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Julius Erving
Julius Erving
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Julius Erving Interview

The Great and Wondrous Dr. J

June 26, 1992
Las Vegas, Nevada

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  Julius Erving

You're a great basketball player, but I have the feeling as I read about you that it's always been important for you to be a good person, to be a well rounded person, as well.

Julius Erving: I think so.

I think I started learning lessons about being a good person long before I ever knew what basketball was. And that starts in the home, it starts with the parental influence. I came from a broken home, so my mom was a major influence in my life. And I remember hearing her say hundreds, thousands of times, "You don't have to work that hard to try to be a good person, just do it." Before "just do it" was fashionable.

Julius Erving Interview Photo
I think she would add to that, even if there are a lot of things in life that you can't do, this is something that you can. This is a do-able thing. All it requires is programming your attitude properly and relating to people, as you would want to have them relate to you.

Tell me about your mother. She was, I understand, from a very large family.

Julius Erving: My mom is one of 14 children. She's a great lady. She's a Taurus. Has been a profound influence in my life, still is to this day. Born in meager surroundings in rural South Carolina. She and my dad migrated to New York, where I was born, my brother was born, my sister was born. She continues to live in New York. We live in Philadelphia.

I view her as a very, very strong-willed person, who understood her values very early in life, learned her lessons about dealing with people and made her family her priority. The influence on her family, because it was such a priority for her, was clearly felt by all of us.

She must have had to work very hard, as a single mother back then, to take care of all of you.

Julius Erving: Yes, she had to work very hard. As a matter of fact, she used to teach school when she was in South Carolina, but she wasn't qualified to teach in New York, and she did whatever she had to do. She did domestic work, she went through the training to become a hairdresser, and rented a booth in a salon and supported her family as best she could. And always gave us great doses of love, and made us feel special about the little material things that she could give us, to help us to understand the merit system.

If you came home with a good report card, As and Bs, then maybe there was a pair of tennis shoes that went along with that. I remember one instance in elementary school. She knew that I liked white grapes, and she bought me a pound of white grapes, and these were all mine and it was just so special. It was in response to having a good report card, and something simple like that meant a lot to me. I guess it was the gesture on her part that was behind it that still carries through today, in terms of thinking that way.

When you were a kid, did you have some sense you would achieve great things?

Julius Erving: It wasn't until I was 14 or 15 that I first heard about the Pulitzer Prize. And I started thinking about this, and I always liked poetry and I always liked writing. At that age I made a declaration to my family that I was going to win a Pulitzer Prize one day. Of course, I never did, and probably never will. But I think that was pretty much evidence of thinking big, thinking with a more universal perspective than one's neighborhood, or one's county, city, state, or even country.

In a lot of areas of my life, particularly in my teenage years, I began to think about the world, and to think about the universe as being a part of my conscious everyday life. Not being narrow-minded, but being broad-minded; and not being pessimistic, but optimistic. I think that helped. I think in sports it helped a great deal, particularly as time went on when doors began to open that represented universal challenges.

As a 20 year-old, going over to the Soviet Union, participating in the Olympic Development Program for the United States and bringing that experience back, and understanding that if I can go through that type of doorway athletically, what about academically, emotionally, spiritually? Why limit yourself? If I'm going to be a whole person, let me be total, and become the complete package, and not have certain areas of my life go forward.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Be a one on a scale of one to ten, with one being the highest, and let other areas be with the other numbers. Those are things that began to happen in my teenage years, and I guess it created a perspective.

Are there any particular books that you can remember that you especially liked as a kid?

Julius Erving: There's the typical books, Moby Dick and, I guess in my adult life I began to read biographies more than fiction. I started to want to relate to other people's lives, things that had really happened.

Going through the sports experience, and seeing how people reacted, I started to understand the insincerity of someone coming up and saying, "You're the greatest," and "You're the best," and saying the same thing to somebody else down the street. Maybe a small segment of the population might mean what they say, but those are just expressions and figures of speech and things that people say because they think it might make you feel good; although it might not be based in truth, because they're saying it to a lot of people.

I started really getting into biographies, and reading particularly about black people. Marvin Gaye's tragic biography, Divided Soul, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Having Abraham Lincoln, and Jesse Owens, Bill Russell, and Bill Cosby, and people like that as role models, in terms of high achievers. I wanted to read as much literature as I could about their lives.

Then I got treated to the personal exposure, which happened as a 19 year-old, meeting Bill Cosby and Bill Russell in the same year. Much of what was going around in my mind became my reality. I think that helped add to that foundation that I already had.

Was there a teacher or two that were especially important to you?

Julius Erving Interview Photo
Julius Erving: There are three teachers who are still involved in my life. Ray Wilson -- who is my office manager, and who was a teacher in my high school, as well as my basketball coach in high school -- is very much involved in my life, and is a real father figure for me. A gentleman named Earl Mosley, who never specifically taught me, but was always there, and was a role model for me, was a coach when I was a freshman. And then a guy named Charles McIlwaine, who is a teacher and a coach.

In my high school years those three really stood out, really helped to become part of the support group that's necessary when you're experiencing all types of physical changes and mental changes, to help to explain things, and put them in the proper perspective.

One math teacher, Mr. Nelson, was just genuinely a good guy. Even for ten or 15 years after I got out of high school, I always wanted to check back in with him, or ask other people to see how he was doing. There were a lot of teachers who made my high school experience something that makes me feel a little saddened when I hear of kids who really don't like the high school situation that they're in. They say that they hate school, and can't wait to get out and move on, because it's not a satisfying and gratifying experience.

Mine was a very satisfying and gratifying experience. I think most of the students I went to high school with feel the same way. We've had reunions every five years. We're approaching the 25th (in 1993), and I'm sure it's going to be well attended because, for many of my classmates, these were the best years of their life.

It's a really different situation today. The dropout rate is so much higher than it was when you were going to school. Why, do you suppose?

Julius Erving: When I was in high school the population was around 200 million, and it's closer to 400 million now. There's a lot more people out there, and the classrooms are a lot bigger. I guess the teaching profession has changed dramatically. It's not considered to be that desirable a profession to enter into.

Julius Erving Interview Photo
Very few people enter into it thinking that this is what they're going to do with their life. They look at the teaching profession as a bridge aspect of their career, or maybe just a springboard to other things. " I'll do this for a few years and then I'll move on." So the student isn't getting exposed to the same type of people previous generations were exposed to in the elementary, secondary, or high school levels. That's not to criticize the ones who are there, who are dedicated.

We're talking about quantity. I think the quality is still there, but the quantity of quality people and committed people has changed, and we have to deal with that. Teachers are sort of faced with a thankless task, because no matter how good they are, unless they find a way to personally rationalize the rewards of their effort, nobody else is really going to do it for them en masse.

I think it's so important for the students to give teachers feedback. Say, "I really appreciate what you're doing, and what you're doing is good. You've helped me, you've really changed my life. You really make a difference in my life." It's not just about picking up the paycheck, it's about affecting people's lives on a consistent basis. The amount of time that students are exposed to teachers is probably greater than they're exposed (at least from September to June) to at least one of their parents. I know when I was playing basketball, I'm sure my kids saw a lot more of their mother and their teachers and their friends than they did of me, because I had half of my life on the road.

So that feedback is very, very important, and I don't know if that exchange is as fluid as it was. It's one of the things that we have to acknowledge as being different, and it's made it tougher to be a young person today. All of the information that they have to assess, and assimilate, and sort out, and analyze, and then make decisions about. I can really understand their confusion, and sympathize with them. There are a lot of reasons why, and I've only named a few.

Where did the nickname Dr. J. come from?

Julius Erving: In high school I had a buddy who I called the Professor, and he called me the Doctor. His name is Leon Saunders. We went to high school together, and then we went to college together, and we're still great friends today. I used to call him the Professor because, when we would do anything, whether it was playing basketball, or cards, or just sitting around and shooting the breeze, he always had to have the upper hand. He could outtalk anybody, to the point where he would lecture whoever else was around, if we were willing to listen. I just kind of dubbed him the Professor one day. And he said, "Well, if I'm the Professor, then you're the Doctor." We kind of had professional-sounding nicknames, and we just shared that amongst ourselves. Then we ended up graduating high school together, going to college, and other people picked up on our nicknames. Mine eventually got changed to Dr. J, instead of just the Doctor, once I started playing professional basketball. The team physician was called Doc, and the trainer was called Chop. But the physician became Dr. M, and I become Dr. J, compliments of a guy I was rooming with in my first year, a guy named Willie Soldier. Dr. J was kind of catchy, and I liked that. I said, if I'm going to go through a name change, that's not a bad move. It just sort of stuck since then, and it's still here.

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