Julius Erving Talks 76ers, NBA Rivalries And BIG3 League
By Andy Frye - Forbes Magazine July 2, 2018
On Friday evening BIG3 league basketball resumed at the famed United Center in Chicago. The professional 3-on-3 basketball league founded by rapper and movie star Ice Cube consists of eight teams that feature former NBA stars both on the court and at the sideline, in the role of coaches. BIG3 opened its second season last weekend in Houston in front of over 16,000 fans.
One of Week 1’s winning teams, Tri-State, is coached by a basketball legend Julius Erving. Better known to some as “Dr. J,” Erving was a member of the 1983 NBA Champion Philadelphia 76ers. During his time in pro basketball, he scored an astounding 30,026 points (ranking him eighth overall), and was an 11-time NBA All-Star. Erving retired from the NBA in 1987 and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993. He is also the only player to win the MVP accolade in both the NBA and the ABA, which merged with the NBA in 1976.
On Thursday I caught up with Erving to talk with him about his 16-year career, BIG3 and the legends helping elevate basketball in 2018.
You were one of the first players credited with bringing a very exciting style of play to the game. Talk about your early career in the ABA.
My five years in the ABA was probably the most fun I had playing basketball. Part of it was my teammates, but the competition was different. It felt like it was all for one and one for all. When one guy did something great or received recognition, the whole league reveled in it because we were like outlaws. (Laughs.) We weren’t the traditional league. For me, it had to do with being between the ages of 21 and 25 too.
Once you became a 76er, your role changed. How did coming to the NBA change you as a player?
I made multiple adjustments to both my play and leadership style. I hate to say the seriousness of it made it less fun, but the NBA was less footloose and fancy-free. I did rework my approach to offense and did tone down my style of play.
The ’83 Sixers had players — Moses Malone, Bobby Jones, Mo Cheeks — with very different weapons. How did you make it work?
That team evolved under coach Billy Cunningham, and Moses was the last piece. We had had enough to go to three NBA Finals in six years (in 1977, 1980, and 1982). That wasn’t something to shrug off, but we came in second each time. So when we and management addressed the situation we felt that center-play was where we needed someone like Moses, where he was going to be the best rebounder on the court. When he got to town, Moses said, “this is Doc’s team, and you’ve had a good show, but maybe now we’ll have a better show.” He came in with the right attitude and he was the final piece.
During your career, who did you most enjoy playing against? What rivalries were the best?
(Lakers guard-forward) Michael Cooper was always regarded as a great defensive player, so it was a challenge whenever we played Los Angeles. In our conference, we had Milwaukee with Marcus Johnson and Boston with John Havlicek and later that team evolved into Larry Bird’s team. Then, with the Washington Bullets, you had Wes Unseld, Bob Dandridge, and Elvin Hayes.
So far BIG3 is a hit, especially with die-hard hoops fans. What draws crowds?
It starts in June, right on the heels of the NBA Finals, (so) there are fans who still want more and say, “now what do I do?” The two options are the WNBA and BIG3. The WNBA is great basketball. But the opportunity to see some of the biggest former stars of the NBA up close and personal or live on Fox Sports 1 on Friday nights — that’s a nice option. There’s a newness there, and you’ve got Hall of Famers coaching on the sidelines. And also, it’s a prelude to 3-on-3 basketball becoming an Olympic sport.
Well, this is more than a retirees’ league. Do you see BIG3 expanding basketball’s audience?
I think so. There’s a lot of interest in the game internationally, and all of the talent and action in BIG3 helps boost interest in the game.
BIG3 has its own unique take but doesn’t seem gimmicky. Does half-court hoops force players to bring their best game?
It’s an opportunity for players to be at their best even though they’re not in their prime. You don’t have to run full court, and you transition from offense to defense immediately in that half-court space. Then there’s the 14-second shot clock, and the first team to 50 points wins. So you’re not trying to repeat what you did in the NBA, but there’s a fast pace that is exciting and intense.
What is it like seeing your old NBA rivals like Cooper, George Gervin, and Rick Barry coaching BIG3’s teams?
The coaching fraternity here is a collection of guys who used to compete with and against each other, but with an elevated Hall of Fame status. I enjoy that but enjoy that we all travel with our families, and our spouses and children come to games and get to see it first hand.