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The Next Chapter

Dr. J. talks new projects, challenges and a little golf in his next chapter after basketball

Julius Erving’s annual golf classic is a melting pot environment for community ideas

The year was 1977, and it was Game 6 of the NBA Finals. The Philadelphia 76ers were battling the Portland Trail Blazers. This was when basketball was basketball — hardcore fouls, showboat dunking and working it out in the paint.

One player who stood 6-foot-7 was known as one of the chief dunkers of the ABA and NBA. He was Dr. J, and he just couldn’t be stopped. He made a play that has gone down in history as one of the strongest dunks ever, and for Julius Erving, known as The Doctor, it was effortless. He threw down a dunk over NBA legend Bill Walton. The highlight back then would glorify it for years to come.

That was Erving in his glory, before the air was put in front of Michael Jordan’s. The four-time MVP has been out of the game for 30 years, but he earned his long-awaited NBA crown over 16 seasons while on the hardwood.

Now after three decades, Erving’s post-basketball journey is all about taking on different projects and challenges the same way he soared over his opponents. On Sept. 10, Erving, dapper in a black tuxedo, prepared to grace fans on the red carpet of his third black-tie gala and discussed walking away from the game.

“One of the thoughts prior to leaving the game at age 37 was to make sure that no two weeks would be the same for a while, that there would be different types of challenges that come periodically. … And [I’m] just more interested in doing projects and setting short-term goals, finishing that, doing something else, even if it’s totally different,” Erving said. “It always had to be challenging, but not stay in that repetitive cycle I had to get in being a professional athlete.”

Erving’s gala was part of a three-day fundraiser weekend benefiting the Salvation Army that included a basketball camp, meet-and-greet sessions, the gala and two days of golf titled the Julius Erving Golf Classic. Along with his family, friends, guests and colleagues, he roamed about the star-studded weekend, hosted by ESPN’s Jay Harris. From Sept. 9-11 in Philadelphia, celebrity guests included Hall of Fame athletes Marcus Allen and Reggie Jackson, iconic supermodel Beverly Johnson, plus legendary recording artists Jeffrey Osborne, Eddie Levert, with rhythm and blues singer Ginuwine as the headliner.

“It’s a process to build the event as it became very conspicuous with the things that were happening in the Philadelphia school system and health care issues,” Erving said. “I think our event can draw attention and allows us to integrate on philanthropical side into the community once again beyond my playing days. You’re asking people and us to give of themselves and their time. We’re all under the same roof for fun but also for a serious underlying purpose, and that’s to find a way to maybe turn some things around that are not right. We can create the melting pot environment where people can come up with ideas, some good, some not so good, but take the best of what you hear and then act on it.”

Born Julius Winfield Erving II, the New York native was one of the founding fathers of the above-the-rim style of basketball. He was the face of the ABA during its time and continued as one of the well-known players after the ABA-NBA merger in 1976. Erving won three championships, four MVP awards and three scoring titles while playing with the ABA’s Virginia Squires and New York Nets and the NBA’s 76ers. He is currently ranked in the top five in scoring, with 30,026 points (NBA and ABA combined). He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993 and was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History in 1996.

Erving attended the University of Massachusetts in 1968 and played for two seasons. He left college to pursue a career in professional basketball in 1971 as an undrafted free agent. He later returned to school and in 1986 made good on a promise to his mother, earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts in creative leadership. He also holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Erving made his way back onto the court this summer as a head coach in the successful first season of the BIG3 league tournament, and he said that when he left the game for good back in 1987 his transition was well thought-out.

“The focus was not wanting to do just one thing anymore. From age 8, there was always basketball,” Erving said. “You had to perform, deal with coaches, fans, if you will … and the moving around … because the schedule, nobody plays all home games.”

Erving supports the younger generation of NBA players, their projects and community efforts.

“A lot of players, like the Kevin Durants of the world you see on TV, are just trying to inspire and motivate people to be better. But I just see that from a distance,” Erving said. “I haven’t really partnered any current players, partly because we coincidentally end up at the same place, like Alonzo Mourning and Dwyane Wade, so I get to interact with them there. Fortunately, they are respectful of the things I was able to do on and off the court, and sometimes they’ll give you feedback stating that they were motivated and inspired by what you did.”

OJ Spivey covers sports, culture, and city life in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.