• Sal Maiorana

Happy birthday: Dr. J was the original slam dunk artist

Before there was Michael Jordan, before there was Kobe Bryant, and before there was LeBron James, there was the doctor, Julius Erving.

And today – as the man forever known as Dr. J turns 70 years old – is as good a time as any to reflect on what a majestic basketball talent he was, the original above-the-rim slam dunk artist back when a time when the slam dunk wasn’t nearly as popular or artistic as it is today.

Pat Williams, who was general manager of the 76ers when Erving went to Philadelphia in 1976, once said, “You’d have to use words like electrifying, revolutionary. There’s never been anybody quite like him, including Michael. If Julius was in his prime now, in this era of intense electronic media, he would be beyond comprehension. He would blow everybody away.”

Erving could do things that no one else could, sometimes taking off at the foul line and wind-milling the ball through the hoop, or twisting his body 360 degrees in mid-flight before thundering one down. When he got the ball on the wing and took it to the rim, fans would stand in anticipation of what was about to happen, and rarely were they disappointed.

And yet, for all the flash to his game, there was so much more, and when he retired in 1987, he was one of only three professional players – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain – who had scored more than 30,000 career points, making him a no-doubt first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1993.

Born on Long Island, Dr. J. was not a superstar at Roosevelt High School and he settled on a scholarship offer from the University of Massachusetts. During two seasons with the Minutemen he averaged 26 points and 20 rebounds per game, one of only five players to finish with a 20-20 career average.

On his 21st birthday, Feb. 22, 1971, UMass played host to Syracuse University, and Dr. J put on a memorable performance as he scored 36 points and grabbed a school-record 32 rebounds to lead an 86-71 victory. And none of those points came via a dunk because dunks were outlawed in the NCAA.

He was picked by Milwaukee in the first round of the 1972 NBA Draft, but he chose to sign with the ABA and spent his first five years in the rebel league playing for Virginia and New York, and with dunking allowed, that’s when Dr. J became Dr. J. He won three league scoring titles and two league championships with the Nets before the ABA merged with the NBA.

Once there, he was sold by the Nets to the Philadelphia 76ers where he would play 11 seasons, during which he played in the All-Star Game every year, won the NBA’s 1981 MVP award, the 1983 NBA championship, and finished with career averages of 22.0 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.

“As a basketball player, Julius was the first to truly take the torch and become the spokesman for the NBA,” Erving’s former 76ers teammate, Billy Cunningham, once said. “Julius was the first player I ever remember who transcended sports and was known by one name, Doctor.”