Media rights summary:
  • Image ap-julius-erving-slide.jpg must be uploaded to the network.

Syndication Flag: FALSE
Linking Flag: FALSE
Content is published: TRUE
Original Source is empty: TRUE
Article may be syndicated: No
Article may be linked: No
In his autobiography, Dr. J comes clean
Share This Post

Julius Erving, it seemed, always did the impossible. We can still see that in the surviving highlight packages of Dr. J’s career with the Sixers, the ones that inevitably show him floating past Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1980 Finals and soaring over Kareem’s Lakers teammate, Michael Cooper, for a rock-the-baby dunk during the '82-83 regular season -- the season that ended with the Sixers fo’, fi’, fo’ing their way to an NBA title.

The Good Doctor appeared to be as wondrous off the court as on it, for he was (and is) a thoroughly decent man, a guy who seemingly did every interview, signed every autograph, gave of himself to every charitable cause.

Only over time have his warts become apparent. Only over time have we learned that he was a philandering husband and an absentee father. That he bore children out of wedlock (including a former women’s tennis star) and faced financial ruin. That he has dealt with the disintegration of his first marriage and the death of a son.

Only over time have we learned that Julius Erving wasn’t as perfect as it appeared -- or, maybe, as we all hoped.

He tackles all of this in Dr. J , The Autobiography (Harper Collins, $27.99), a book skillfully co-written by Karl Taro Greenfield. It is part memoir, part confessional. It travels a great deal of familiar ground, but also takes us down some interesting backroads (as when we are reminded that he was, ever so briefly, a teammate of Pistol Pete Maravich’s). And there are, yes, some sleazy undertones. (He lost his virginity at age 13 to a step cousin, bedded eight women in as many nights as a Virginia Squires rookie because, well, he could, etc.)

It is the fullest portrait ever offered of Dr. J, an unflinching look at “an American life, fully lived,” as he writes in the very first line of the preface -- and a life that is “rich with the spoils and temptations of success, and rife with the failings and shortcomings of succumbing to those same temptations.”

Perhaps this book will leave you thinking more of Erving. Perhaps less. More likely you will be grateful to see him in total, rather than as a mere caricature, as he was so often shown to be in the glowing profiles written about him during his playing days. (I know, because I used to write them myself. Mea culpa.)

It’s just that it was so irresistible. Here he was, pro basketball’s ultimate showman and ambassador. And not only that, but he was a budding entrepreneur, living in luxury on the Main Line with his beautiful wife and four kids.

Oh, and he was an ideal teammate, too. When a rookie named Russ Schoene broke in with the Sixers in 1982, Erving invited him to sit alongside him during a plane ride. And then Dr. J told him that in some ways, Schoene reminded him of himself.

“That kind of blew me away,” Schoene told me a few years ago. “Quite honestly, I don’t remember the next five minutes of what he said. It was like, ‘What? How in the world could I ever remind him of himself?’ It was pretty uplifting. It gave me a spring in my step.”

Such random acts of kindness were routine and remain among ex-Sixers’ foremost memories of The Doctor.

“You hear a lot about superstars -- they put pressure on younger guys to come up to their level,” one of them, Bobby Jones, told me earlier this year. “Julius was such an encourager. That stood out in my mind, I think, the entire time I was with him: He wasn’t arrogant. He didn’t consider himself better than anybody. He worked as hard as anybody, if not harder. Didn’t put anybody down for the mistakes that they made. That’s easy to do at that level, when the game’s on the line or something’s on the line. He knows he can do it, but you’re in a position where you have to do it, and you don’t, it takes strength of character to say, ‘We’re in this together. We win together, we lose together.’ I think that was probably, to me, his greatest quality.”

Which is not to say he is faultless, as Erving readily admits in this book. You will read about his former wife Turquoise reacting violently when she learns that he fathered a child with a sportswriter named Samantha Stevenson (and that child, Alexandra, later enjoyed a deep run at Wimbledon in 1999).

You will read about the substance-abuse problems of his three sons. And about how one of them, Cory, seemed to be coming around, only to drown when he accidentally drove his car into a retention pond near the family’s Orlando home in 2000.

And you will read about Erving’s financial woes, which led him to sell off much of his memorabilia in 2011. (His recovery was also helped, he writes, when the Sixers hired him as something called a “strategic advisor,” which appears to involve him being Julius Erving, whenever the occasion warrants.)

In the past he has been coy about his problems, as when he called Robert Huber of Philadelphia magazine “a pain in the ass” after Huber cut a little too close to the heart of the matter in an excellent 2008 profile. And there have been times when Erving has been less than candid, as when he told an Associated Press reporter that the peddling of his memorabilia was not indicative of any money problems.

He comes clean in this book. Doesn’t mean he’s not a great man. It just means he’s not perfect.