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 day to do that.
EBONY.COM: Let’s talk about your computer-generated “comeback” in NBA 2K12. We see you’re still rockin’ tight shorts.
Yeah, there’s authenticity to 2K12 so we got on the Cons’, we got the high socks, and the short-shorts are definitely being rocked [laughs]. My character looks like me, though I never envisioned myself being quite that muscular. I never lifted weights when I was playing. If I got hurt and had to rehab, I’d go in the weight room. But other than that, strength training and weights, that was a no-no back in the day. Man, if you lift, you’re not going to be able to shoot the basketball: you won’t have feeling in your arms; you won’t have touch. Now guys lift before the game and get pumped up to play.
EBONY.COM: Do your kids play as their pops in 2K12?
No, my 10-year-old plays Derrick Rose and my 13-year-old likes Dwight Howard. I’m an afterthought.
EBONY.COM: In the game, players can step into Dr. J’s high-tops and take part in a classic rivalry. If you could go back, what’s the one game you’d love to relive?
[Thinking] It’d probably be one from ’74, when I was in the ABA playing for the Nets. There was a game against the San Diego Conquistadors. That was the only time I ever played in a four-overtime game. What a night! And we had to play the next day too [laughs]. I just remember things about the game. That’s when I scored my career-high, which was 63 points.
Last summer, I was out in L.A. talking about that game with my teammate Brian Taylor. His recollections were a little different than mine. I remember we lost the game. There was only one guy on the floor in the last overtime that could stand up [laughs]. It was the Conquistadors’ Warren Jabali, one of the strongest players in the league. He kept backing down our point guard, who happened to be Brian, taking him in the low post. The help was a little late getting there because we were all so tired … That was an experience. I wish I could play that game — but not have to play the next night! Or I would pick the final game against the Lakers, the year we swept them in the finals.
EBONY.COM: That 1983 Sixers championship team [the videogame actually has the ’84 team] finished the regular season with a league-best 65 wins and lost just one playoff game. How many teams in NBA history were better than that Sixers club with you, Moses Malone and Mo’ Cheeks?
How many? … None. I would match that team against anybody. We had all the pieces. We had four centers, four forwards and four guards, which was an unusual makeup for a team anyway. And there were a lot of interchangeable parts.
EBONY.COM: Is there anything the real Dr. J could do that the videogame character can’t?
I haven’t scrutinized 2K12 that closely but there was always something in my repertoire that was ready to happen. [Basketball is a game of adjustments.] This one play with Walter Davis comes to mind because not long ago someone was eating at his restaurant in Arizona, and called me.
Walter was there. They said he had a picture on the wall from one of our games. I remember the play: Walter had taken off on a fast break and I ran after him. I was determined to block his shot. Walter went up first. I leaped and extended myself as far as I could go, while reaching for the ball. Then he moved the ball to a different position and I went after it. Now, we’re floating in the air while all this is happening [laughs] and somehow he maneuvered the ball around my hand. I didn’t block it, and he made the layup. We never had any physical contact. It was just a clean play that happened during hang time.
So there are plays like that, and plays that happened in practice or on the playground, that could never be captured in a videogame. It only can be experienced by the participants, and that’s always going to be the separation between playing in your living room and going to the arena where you’ll witness something that you will see for the first time and maybe never see it again.
EBONY.COM: So what picture is on your wall?
That’s the irony. I don’t have any up, besides a small 6×6 photo of Bill Russell and me, dressed in suits. That’s on my mantle. We got beards and I look like his brother or his son [laughs].
I don’t need to remind myself of what I’ve accomplished. That was one of the driving forces behind my decision to auction off a lot of my basketball memorabilia. I thought, okay, I’ve had some of this stuff for 40 years. It represents a body of work but the work speaks for itself; these are just the material things garnered during that time. And there are real sports fans out there, real collectors. So why not make it available to them?
EBONY.COM: Those real collectors helped you set a record last year for the biggest online sports auction. You sold your championship rings, MVP trophies…
Yeah, we sold 144 items. But there’s still 156 pieces left.
EBONY.COM: Is there anything from your pro career you would never part with?
My Hall of Fame ring. That’s like the last piece of the puzzle for me in basketball, being inducted into the Hall of Fame. I go back as a current member. Last August, I escorted in Artis Gilmore. So that ring is something that I won’t part with. To me, it’s a family heirloom.
EBONY.COM: You’ve said in interviews that the auction, which raised $3.5 million, had nothing to do with reports that you are struggling financially.
Nothing at all. As a matter of fact, I have a continuing deal with Converse and three other licensing deals. I also signed a seven-figure deal with HarperCollins last year to do my autobiography.
In terms of my investments, Electronic Arts is an asset that’s been in my portfolio since 1981. I have stock in that company. That’s the permanent piece. I’m probably never going to sell that. That will be for my estate. Obviously, the Coca-Cola business, the cable TV business, and the other investments that have been a part of my portfolio since I came out of college are the rival and the envy of many people who maybe have better training or luck. So, um, I’m cool!
EBONY.COM: Okay, generally speaking then why do so many NBA players have money problems?
When it comes to managing this money, or your life, there’s no set formula that works for everybody. Certainly, with athletes it’s very tricky because they’re not in a 9-to-5 situation. So the irregularity with which their compensation comes dictates decisions. And there are a lot of players who make decisions they regret. I’ve made very few in my lifetime. I’m very happy with where I am today, and the bad things that happened in 2010 were more than remedied by the good that has happened in 2011.
EBONY.COM: What’s your game plan?
My plan is to keep doing what I’m doing. Listen, to be around for 61 years and not have hiccups in your life is sort of like wearing armor with no chinks in it — you’ve never been to battle. You might as well be a mannequin in the closet. I’m not a mannequin in the closet. I got armor on and I’m out in the world and there are chinks in the armor. I look at them as being badges of courage and valor. To me, they’re positives. I got my eye on that carrot out there. The best is yet to come.
Craigh Barboza, a New York-based freelancer and the Editor of MyDVDinsider.com, is a diehard hoops head.