It was Julius Erving, perhaps more than anyone else, who ushered in today’s era of high-flying hoopsters. Whether serving up monster dunks or floating to the basket for one of his signature finger rolls (which unfurled as gracefully as flower petals in a time-lapse photo), “Dr. J” was exciting to watch right up until his retirement from the N.B.A. in 1987. His numbers weren’t too shabby, either. Over a Hall of Fame career spanning 16 seasons, Erving scored more than 30,000 points — fifth on the all-time list — and raised three championship banners to go along with his four league MVP awards. Now, at 61, the grizzled businessman is making a comeback of sorts with NBA 2K12. The bestselling videogame, in stores now, captures a host of basketball greats in their prime, including Erving, whose 1977 character sports a tall, period-specific afro. Recently, we went one-on-one with Erving as he promoted 2K12’s downloadable add-on, “Legends Showcase,” which lets gamers compete against one another online using unlocked classic NBA teams.
EBONY.COM: When’s the last time you picked up a basketball?
I was in the gym [the other day]. I dunk the ball a few times a year just to see if I can still do it. I actually have a training method and a partnership with a guy whose exercise program is called Body Balancing. We’re going to market it in the first quarter of this year. It’s for people 8 to 80, a huge audience, and it’s going to blow your mind when you see it.
EBONY.COM: Since retiring from basketball, you’ve found almost as much success in business as you did on the court. The Coca-Cola bottling plant you bought in the ’80s became one of the nation’s top black-owned companies. And, more recently, you signed a joint venture to build cellphone towers. It seems that whether you’re attacking the basket or attending a board meeting, you’re always “looking for daylight.”
Absolutely. It’s the same model. The carrot is out in front, and you can’t be afraid to innovate, or do it differently. There’s risk associated with that. I guess that could explain what happened to my golf business [Erving’s Heritage club outside Atlanta, Ga. went into foreclosure last year]. There was a risk, I took it and I didn’t win. But you only fail when you don’t try, and there were a lot of takeaways — mostly tax write-offs [laughs]. There are going to be takeaways for years.
EBONY.COM: The NBA managed to save the 2011-12 season. As a current businessman and former player, what were your thoughts on the 149-day lockout?
Well, I wasn’t surprised it happened: there was such an economic imbalance between big market and small market teams. But in trying to reach a resolution people’s emotions got ahead of their business sense. Egos came into play. You had ultimatums. Bombs were put out there, like, “This is our final offer.” All that airing out in the public hurt basketball, and that pain is going to be felt for a while.
EBONY.COM: Months ago, when it looked as if the entire season might be lost, the Knicks’ Amar’e Stoudemire said that the players should consider forming their own league. Is going back to a time with an NBA and ABA a good idea?
One thing the lockout proved is people love basketball in this country … and I think there’s an opening for retired players to do something. During the lockout, my associates and I had at least a half-dozen league ideas proposed to us, everything from an ABA to a 3-on-3 game. There’s an appetite and with that appetite is an opportunity.
EBONY.COM: You’re saying one of those opportunities might be a senior league.
I think so. It could be like in golf, where you have a Champions Tour. People want to see some of these older players, who still have marquee value, perform again even if it’s not the big dance. There can be smaller dances out there.
EBONY.COM: Speaking of starting over, we heard you were remarried recently. Congratulations!
Thank you [laughs]. Yeah, we’re celebrating our third month now. It was just sealing the deal. We’ve been living together for a long time.
EBONY.COM: Do you two ever watch your old games that air on NBA TV?
We won’t sit and watch a whole game but we have seen parts of games on NBA TV as well as The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh [a 1979 sports comedy starring Erving]. They’ve shown that a couple of times. It’s funny, I might get a phone call from one of my buddies, “Man, your game is on from ’77,” and if I’m home I’ll turn on the TV, mostly so the kids could watch it because I have a 13, 10 and 6-year-old now. But I never schedule time out of my