When I was young, like thousands of others kids I was a huge Julius Erving fan. Back when big hair and high socks were cool, I was out dribbling around in the schoolyards and on the playgrounds, pretending to be him.
I never had Dr. J’s creativeness, I’d just go up and put it in the hole. Nothing fancy. But I always wished I could soar to the basket and dunk like him. I admired the way he played with grace, sportsmanship, and athleticism.
So, it was a big coincidence that years later in the 1986 playoffs, I found myself playing in what turned out to be the final game of Dr. J’s career.
With only seconds left in the seventh and deciding game of the match between my Bucks and Erving’s 76ers, the score was Milwaukee 113, Philadelphia 112.
The winner was heading to the Eastern Conference finals to face the Boston Celtics. If that was going to be us, that meant Dr. J’s career would be over.
I don’t remember if Erving had announced it beforehand, or if everyone just had a good idea it was going to happen, but there was this feeling all along that this was going to be the last season for “the Doctor.”
For me, it was a thrill to share the same floor as him, and I was going to miss him. As I said; I loved to watch him play. I also appreciated what he did for the game
I have been a bit of an amateur basketball historian since the day a coach told me, “Son, to be a good player, you have to be a student of the game. You have to read up on the game’s history.”
I’ve read up on basketball going back to the George Mikan days in the ’40s, and I realize Dr. J was a pioneer. There has to be someone to set the precedent. Before him, there was Connie Hawkins.
And before him, there was Elgin Baylor. And before him, there was Dolph Schayes. And more recently, you have your Michael Jordans and Vince Carters.
But Julius was the man when I was growing up.
It was a physically draining series. You could see the Sixers wanted to win to keep Erving’s season — and career — going. Overall, the 76ers were a really good team.
Besides Erving, they had Maurice Cheeks and Sedale Threatt in the backcourt, and a rookie named Charles Barkley and veterans Bobby Jones and Bob McAdoo up front.
We caught a break, however, because not only did their starting shooting guard, Andrew Toney, miss most of the year with an injury, but their starting center, Moses Malone, went down before the playoffs with an eye injury.
That was an advantage for us, but we still came to the table with plenty of talent. The previous season, I had come to the Bucks in a big trade along with Ricky Pierce and Craig Hodges. It seemed to really add a spark to the team.
The Bucks already had a lot of firepower including Sidney Moncrief, Paul Pressey, Randy Breuer, and Alton Lister. We weren’t a big, physical team, but that’s how our coach, Don Nelson, preferred it. We were very athletic, very quick, and we had a lot of good shooters, a lot of options on offense.
More importantly, we had great chemistry. A lot of people talk about chemistry, but you can’t underestimate its importance. You can have a good team, but if you don’t have talent, you’re not going to beat anyone. And if you have a decent team that has some chemistry, you can end up beating teams that are better than you.
Back in the early and mid-’80s, it seemed it was always the Bucks, Celtics, or Sixers in the Eastern Conference finals. And when in the first round we beat the New Jersey Nets, the Sixers beat the Washington Bullets, and the Celtics beat the Bulls, we knew at least one of the usual suspects would be in the NBA Finals.
In the semis, the Celtics beat the Atlanta Hawks, so that meant it was going to be either Milwaukee vs. Boston or Philly vs. Boston in the conference finals.
And it was all going to ride on the final shot of Game 7 of our series with the Sixers. Philadelphia, trailing by a point, called a timeout. I think a lot of people had the feeling the Sixers were going to give the ball to Julius, but they had so many weapons that no one knew for sure who would get it.
When the 76ers inbounded the ball, they, of course, swung it over to Dr. J. He had developed this turnaround bank shot later in his career and had been making those shots all year. This time the ball hit the rim and seemed to rattle around for what felt like a lifetime.
Finally, the ball came out and fell to the floor.
That’s when a mad scramble for the ball began. We were all just turning around looking to put a body on someone. There was a lot of pushing and shoving and diving. I remember having Charles around the arms and legs. I think later on they cried in the press about it–but, hey, that’s basketball. Finally the buzzer went off, and we had won.
At the time, I didn’t realize the importance of the game. I couldn’t appreciate what it meant to play in Dr. J’s final game. I wouldn’t say I feel bad that we beat the Sixers that day.
I think it is fate or destiny that things happen the way they do. He had a great career and has nothing to be ashamed of. Even in defeat, I’ll never forget the way he carried himself with the utmost class and integrity.
When people ask me about the most memorable moments of my career, the Dr. J game is No. 1. The other game that ranks up there is the night I scored 52 points while playing for the San Antonio Spurs during the 1989-90 season.
I was having a good year, but I wasn’t selected for the All-Star team. I had learned not to put any stock in the voting or the coach’s selections, but I guess my coach, Larry Brown, wanted to make some kind of statement.
We were playing the Charlotte Hornets. I remember coach Brown saying during a timeout, “Give him the ball.”
When we got back on the court, I’d pass it to a teammate who was open, and he’d just pass it right back.
I felt like I couldn’t miss a shot. I was making everything: jump shots, layups, dunks. I was making shots from the left and the right. I was making 3-pointers. It was just a great night.