Julius Erving served as both a color commentator and in-studio analyst for NBC for most of the 1990s, working with the famed ‘NBA on NBC’ crew until he accepted a role in the Orlando Magic front office in 1997. Erving was quite good at it, he wasn’t showy in his analysis but he certainly wasn’t banal either, and he got on quite well with the wonderfully cantankerous Peter Vecsey, a then-New York Post scribe whose relationship with Erving dated back decades.
Erving hasn’t returned to a television studio since, save for some promotional trips (like this one, with Stephen Colbert) centered on the release of his new memoir, "Dr J.: An Autobiography.” And while he isn’t exactly burning television network bridges with one recently released excerpt, you can probably understand why Mr. Erving doesn’t exactly seem keen on re-joining the broadcast booth any time soon.
I worry that I am not up to the task of explaining the essence of basketball as it is played at the highest levels. I feel that it is like trying to explain music through words or to describe a painting through text. You can give a feeling of the work, or compare it to something else, but you can't re-create the actual feeling of being on the court, or making that move, of imposing your will, of the precise moment that you realize you can reach the front of the rim.
"Because it is not a moment, it is a sense, an instinct, a flicker of insight and nerve so sudden that you have to act on it before it is a thought. What do you see? A subtle shift of weight, a lowering of the hands, a leaning forward, a glance, and that is enough to set off a chain of events. They are actions that stem from a thousand tiny instincts. But from where we are sitting above the court, we are unable to explain the game through these small moments, and instead talk about the Bulls' second chance scoring and the Rockets' bench production.
I understand the need to do that, I have done some of that in this book, but I also know that we are simply describing a simulation of the game, rendering a three-dimensional activity in two dimensions. The truth, I think, is two men facing each other on a playground somewhere, and one of them senses the other is leaning to his left, only the defender isn't actually leaning, he is trying to force the ball handler to his own left, and so on, the game spiraling upward in complexity and reaction and twitch and rise, from asphalt to high school, college gymnasiums to NBA parquet, and finally to here, where I sit behind this desk, talking about all of this as if it is nothing more than just those two kids in that school yard.
"I don't want this. I don't want to spend the rest of my life talking about basketball."
Holy cow. Dr. J. can write. I need to get this book.
It is true. Even the most well-versed and florid of communicators can’t possibly come close to articulating what each small bit of movement, each flinch or arched eyebrow or oddly positioned pivot foot can do to change the course of a basketball game. This isn’t Erving dismissing anyone who makes a living talking about and breaking down the game on television, or giving a haughty “you had to be there, man, you wouldn’t know”-swipe at those of us that didn’t lead the Philadelphia 76ers to the 1983 NBA championship.
It’s just true that, for all the words we pound out on the internet all day and for all the descriptive phrases we blurt out on radio or television airwaves, there are some facets to this wonderful game that can’t possibly be expressed in any combination of languages.
Which is what makes this game so remarkable. Julius Erving, as you’d expect, understands this.
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