When NBA Stars Came Up on Concrete
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Dr. J redefined basketball, taking it from the streets to above the rim.
By Gary Thompson
Julius Erving jammed on him. A dribble, two big steps, a palmed ball and then a rocked rim as Erving took flight and dunked over Bill Walton. The New York native was simply too fast and too technically sound for the star defender.
But Erving’s path to the elite world of the NBA wasn’t lined with hardwood floors and gym memberships. In a world of Amateur Athletic Union programs and prep schools that place kids on the path to stardom at a young age, it’s hard for today’s fans to imagine NBA superstars born on blacktop courts. But an older generation of basketball fans remember an era when gaining respect on a street-ball court was a crucial part of the legacy of many of the game’s greats — names like Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And the purest embodiment of street ball? None other than Erving, whose legacy was rooted in playgrounds and public courts, not under bright arena lights.
There was always a court just sitting there. The park was always there for as long as I can remember.
His first taste of organized basketball came as a child playing for the local Salvation Army after the coach spotted him playing outside his apartment complex. Before entering high school, the ninth-grade basketball coach approached Erving to ensure that the future superstar would be trying out for basketball after seeing Julius making a name for himself on neighborhood courts. Throughout high school, Erving would free himself from the rigid system his coach implemented by finding pickup games on the streets of New York, where he was able to play the game in a way only he was able to envision. “I grew up in a community that had a lot of vest-pocket parks,” Julius told OZY. “There was always a court just sitting there. The park was always there for as long as I can remember.”
Even as a star at the University of Massachusetts, Erving was constantly drawn back to pickup games on the blacktop. Growing to a much more basketball-friendly 6’6” and averaging 27 points and 20 rebounds in his junior season, Erving — who notably had not yet shown the world his talent above the rim, because dunking was prohibited by the NCAA at the time — was primed to leap to the professional stage.
So Erving fully introduced his game to the world at the most famous playground of all — where legends like Earl Monroe, Nate Archibald and Walt Frazier walked before him: Rucker Park. Today, NBAers are usually contractually banned from pickup games outside the arena. But in his era, Erving knew he could go toe-to-toe with professional players at Rucker Park and make a name for himself. Tom Hoover of the New York Knicks was a firsthand witness: Not only did Erving throw down a vicious dunk against Hoover’s defense, he did it with such force that the ball came through the rim to hit Hoover in the back of the head, knocking out his teeth. The crowd roared as Hoover scrambled to pick up his teeth.
That roar grew louder each time Erving stepped onto the court. Soon, unheard of crowds began to form at the Rucker in hopes of catching a glimpse of the kid who could fly. The tops of buildings, bridges and trees overlooking the park were filled with spectators — all because Erving was doing things no one had ever seen in the basketball world. His high-flying acrobatics led to plays like catching passes in midair, from as far away as half court, and dunking them. His leaping ability, combined with his natural creativity for the game, left onlookers in awe. “The feedback from everything you did was amazing,” Erving reminisces. “Rucker Park made me. There’s a lot of truth in that.”
But no great street-baller’s legacy is complete without a nickname. He’d been called “Little Hawk,” “The Claw” and even “Black Moses” before the name that stuck: Dr. J. “If you’re gonna call me anything, call me The Doctor,” Erving told the announcer at Rucker Park, turning back to a nickname given to him by his high school friend and teammate.
Although Dr. J left the playground for professional basketball, the playground style never left him. “At the playground, you learn what works for you. Whether it’s fundamentals, effort, trickery or deception, you learn how to prepare to play.” The skill set and creativity that Julius had always displayed on the blacktop found a home on the Virginia Squires in the ABA. He quickly became the face of the league — its most recognizable player. After the NBA–ABA merger, Erving easily transitioned and dominated the NBA as well. He was the face of not only his franchise, but of the league. The NBA was forced to catch up to Erving’s street-ball style; playing above the rim became a staple as players took a more creative approach to the game.
Dr. J’s influence is still obvious today. But there is no single coach, mentor or teammate to thank for what Erving brought to basketball. Instead, it’s a place — a place where Julius was free from conservative basketball ideals and traditional fundamentals. A place where he was allowed to display his artistry and was praised for it. The home of Dr. J’s legend was the cement.
- Gary Thompson, OZY Author Contact Gary Thompson