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Dan Devine

BDL Book Review: 'Doc: The Rise and Rise of Julius Erving'

Dan Devine
Ball Don't Lie

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If you're a BDL regular, Julius Erving probably isn't a real person to you. (Also, odds are you're Lutheran, left-handed and a big "Rowdy" Roddy Piper fan. Surprised? Don't be. Piper's Pit was awesome.)

Sure, you know Dr. J's face and rep. But the actual athlete that ran, dribbled and rebounded? That's different; way more under-40 hoops fans know the fairy tale than the flesh-and-blood.

Vincent M. Mallozzi thinks that's a damn shame, and he wants to help out. He wants us to believe he wrote the new biography "Doc: The Rise and Rise of Julius Erving" to let us know how thrilling it was to see Dr. J live, playing in the rhythm of the game, his extraterrestrial talents making anything seem possible.

Mallozzi, a reporter for The New York Times, wants us to understand how much Doc mattered back in the day, and why he still matters even after Michael Jordan came along and (in the minds of many, if not all) perfected the acrobatics that Doc pioneered during his ascent to the heights of stardom from the tiny gym at Long Island's Prospect School.

Mallozzi tells us that, but at the end of the day, it ain't true. He didn't really write this biography for you and me. Mostly, he wrote it for himself.

He admits in the preface that he "leaped at the chance to write this book" because he self-identifies as a Dr. J stan, a true believer since unwrapping an ABA basketball on Christmas morning, 1973. Unfortunately, Mallozzi's affinity for his subject matter doesn't yield many new insights.

Erving declined to be interviewed for the book, so his presence is limited to quotes cribbed from previously published pieces and stories about him related by other sources — and it's not always clear to the reader if those stories are fresh or merely rehashed without attribution. (David Friedman of 20 Second Timeout claims it's largely the latter. He's got some ether for Mallozzi, pointing out several factual errors and calling the biography "a quintessential hack job" built on material ripped off from a variety of sources, including some of Friedman's own work.)

The sources quoted often describe Erving in beatific terms; it seems like his "grace" gets mentioned every other page. In discussing his search for religion while in prison, Erving's childhood friend Archie Rogers says he "wanted to find that same God who created Julius perfectly, who gave him that beautiful gift of basketball greatness." Former Philadelphia 76ers teammate Lloyd (World B.) Free says "everything [Erving] did was perfect, the way he walked and talked and greeted people and smiled ... and it was all real." Bill Walton goes one step further, calling Doc "better than perfect on all fronts."

And yet, amid the overwrought proselytizing about Erving's beyond-the-pale talents, Mallozzi's overview does manage to (at least somewhat) concretize Dr. J. We neophytes get details to help us understand why Doc's contemporaries talk like he's a god.

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There's the performance aspect — Mallozzi describes Dr. J as "the greatest crowd pleaser in the history of sports," and former New York Times sports columnist Dave Anderson distinguishes Doc as "a showman but never a showboat." There are the physical attributes — damn near everyone interviewed mentions how enormous Erving's hands were, how the basketball looked like a grapefruit when he cuffed it and how that ball control afforded him extra time to improvise.

There's the positional chaos he heralded — former University of Massachusetts teammate John Betancourt invokes Magic Johnson and Kevin Garnett(notes) in describing Doc's game, calling him "a guard trapped in a forward's body." Former New York Knick Dean Meminger calls Erving "a generational pioneer ... [who] added something to professional basketball that had not existed before he arrived: a small forward who could play like a guard but yet rise higher than any big man on the court."

There's the arsenal that Dominique Wilkins calls "the most unique set of offensive tools that any player ever brought onto the court" — and, of course, the epic manner in which he employed it.

Chapter 4 details a Rucker Park dunk on 6'10" NBA vet Tom Hoover that saw Erving "slamming the ball through the cylinder with such force that it crash-landed on Hoover's head and, as legend has it, dislodged the dentures in Hoover's mouth." Dutch pivot-turned-Costco employee Swen Nater recalls an 80-foot pass that Doc threw while leaping out of bounds: "I have never seen another human being do something like that on a basketball court."

In the New York Nets' victory over the Denver Nuggets in the 1976 ABA Finals, Erving led the Nets in scoring, rebounding, assists and blocks — all while checking eventual Hall of Famer David Thompson. Sports Illustrated called Erving's series "the greatest individual performance by a basketball player at any level anywhere." And, of course, there was the baseline reverse around Kareem in the 1979-1980 NBA Finals, the 1983 "rock the cradle" dunk on Michael Cooper (which Wilkins calls "the greatest dunk of all time") and the (inside the) free throw line slam in the 1984 Slam Dunk Contest (hit the 0:35 mark).

The points detailing Erving's failings on the court also matter. Sources frequently reference his suspect jumper, and Mallozzi recounts the conventional wisdom on why Doc struggled when he first came to the NBA — with no three-point line at the time, defenses could pack the lane to cut off penetration, and there were more legit centers defending the rim than in the ABA. Former Sixers beat writer Mark Heisler offers a harsher assessment of Erving's inaugural NBA campaign: "His act was no longer spectacular and high-flying; it was more of a mild disappointment, to be honest."

Perhaps the most instructive critique comes from Kevin Loughery, Erving's coach with the Nets, who says Doc "didn't have the kind of personality to just take over a team," especially one packed with scorers like the 1976-1977 Sixers. "It wasn't his nature," Loughery says. "A guy like Michael Jordan, he would have taken over that team in about a week, but that wasn't Doc's style, Doc preferred to lead by example." It's an interesting note, subtextual shading that adds depth to Erving's portrait, the kind of thing lost in translation when all your information about a player comes from YouTube.

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Mallozzi leaves one element of Erving's portrait all but unsketched, presenting Doc's entire post-retirement life as a string of matter-of-fact happenings. The narrative from 1987 and 2009 comes in bare-bones chapters heavily dependent on huge excerpts from previously reported stories without much comment or context.

That's a problem, because a lot of dark stuff has happened since Doc left the game — revelations of numerous extramarital affairs, several of which produced children born out of wedlock (including professional tennis player Alexandra Stevenson); the 2000 death of his youngest son, Cory; a messy divorce from his wife, Turquoise, that revealed a slew of embarrassing facts detailed in an unflattering October 2003 Philadelphia magazine piece; the emergence of a Dr. J sex tape (don't worry, it's just a link to an AP story about the ordeal); the death of his mother, and more.

Mallozzi hustles past these unpleasant happenings, eager to get back to serving up platitudes. In his epilogue, Mallozzi writes, "He has made what appear to be a few poor choices along the way, but I felt no need to critically comment on them." (Later, he reaffirms that this isn't what he signed up to write about: "My goal here has been to reintroduce Erving to generations of basketball fans who barely know his name and to introduce him to those who have never heard of him at all.")

If Mallozzi doesn't want to write about the nasty business and his publisher is cool with that, that's his choice. But while you can argue that none of the post-career revelations shine any light on Erving as an athlete, you can't claim they're not part of the picture of who he is as a man. On top of that, the repeated indiscretions seem to directly contrast the constant claims that Erving was a saint in high tops. In his biography, of all places, shouldn't that matter?

Mallozzi saves the most disappointing salvo for his final lines, which follow his admission that the book "is basically a giant Valentine [to Erving] from one of his biggest fans."

"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," he writes. "My only hope is that he enjoys reading this book as much as I enjoyed writing it."

Well, no — obviously not "all accounts." Just the ones Mallozzi chose to focus on here, the ones that jive best with the image of Doc he wants to keep in his head after he's done writing about his hero. It's an understandable impulse. Every fan knows what it's like to believe in fairy tales.

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