Julius Erving & The Death Of Myths & Legends In Basketball
After watching the NBATV special on Julius Erving called The Doctor, I found myself on an emotional journey of self-discovery and thinking about the ways we used to discover and experience moments and then retain them compared to how we do it today and in the future.
I first started watching basketball in 1989, while I was living in a small Florida town called Titusville. The Orlando Magic just got an expansion team, Hoops and David Robinson made basketball cards popular and not only was Michael Jordan not the favorite player among most basketball fans but it was ok to prefer Bo Jackson and his Nike “Bo Knows” campaign over Jordan and his Nike shoes. Keep in mind, this is not six rings Jordan wearing Air Jordans people were willing to sleep outside of malls and riot for. This is ringless-scared-of-Detroit MJ and my trips to the mall was all about arcades and getting converse shoes that the league’s best — Magic, Bird, McHale, King, Thomas and of course the legendary Doctor J — would wear on their feet.
What I found so interesting looking back at my love for these 80’s legends is that I considered them legends before ever seeing most of them play. I had a Magic Johnson t-shirt before ever seeing the Magic. I respected Bird but never bird watched. I called Michael Jordan the most exciting player in the league without once jumping off my couch watching a live Bulls game and I called Dr J the greatest. But why?
Was I calling the Doc the greatest because of the copies of Sports Illustrated I had with breathtaking pics and exaggerated stories of the Doc? Was it the commercials that ran during the era of family sitcoms? Was it my friend telling me that he heard Michael Jordan, somewhere, say he patterned his game after the Doctor?
See, Doctor J was more of a myth than a man to me. I didn’t judge him by the standards of the teachers, parents and adult I came in contact with. I talked about him the way I talked about the latest Stallone film character or Marvel comic book hero. And in 1990, I was first exposed to The Doctor’s borderline unrealistic action footage via a VHS tape called NBA Superstars. Those four minutes and 52 seconds of magnetic tape along with some select photos and stories of others is all I had of the man’s 16-year career. But, that’s all I needed.
Nowadays, with every point, assist, rebound and dunk inserted into a boxscore or database and archived on video for digital distribution via DVDs to YouTube with blogs and sites like Ballislife analyzing every frame, I’m not sure we can really have “legends” like Dr J anymore. We can watch today’s talent achieve greatness with legendary performances in classic games but the problem is when we want to relive and share those great moments with others, we will do it by opening up an instantly accessible browser and sharing a long distance tweet, email or text message. We will all consume the same play in the exact same way every time. What makes the great moments of the past so great and greater as time goes by is the added joy and exaggeration in our minds and the retelling of a story from one person to another over time.
Last year, I had the pleasure of going to breakfast with Dr J’s ex teammate Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins. He told me stories about players I’ve known about for decades but because of his passion, personality and delivery, he made these familiar names sound like foreign legendary Gods that I was hearing about for the first time. Since there’s no footage or “proof” that anything he said really happened, all I had was his words about those people and those moments to share with others. But, that’s all I needed.
In 2005, I watched the birth of my first child. Over the years, I talked to others about the sights and sounds of that moment. I remember the lighting being heavenly. I remember the complete silence and how all movement in the room slowed to a standstill as I held her in my arms. Years later, I watched a videotape of the birth and I couldn’t believe and didn’t want to believe what I was watching. It was fast, dark, loud, chaotic and 100% real with the absence of any joy that was formed in my head. I haven’t watched the tape since and can almost guarantee that I will never watch it again.
If I gave you a link to watch that tape on your computer, you would watch it and see the fast, dark, loud, chaotic truth and probably not feel any of the emotion I felt. If I sat next to you and told you about the day Alexis Astramskas was born, I’m sure you would feel some of the emotion I felt on that great day.
My feelings about basketball and the legends of the sport is very similar. I can show you YouTube highlights from LeBron or Durant’s last great game and we can tweet and talk about it with thousands of people we don’t know on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram but I feel like our instant gratification today will be doing a disservice to the legacy of these great players. Years from now, we won’t be able to talk about LeBron as a myth because we have proof of everything he did as a man.
Julius Erving might be a great respected man, that deserves to be honored, but it’s the myth and legacy of The Doctor, that deserves to live and inspire forever.