Bernucca: Growing Up With The Doctor Was Unforgettable

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200px-Erving_LipofskyNBA TV’s airing of “The Doctor” on Monday night had to be a treat for many young basketball fans who never had the privilege of seeing Julius Erving play,

I am not one of those young fans. In fact, here is how old I am. I saw Doc play.

In the ABA.

With the Virginia Squires.

My introduction to Erving came in the early 1970s, while I was living in Brooklyn and he was playing for the Squires. Forget about YouTube or Twitter or even the internet. At that time, you could not watch home games of the Knicks (or the Nets) on TV unless you had cable, which only existed in Manhattan.

But the occasional Nets road game was televised by a local channel, and on this night, the Nets were playing the Squires in one of their four home arenas. I was too young to have known of Erving’s exploits at Roosevelt High School and had yet to see him play, knowing only what I had read in newspaper stories and agate.

So Doc decided to catch me up in a hurry and went for 58 on the Nets. But it wasn’t just 58. It was the way he went for 58. He held the ball like it was a grapefruit, and when he elevated above everyone, it was as if he were a bigger brother, toying with younger siblings in an unfair game of keep-away.

Every shot – finger rolls, swooping drives, pull-up jumpers, the occasional 3-pointer – ended with that red, white and blue ball splashing through the net in a mesmerizing spin.

I was officially hooked.

Less than a year later, Erving was playing for the Nets. Now I could watch him whenever the Nets were on TV. Which wasn’t often. But it was more often than the Squires were on TV.

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In 1985 I was living in the Boston suburb of Reading, which is probably best known as the one-time home of Charles Stuart, who killed his pregnant wife, shot himself, blamed it on a black mugger, then jumped off the Tobin Bridge to his death to elude police.

My father worked at Lechmere, a New England area department store chain. One day, Celtics great Larry Bird made an appearance in one of their stores to promote a basketball video game – one of the first by EA Sports, then known as Electronic Arts – and signed hundreds of posters.

When my father arrived home that night, he said, “Larry Bird was in one of our stores today.”

“Yeah,” I said. Although I respected Bird, I hated the Celtics.

“I have a poster of him that he signed,” my father said.

“Big deal,” I said.

“The Doctor’s in the poster, too,” my father said.

“I’ll take it,” I said.

From that point, one of my missions in life became getting Erving’s signature on that poster. It took years. And I partially blame Bird.

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I can’t speak for the rest of New York City in the 1970s, but this was the deal in my Brooklyn neighboorhood: You were either a Clyde Guy or a Doc Guy.

The Clyde Guys were usually older. Some were as old as my father, long-suffering Knicks fans who stuck with their team through thick and mostly thin and reveled in watching one of the most unselfish squads in history overtake the hated Celtics, topple the almost equally hated Lakers and win not one but two championships.

The guy who made it happen was Walt Frazier, also known as Clyde. Sure, the Knicks had Willis and Dollar Bill and DeBusschere and later even Earl the Pearl. But Clyde Guys believed that Frazier not only was the best player on the Knicks; he was the best player in the NBA.

Clyde controlled the tempo. Clyde took down the Celtics in Boston Garden in Game 7. Clyde played the pants off Jerry West in the Finals. Clyde wore mink coats, sunglasses and platform shoes. When you looked up cool in the dictionary, there was a picture of Clyde.

Most Clyde Guys also were somewhat of a basketball snob. They sneered at the upstart ABA with its beach ball and garish uniforms and shot with an extra point. They grudingly ackowledged that while there were some good players over there, none of them would be stars in the NBA.

And certainly, none of them were better than Clyde.

As an adolescent, I fit the profile of a Doc Guy. We were younger and dismissive of the older generation of basketball fans, many of whom felt Erving was just the latest version of Elgin Baylor or Connie Hawkins. But they were wrong, and we knew better.

Doc Guys saved their money from shoveling snow or delivering papers to buy white leather high-top Converse All-Stars, only to be worn when playing basketball. Doc Guys stayed up to watch the 11 o’clock news because there was always the chance for a highlight. Doc Guys opened the New York Daily News and read the Nets game story before the Knicks game story.

As many young fans are with today’s players, Doc Guys certainly were enticed by the highlight reel quality of his game. But it wasn’t just the soaring elevation; plenty of guys could jump. It was so ABA logomuch more than that.

In a time where the phrase “In your face!” became a permanent part of basketball vernacular, Doc was the ultimate “In your face!” player. He might still be.

Doc could attack from the top or the wing. If you backed off him, he shot an angle jumper from the wing or a 3-pointer from the top. If you crowded him, he went around you with one dribble and was on top of the rim in an instant. He ran the floor with the grace of a gazelle and finished with a flourish or a fury equally well.

In transition – and there was plenty of transition in the ABA – Doc was as lethal as any player who has ever played the game, including LeBron James. He dunked on anybody and everybody.

Doc dominated on the other end as well. His rebounding was extraordinary for a wing player and he was one of the few players athletic enough to change a game with a dramatic block or steal.

So when the Clyde Guys said that Frazier was the best player in the NBA, the Doc Guys didn’t argue. Because Doc wasn’t in the NBA.

And Doc was the best player anywhere.

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  1. Martin McNeal says:

    What’s up, Chris? Like you, I also am old enough to have seen Julius play. As a freshman at then Hampton Institute, we used to check out Julius at the Hampton Coliseum. The Virginia Squires played there as well as the Norfolk Scope and the Richmond Coliseum. There was no one like the young Julius. Few people remember there was young star-to-be named George Gervin who played his rookie year with the Squires after he was allegedly kicked out of Eastern Michigan. Julius and the Iceman on the same squad.
    But I must disagree with you on one point. I was a Clyde and Doc guy. One of my dogs was named Clyde and never did I wear any number other than 10 in deference to Walt Frazier. Oh yeah, we used to get into the Hampton Coliseum for a dollar and a bread wrapper to see Julius. Amazing. And I must give love to the late Super John Williamson, who played with the New York Nets title-winning squads. He was a go-to-guy even with Julius on his squads. I loved that Nets squad. Peace.

    • craig yarbrough says:

      I’ve always LOVED basketball. When I was younger and didn’t know the game as well as I do now, I thought Doc was the best player in the world. When I was a little older I realized that Bird, Kareem, Moses, Magic, and at least 2-3 other guys were better in his era. I’m 44 today, grew up in Chicago watched Jordan’s reign, and have seen even more guys who were probably better than Doc over the years. However, the fact remains that my FAVORITE basketball player, and the guy who was most responsible for me loving the game is unquestionably Julius Eeerrrrving! Not Jordan or anyone else you can think of. Jordan had lots of things and is arguabley the greatest on court/off court combination ever, but no one had more “swag”, basketball talent, class, intelligence, and flair as the good Dr. He remains my favorite. I’m just jealous of Martin McNeal being able to see him and the Iceman in Hampton Coliseum while he was at HIU. I never got that chance when I attended Hampton from 86-90.

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