If you merge the league stats of the NBA and ABA, which the NBA is considering for the record books, Julius Winfield Erving Jr. would easily rank in the Top 5 greatest players in pro basketball history. After all, in his five ABA seasons, Erving won three scoring titles. He also won three Most Valuable Player awards and two championships.
During his 11-year NBA career, Erving was an All-Star each season, the MVP in 1981, and a five-time member of the All-NBA First Team).
But he hardly talks about the game much anymore. He’s got so much on his mind at age 73. He’s playing himself in an Adam Sandler movie. He’s got a bustling real estate business in Atlanta. He’s on corporate boards of Converse, the NBA, the 76ers, and EA Sports, among other endeavors. Also, a few years ago, he sold his stake in Coca-Cola and made $11 million in profit.
But Dr. J is more than an icon and more than some hero to strangers, although he’s grateful for the adulation and what the game brought to him.
Erving is invested in his real life, not just his professional life; his real truth and the hard reality of living as much as he can, without regret. But for all his personal greatness, regret creeps into his soul frequently.
Julius lost his brother and sister at a young age. He lost his teammate and close friend, Wendell Ladner, in a plane crash. He saw his mentor and stepfather die young… and then his mother.
Mortality has hit Dr. J hard. And he tries to face his past… authentically and realistically…and it’s not an easy task. He openly and candidly talks about the regret of infidelity, which was a choice he made, and which left him with kids who didn’t have a present father. Sadly, the wreckage of those complicated relationships left him with one son who was in-and-out of prison, and another who dabbled with drugs and alcohol, then tragically died when he drove his car into a water ditch.
For 45 days, Julius Erving and his then wife, Turk, didn’t know if their son was dead or alive. Then police found the vehicle submerged in an Orlando pond. Cory’s body was in the passenger seat…he was trying to get out.
That was more than 20 years ago – and the shattering loss left his marriage in tatters. And after 27 years of a (sometime) tense and tumultuous union, divorce was the final act.
But Erving’s pain and longing still eats at him.
In his book, “Dr. J”, Erving reflected on the loss of a son with some of the most heartbreaking and self-reflective comments I’ve ever heard from any public figure, let alone a man who was so beloved and admired:
“When did I play with my children? What did we play…Goldfish ….Memory …Checkers ? “We must’ve played”, said Erving, wistfully.
“I look at the photos of Cory ..he’s a beautiful boy.. did I play enough with him? Did I spend every minute with him I should have? Why didn’t I stop everything? Drop our plans. Hold all calls, cancel our subscription …and turn off all televisions …shutdown all computers …switch off cell phone’s? Turn off all the engines…tell the post office to hold my mail” … Why didn’t I quit talking about basketball? Quit society?
Quit the world? And quit everything and everyone, so I can play one more game of checkers with my son and tell him once more that I am his father, and I care about him. Sit with him just one more time and lie to him that everything will be alright.”
But things weren’t all right.
And self-forgiveness for Julius Erving has been the greatest obstacle in his life.
’I’m learning to rise, every day…to make my life better, not just for Cory, but for my family, my friends, my new wife, and hope that I can live my life in a way that Cory would have been proud, would’ve come to understand me. And me understand him.”
We spoke for about an hour about the freedom that basketball brought him. The court at the park was a place for order in a life of poverty and turmoil.
His mother was his hero. She was one of 14 children, and she was a basketball player.
“I have a picture of her holding a basketball as a teenager, and I think it inspired me to excel on the court. She was the person who most motivated me to become someone who realized their potential.”
The NBA title was elusive for Julius. His 76ers’ teams lost three title attempts, and after the last one, for the first time his career, Erving wept the locker room.
“I felt time was slipping away from me, and I would never get another chance”, he told me. “So, I broke down and cried.”
Finally, in the 82-83 season and with the addition of Moses Malone, the Sixers broke through and beat the Lakers for Erving’s only NBA title.
But instead of drinking champagne, Erving stayed sober and looked at a mirror in the dressing room of the Forum. “All I could think about was, I am brother of Markey, who was gone. The brother of my sister Freda who was battling cancer at the time, and my mother Cali Mae who had a hard life but lived with dignity. I thought about the people I lost who made my path easier…who made me whole”.
Julius Erving is one of the greatest players in basketball history. Some suggest he is somewhat forgotten, but even if it’s true, it doesn’t concern him. He hasn’t forgotten. He remembers. He remembers the glory and the grief…the exhilaration and the errors of judgement…the success and the sorrow. And he says, every single day, 35 years after he played…he seeks to rise again.
“Time is slipping away, but I learned after the time I cried after losing…you DO get another chance.
A chance to love better, to be there for your kids. I now have a grandson named Cory, and a son whose birthday is the day before Cory’s who we lost, and so we still celebrate my late son’s birthday. It’s the way I can survive and cope. To beat guilt and forgive myself….
It’s the way I can still…. rise.”