Erving’s Record Forgotten, but Not Gone

The New York Times
March 10, 2012

“Deron Williams scored a franchise-record 57 points to lift the visiting Nets to a 104-101 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats.” That is how one news agency began an article about Williams’s performance last Sunday. The news was repeated in newspapers and on television and radio, where it was also reported that Williams “broke the Nets’ N.B.A. franchise record.”

“You really don’t pay attention to it,” Williams, the Nets’ dynamic point guard, said to reporters. “It’s just one of those games where you start feeling good and let it go.”

Like Williams, I didn’t pay much attention to it, either. After all, Williams did not in fact set a franchise scoring record that night.

Once upon a tomahawk dunk, a sky-walking superstar named Julius Erving set the Nets’ single-game scoring mark. Erving, who floated above the competition wearing a tall Afro hairstyle and a star-spangled tank top and shorts, accomplished the feat while he and the Nets were a part of the American Basketball Association, an upstart professional league that began in 1967 and competed for players, fans and television audiences with the older, more established N.B.A.

Dr. J, as Erving was known in his electrifying, gravity-defying A.B.A. days in the 1970s, scored 63 points against the San Diego Conquistadors on Feb. 14, 1975. A crowd of 2,916 at San Diego Sports Arena witnessed one of the Doctor’s most legendary house calls, a four-overtime thriller that San Diego eventually won, 176-166 — a game filled with 72 personal fouls and 128 rebounds. (The scoring total remained a record until Dec. 13, 1983, when the Detroit Pistons, led by Isiah Thomas’s 47 points, squeaked past the Nuggets, 186-184, in a triple-overtime N.B.A. game in Denver.)

“It’s disheartening to lose when you have put so much into it,” Erving, his feet buried in ice bags, said after the San Diego game, in which he played 66 of 68 minutes, made 25 of 51 shots, and pulled down 23 of the Nets’ 57 rebounds.

“I hope I’m never in one like this again,” Erving said, “unless we win.”

It was the longest game in the nine-year history of the A.B.A., a league known for its many gimmicks, including a red-white-and-blue basketball, a 3-point shot and a no-foul-out rule.

Although the renegade league had many great players — Moses Malone; Rick Barry; Artis Gilmore; and the Iceman, George Gervin, immediately come to mind — it had no greater attraction than Erving, the Michael Jordan of the bell-bottom generation. Erving’s high-flying, crowd-pleasing play, which became the stuff of legend in the days before ESPN, left the N.B.A. with practically no choice but to absorb the Nets — along with the Nuggets, the San Antonio Spurs and the Indiana Pacers — when the leagues merged for the 1976-77 season.

As a result of the merger, A.B.A. statistics, records and championships are acknowledged, if not officially recognized, by the N.B.A.

The Nets would have little history if not for the Long-Island born Dr. J, who led the franchise to its only championships — yes, A.B.A. championships — in the 1973-74 and 1975-76 seasons. Erving, who is in the Hall of Fame and was chosen as one of the 50 greatest players in N.B.A. history, remains one of five players to score more than 30,000 points in his career, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387), Karl Malone (36,928), Jordan (32,292) and Wilt Chamberlain (31,419). He scored 11,662 of his 30,026 points in five combined years with the Virginia Squires and the Nets of the A.B.A, and the rest as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, whom he led to the N.B.A. title in 1983.

Julius Winfield Erving is to the Nets franchise what George Herman Ruth is to the Yankees franchise. Across the Nets’ much-traveled history — which began in Teaneck, N.J., as the New Jersey Americans in 1967, and later moved from Long Island Arena in Commack to Island Garden in West Hempstead, N.Y., to Nassau Coliseum before heading back to New Jersey — no player has been greater.

In April 1987, in Erving’s last season, a capacity crowd of 20,149 attended a Nets tribute to him in East Rutherford, N.J. During an emotional 30-minute pregame ceremony, Erving cried as the arena darkened and the spotlights focused on a banner with his No. 32 jersey, the first number retired by the Nets.

“A tree without roots cannot stand,” Erving said that night. “The fans here need to know about me and the Nets of Long Island.”

I wonder how many of those fans were searching or listening for Erving’s name shortly after Williams scored 57. Instead, Williams’s name was widely mentioned in the same breath as Mike Newlin and Ray Williams, who each scored 52 in a Nets uniform. Vince Carter (51), John Williamson (50) and Stephon Marbury (50) were also mentioned.

But sadly, little notice was given to Julius Erving, the legendary Dr. J.

As the Nets prepare to move to Brooklyn next season, they must remember to take their colorful history along for the ride across the Hudson River.

As the face of their franchise once said, “A tree without roots cannot stand.”

Vincent M. Mallozzi, a reporter for The Times, is the author of “Doc: The Rise and Rise of Julius Erving.”