this ain't 1975 anymore -- but you try dunking when you're his age.
"I like to keep the carrot ahead of me," he said. "The best day of my life has yet to come."
But the best years? They're brought to life by "The Doctor," the best attempt yet to unlock the mystery of Dr. J.