It Was Beautiful How Dr. J Changed Dr. Naismith's Game

To some, the NBA All-Star game is a shining example of everything that's wrong with the pro game.

To these critics, the whole weekend is an insult to the basic principals of the game, an affront to the dignity of the sport, a circus that's all silly style and no substance.

Dunk contests? Three-point bomb-offs? Hotdogging and showboating? You call this basketball?

Who's responsible for sending this great game down the road to ruin?

The guilty party sat quietly at his locker when it was all over Sunday, affixing ice packs to his knees and ankles.

Dr. J did this. It was Julius Erving who turned basketball into what it is today, and those who like the way the game turned out when Erving got through re-inventing it paid him their last respects.

It was Dr. J who did as much as anyone since Elgin Baylor to elevate the game up into the rafters, to make it a spectacle.

Sunday it was Tom Chambers' game, because he scored 34 points and was named the MVP. It was Isiah Thomas' game, and Magic Johnson's game, and Moses Malone's game.

But more than anyone, it was Dr. J's game. His last All-Star game. The old war horse checked out with 22 points and 5 assists. He'll finish out the season with the Philadelphia 76ers and then retire.

Dr. J has won championships in two leagues, but it's the All-Star game in which his influence is felt most. The first-ever All-Star dunk contest was inspired by--and won by--guess who?

The greatest artist of dunking, mid-air invention and making fans fall out of their seats was guess who?

The man who brought All-Star game-type moves and thrills to the court on a nightly basis, who made every game a dunk contest and thrill-a-thon, who blended showmanship with solid basketball, was guess who?

Every time someone in the world dunks a basketball, Julius Erving should get a royalty check.

He routinely has performed the spectacular, and that has became the game's style.

Talking about the burden of expectation that is now on the shoulders of young guys like Michael Jordan, Erving said, "You gotta come out and work a show, night in and night out. It's quite a load."

Such a load that Dr. J could only carry it for 16 seasons, starting when he was a 21-year-old, helium-filled stringbean with a tumbleweed of an Afro.

Now he's a 36-year-old corporate tycoon with gray-flecked hair trimmed business-man style, a conservative wardrobe and a large family.

But he can still play. Sunday he swooped and soared and more than held his own with the kids. His 18-foot jump shot over Magic Johnson gave the East a one-point lead with 38 seconds left in regulation time. They blew the lead and the game, in overtime.

"Maybe there's an assumption people tend to make that since this is your last go-round, you're getting out because you can't play," Erving said. "Inability to play is not the reason for my retirement. I'm leaving because I don't want to play any more, not because I can't."

He can't play like he once did, of course. Nobody can play like that.

Magic Johnson remembers the first time he saw Erving, in the old ABA, playing for the New York Nets against the Indiana Pacers.

"He was the most incredible player I'd ever seen," Magic says. "One play, he took off from the free-throw line. They were sitting there waitin' for him, George McGinnis and the other Pacers. He started walkin' through the air. It was like he was up there talkin' to himself, figurin' out what do do.

" 'Should I dunk it left, or should I dunk it right? Or should I turn around and do like this (Magic pantomimes a fancy reverse dunk)?' "

The fans loved it. The players loved it. Basketball would never be the same. The rap group Run DMC has a song out--titled "You Be Illin' "--about a guy who's sick, so he goes to watch the Doctor play, and he gets well.

He makes people feel good.

Another song that seems to fit Erving is the Whitney Houston hit, "The Greatest Love." They played that song with a special video tribute to Dr. J, put together for All-Star weekend.

They played the video Friday night at the All-Star banquet. Erving got choked up, at the video and the ovation.

"It was just beautiful, simply put," he said.

One part of that song, advice to adults on what to teach children, is this: "Give them a sense of pride . . . "

Maybe more than anything, that's what Dr. J has done for players, fans, kids, adults, anyone who caught his act somewhere along the line. He gave them a sense of pride.

Who carried himself with more dignity and pride than the Doc? Who flew higher, longer? Who brought on the era of skywalkers?

Did he ruin the game, or did he simply carry it upward in his jet stream?

Sunday was his last All-Star game. A silly game?

"It was a bunch of guys, getting together, being flashy, doing their thing, entertaining the public," Erving said. He was referring to the All-Star game but he could have been talking about pro basketball. "There's nothing wrong with that. Just because you're being flashy doesn't mean you're not serious."

So how was the show? Sunday and for the last 16 Dr. J seasons?

Simply put, it was beautiful.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World