Doc

The Rise and Rise
of Julius Erving

By Vincent M. Mallozzi

Wiley. 320 pp. $25.95

nolead ends nolead begins


Reviewed by Bill Lyon


Down the lane he would come, those skinny, spindly legs firing like rockets, those boardinghouse-reach arms telescoping out-out-out, and the basketball, engulfed in one enormous hand, reduced to the size of a grapefruit, and you swore you heard this announcement: "Mission Control, we have liftoff!"

And up he would ascend, up into the land of suspended animation, up past the signposts for laws of gravity, an improviser making it up as he went along, cool jazz at 10,000 feet, and then descending, a swoop to the hoop, a delicate finger roll one time, a rock-the-cradle atomic dunk another time, always some new riff to leave them slack-jawed and then whooping in disbelief.

He was the Doctor and he played a game with which we landlocked mortals were unfamiliar. There was style and grace and elegance. He was silk on satin. Always a showman, they said, but never a showboat. You always thought he should take to the court wearing top hat and tails.

Julius Winfield Erving II, a.k.a. Dr. J, always seemed to be above - well, above it all. On the court and off. Never too busy to sign an autograph. Accommodating and patient with the media. Stunning wife, adorable kids. Admired, embraced, yes, beloved even. And in Philadelphia, where we give our hearts carefully, for 11 mostly glorious seasons with the 76ers, he was above the pettiness and the sniping and the cynicism. Just as he seemed to float to the basket, so he seemed to float through life. Yes sir, above it all.

And then one day he came crashing down to Earth.

Years after his retirement, things, unsavory, unseemly, unbecoming things, began to leak out. The Doctor was not above it all, after all. He was every bit as mortal as the rest of us. He was a philanderer, fathering children out of wedlock. His marriage was crumbling and finally, after 30 years, collapsed. Some of his children wrestled with drug addiction. His youngest son, Cory, 19, was found dead in his car in a pond half a mile from their Florida home.

Tragedy and turmoil seemed to chase after him, unrelenting, a cruel reminder that no one is forever immune.

(Full disclosure: As a columnist for The Inquirer, I covered Julius Erving for his entire career in Philadelphia, writing thousands of words about him, the vast majority of which were laudatory. Perhaps I was naive, but there was never even a hint of impropriety. Indeed, when speaking to high school and college classes, whenever I was asked to name my favorite athletes, I always responded: Julius Erving and Jack Nicklaus. Both were the best at their craft and admirable for how they conducted themselves.

(So those revelations shook us all. So Doc was human; say it ain't so, Doc. And then after the shock there came a sense of betrayal, and disillusionment. And, finally, this thought: Perhaps that pedestal was too high, those expectations unreasonable. Who could know just how enticing were the temptations to which he succumbed? And who among us is ready to shoot the rock at the glass backboard?)

What is intriguing is how he has weathered this and how the public seems, on balance, to have forgiven him, and in many cases to revere him. Hence the title of Doc: The Rise and Rise of Julius Erving, a book by Vincent Mallozzi, a hoops maven and unabashed Erving idolater.

This is not a biography, as the author himself is quick to acknowledge. It is, in his words, "basically a giant valentine from one of his biggest fans."

To what purpose?

"My goal here is to reintroduce Erving to generations of basketball fans who barely know his name," he writes, "and to introduce him to those who have never heard of him at all. By all accounts, including my own, Julius Erving is even better at being a human being than he was at being a basketball player, which makes him quite a unique specimen."

At times, it reads like a syrupy apologia, a gushing geyser of unvarnished admiration. Nor does Mallozzi pretend otherwise. Erving declined to be interviewed for his own story, which certainly is not uncommon in the biographical business, but had he known how it would be presented he might have done some serious rethinking.

Mallozzi, a New York Times reporter by trade, is exactly the dogged researcher and reporter and interviewer you would expect, given his background and profession. He has spoken with friends and family, coaches, teammates, opponents, the media, and has tracked down those who played for and against the Long Island asphalt playground legend, and has questioned legions from Erving's ABA and NBA days, starting with how he came to first take flight.

In the summer of 2008, Julius Erving began to show up on TV. Not because there was controversy of some sort but because there was a product to sell - specifically Dr Pepper - and a soft-drink manufacturer took a chance that Erving was back in good graces.

Dr. J and Dr Pepper were a rousing hit. He shoots an ice cube fadeaway into a glass. The tagline has him smiling into the camera and, in that rich, unmistakable baritone, saying: "Trust me - I'm a doctor."

Bill Lyon is a retired Inquirer sports columnist. "Deadlines and Overtimes," a collection of his columns, has recently been published by Camino Books.