Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Julius

Julius is 63.
Now airing on NBA TV after a month of ads, it's "Doctor", the long-overdue documentary of Julius Erving, one of the most beloved basketball players ever. In it, you get to see some of those rarely seen clips from the man's glory days in the Rucker Park playgrounds and the ABA. And if you are anything like me, your eyes will pop at dunks and moves that happened in a time that hardly seems possible now.

It is, of course, a bit of a whitewash, but that's what happens with all of these documentaries. And it is, of course, completely worth your time, if only because Erving is one of the five most influential players in the history of the game.

(He's also, of course, the player that made me love hoop more than any other sport, and my childhood hero. So I'm not really the most skeptical of audiences here.)

I grew up in a household where I was the only one who cared about basketball. That's pretty much still the case. As the youngest and smallest child in a house of people who reacted to losses with profanity and anger, having a sport that was more or less my own was a relief... and those Sixers teams were just a joy, especially if you were a little kid. Darryl Dawkins broke backboards! Lloyd (not World B., not yet) Free took crazy shots and sometimes made them! Doug Collins and Henry Bibby were super gritty! And so on, and so on. And every game, Doc would do something that made the announcers whoop like little kids, and make me wish I could dunk more than, well, anything. (Or even just palm a basketball. Doc's hands were as absurd as the rest of him, really..)

Here's another thing: it's not exactly news or something to dwell on, but I grew up with a lot of racist people, in a very racist time. My immediate family avoided slurs and were relatively decent, but extended relatives would say hateful things pretty often, and to kids... and it always, always, always bothered me. I suppose they all had their excuses -- we were poor and perpetually afraid, and as such more than susceptible for blaming someone else for our problems -- but I had friends who didn't look like me, who I didn't want to lose. Watching the Sixers was my little moment of rebellion, of decency.

And talking to them about Doc was something that always worked. We all wanted to be him. Hell, I wanted to just *talk* like him; that deep voice, those full sentences, that calm and cool and assurance. And I got one other, very big thing from Doc: the idea that the way the game looked mattered, nearly as much as who won.

This is, of course, a ridiculous thing to say. Erving only wins one championship in his NBA days and as such, isn't given his due as one of the very best small forwards ever. His career NBA line of 22/7/4. shooting 50% from the floor barely scratches the surface of what made him special, but a pure stat head would wonder if his 6'-6" 200 pound frame and gambling ways on defense might have made him overrated. (The advanced metrics are actually kinder than you'd think.)

I don't remember any one on his teams, with the exception of Bobby Jones, Caldwell Jones and Mo Cheeks, being particularly cited for their defense. Doc doesn't score more than 18 points a game in the playoffs after age 32, and he turns it over 3+ times a game, so those assists are coming at a cost. I always thought, as a kid, that he wasn't getting enough help, and if Dawkins or a perpetually injured Collins is the second best player on your team (note: not turnover machine George McGinnis), you really don't have enough help... but the real story might be that he just wasn't as great as I remembered. On his championship team, he might have been just the third best player, given that Moses Malone was the absolute horse, Andrew Toney shockingly good at the off guard, and Doc was 32 with a million minutes on his legs, in a time where no one had any ideas about nutrition, conditioning or fitness work. There were fat guys in the NBA then, lots of them, really. Doc's just good compared to his era, right?

And then you watch the clips, and all of that noise goes away.

I don't remember him ever puling for calls from the refs; keeping his class and cool was more important. For all of the dunks he threw down, he didn't take many hard fouls; guys bodied him, of course, but not when he was at risk. He didn't bury his coach, or talk about not getting enough shots, or missed practice or got in the news off the court. Part of that was the era; Doc clearly felt the need to be a leader all the way back into his ABA days, and following the Jackie Robinson approach was clearly the way to go as a '70s black athlete in a team game. He also seemed to feel like he needed to keep a league with serious PR issues afloat by remaining as decent as possible, and accommodating to the media. And other than the Larry Bird fight (as if Bird didn't live to antagonize everyone on the planet that didn't share his uniform, and talked more garbage than anyone else in the league), I don't even remember him showing much of a temper.

An aside about Bird: I know, intellectually, that he was a better player than Doc. I know that, looking at the numbers, his otherworldly passing and ability to stretch the floor were better assets to his team than Doc's transition game and dignity, and that the only real way to argue for Doc is to say that his best years were spent in ABA obscurity, or playing with weaker teammates. I also know that if you grew up watching and idolizing Bird, you grew up watching a monomaniacal spoilsport, a perpetual red ass, and the biggest trash talker of his era. Perhaps that did you some damage, made you more of a team than the game, or more about other people losing, than your team winning. Perhaps it did me some damage, make me accept less too easily, made me overly concerned about winning with class, gave me an out for not giving everything to a cause.

But I do know this: If Bird had never won a championship, the players of his generation would have been glad and grateful. Doc's the only guy you ever hear opponents say they were glad when he got a ring.

Here's another little known fact about Doc: along with the playoff losses to the Blazers, Lakers and Celtics, his lack of a temper is what kept him from being truly beloved by the area sports fans in his own time. Even in their Doc led heyday, the Sixers were the fourth most popular franchise in town, behind the Phillies, Eagles and (yes) Flyers, with not a small amount of racism involved in that, too. College basketball at the Palestra was more important to the area, and the town always wanted to see its heroes sweat, curse and flail. No one wants to admit this, but Pete Rose and Larry Bowa were far more beloved than Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton, and the Sixers had attendance issues until Charles Barley and Allen Iverson came along. Erving, one suspects, was seen as a more graceful version of Wilt Chamberlain to the folks in town; supposed to be the best, but no rings, so let's direct the anger at him.

But there's more to the game than who wins and who loses. There's the way it's played; the purity of movement, the aesthetic of the jump shot, the way that a fast break develops, the extension of Julius' arm as he'd soar, dip and conduct the ball through the hoop.. I will put my half dozen hard wired Doctor J highlights in my mind against any number of ring ceremonies and frat boy parades for Celtic or Laker Fan, not just because it's all I have, but because it's all I need.

It's been 35 years since I stayed up late to watch games on tape delay and see Doc walk the baseline and make that up and under over Kareem.

 It was 30 years since I saw him rise over Michael Cooper and put eternal proof to the idea that there ever was, or could ever be, a Doc Stopper.

26 years since a 36-year-old Doc, in his last home regular season game at the Spectrum, dropped 38 on the Pacers in a 4-point loss that seemed more appropriate than a win.

25 years since I got a bootleg copy of Erving vs. Bird on my Commodore 64; 24.9 years since I had worn the game down so much that Doc only beat Larry 256 to 0, with dozens of shattered backboards on Larry's sad head, and an entire game in which he never got a shot off, what with all of the blocks and steals.

It's been 12 years since Iverson stepped over Tyronn Lue like a roach, after a charmed two months of cupping his hand to the ear to make the crowd yell louder.

One year since Andre Iguodala put a career of late game failure aside to charge down the court after Omer Asek's missed free throw, and will his desperately limited team past the shattered Bulls.

And when you ask me why I love hoop. and why I'm a Sixers fan, still... it's those moments.

The documentary has a lot of them.

So go watch it.

And at the very end of it, when you see the man's weathered hands reach to the net and stretch, then cup the ball, dribble, and rise enough to still throw it down, at age 63...

Well, that's one more moment.



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