Long before there was LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, before Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson, even before there was a Van Halen or Billy Joel poster on my wall… there was Dr. J.
As a pre-teen in the early and mid-seventies I was obsessed with the Philadelphia 76ers, but most especially their all-star forward Julius Erving. My parents had to, for the first time, adjust to me not being at the post-church Sunday dinner table (usually the best meal of the entire week) because I would take my plate and sit alone in the living room, using a flimsy folding TV tray table, because I couldn’t miss a single game of the Sixers season. I had an idol worship to Dr. J. that bordered on obsession. I watched his every on-court move and every off-court interview. I bought his magazines and posters, I clipped his articles out of newspapers, I even once fished a ripped poster out of the high school garbage can because it was just too much for me to let a Sixers picture of that scope go to a landfill… (it still hangs on the ceiling in my room to this day), and all because of Dr. J.
On this past Wednesday I got the rare chance to come face to face with the first man to inspire me during my formative years. As a stood in a South Philly liquor store (he is now a spokesperson for Crown Royal) with my new white 76ers hat amidst a sea of fans, I couldn’t help but notice how different I was than them. I watched in awe as he ducked to enter the door of the warehouse where us "VIP’s" were being allowed to meet him. I was introduced as the media member of the group, and a morning show host and a lifelong fan, and etc. etc… but I wasn’t listening, instead I was staring (yes, like a tweener) at Dr. J.
I was remembering how he would defy gravity before an entire generation of people, me included, believed it was possible... I drifted off to the days when I would wish that I could dunk, at all, not mention with the same ease that he could… I thought of how when the Sixers swept the world championships in 1982-83 that he didn’t talk about how great he’d played (He should’ve won MVP) but instead he said: “We had a lot”.
One by one the mass of people in line before me got a pic and a friendly handshake and then walked past me. Some looked at me wondering why I stood there with such a glazed look on my face. Some of them I’m sure were wondering why a pudgy, middle aged, white, country radio DJ, from Scranton had driven 2+ hours to meet a 6’7” greying guy in a suit who’d retired over 20 years ago… my answer to them is simple: I understand... I have the same reverence for Dr. J that you do.
To me Julius Erving is among the few men who taught me to win with the same grace and dignity that you should try to lose with. He was an innovator in his field, and did things other people couldn’t, or at least they never thought to, or maybe never attempted to; and when he excelled, he humbly spoke of his teammate’s contributions that made it possible for him to do his magic. He was never a showboat or a grandstander and is an example of a type of professional sportsman that is completely extinct.
Yeah sure he’s one of Sports Illustrated 40 most important athletes of all time, but to me he served as an ambassador for all of us small town underdogs who needed someone to convince us that we could be superheroes, and he did that…