For decades, the NBA has been a star’s league. But even among the stars, there’s an exclusive club. Russell and Dr. J. Bird and Magic. Jordan. Kobe. They’re all part of a select group that paved the way for the NBA superstar of today. And in Icons Club: The Evolution of the NBA Superstar, Hall of Fame reporter Jackie MacMullan explains how some even shared secrets with each other along the way.
Here’s an excerpt from Episode 2, which details how Julius Erving passed down lessons of how to be a superstar to the likes of Shaq and Michael Jordan.
By the time Julius Erving was a junior at the University of Massachusetts, word of his prowess had caught the attention of Bill Russell. The OG Icon visited Erving on campus and talked with him for three hours about everything from academics to racial bias to business pursuits.
It was Julius’s first connection to a fellow icon, and it left an indelible impression. When Russell departed, he gave Dr. J his number and told him, “If you ever need anything …’’ It was an exclusive, gilded invitation into the Icons Club.
“You know, he had given me contact information on him and stayed in touch,” Erving told me. “And he was a broadcaster, right? With Rick Barry for our games when I was in the NBA and when he came to Philly, he actually stayed with me. He didn’t stay in a hotel, he actually stayed with me.’’
When Dr. J made it to the pros, he, like Russell before him, gladly shared with others the unwritten code of how to handle yourself as the team’s top dog.
One of the first players he assisted was Sixers rookie Charles Barkley.
“The number one thing he taught me, he says, ‘You a star. You’re a superstar. Make sure these other guys feel important,’” Barkley says. “‘Number one, you’re going to get all the blame,’ which is 100 percent correct. And he says, ‘You’re going to get really almost all the credit. You’re kind of an amateur psychologist.’ He says, ‘You’ve got to make those guys feel special cause number one you’re getting all the credit—hey, when you all go to dinner, you grab the check. Every holiday, if a guy’s stuck in town, you make sure they come to your house.’’’
Dr. J and Moses Malone also provided this tidbit of advice for the Round Mound of Rebound: Lose the cheesy warm-up suits, which were a staple in the college game at the time.
“They say, ‘We’re taking you shopping,’” Barkley recalls. “They took me to Boards store. And I spent like $25,000. I was like, ‘Are y’all crazy?’ Because I ain’t never made any money in my life. They buy me about 10 to 15 suits and the bill was like $25,000. When I got the bill, I was like, ‘Man, y’all are crazy.’ And I remember calling my agent and my mom and grandma, ‘I spent $25,000 today, y’all.’ And my grandmother says, ‘I never made that much money in my life.’ And it was so funny, but they were right. This is professional basketball, you can’t walk around in sweats.’’
Erving’s willingness to share his expertise soon made him the “go-to” for ambitious young players. When Magic Johnson considered whether to leave Michigan State early and go pro in 1979, he talked it over with Dr. J first.
When Michael Jordan wanted a blueprint for his business pursuits, he studied how Erving profited off the court.
“Dr. J was one of the guys that I idolized from the business side of things, and I wanted to take that same passage you know and show that I was more than just a basketball player,” Jordan told me. “I had a personality, and I had a business mindset. I can coordinate, and I can cross all different types of color barriers.’’
When Kobe Bryant decided to reach out to the all-time greats to siphon their knowledge, Dr. J was atop his list.
Shaquille O’Neal grew up wanting to be just like Dr. J. He loved his style, his marketing power, and the fluidity of his game. One morning in 1991, when Shaq was a rising star at LSU, he decided to sleep in.
“So one day I’m in my sophomore year, and I miss class on purpose because I’m like, ‘I’m an All-American, if anything happens I’ll just go pro,’” Shaq says. “I’m starting to get arrogant.’’
He was snoring blissfully when suddenly, he heard the door click open.
“I wake up, and I see this big-ass hand on my chest. And it’s really Dr. J. And I actually thought I was dead, for real,” O’Neal says. “And then when I came to, he said, ‘Coach Brown said meet on the track right now.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, shit, I missed class.’”
Shaq followed his idol to the track, where an agitated Dale Brown was waiting. He instructed his young center to sprint two laps. After Shaq rested for about a minute, Brown barked, “Run again!” Dr. J did his best to suppress a smile.
“So, I would run two laps, sprint,” O’Neal recalls. “Dr. J and coach Brown, ‘Go again,’ two laps. ‘Go again.’ Coach Brown was like, ‘I’m going to run you until you throw up.’ But in my mind I’m like, ‘Dr. J is out here.’”
Afterward, Dr. J sat with a young Shaq and urged him to remain humble, go to class, and make sound financial decisions. Erving gave the big man his number, and a wonderful relationship was hatched.
In later years, when he moved to Orlando near Shaq’s parents, the two would gossip about the NBA and the latest fashion trends.
In July of 1996, Shaq was a free agent. Lakers GM Jerry West was relentlessly pursuing him. Shaq was torn. He loved the idea of moving to L.A. and playing with such a storied franchise, but he felt a tug of loyalty toward the Magic, who had drafted him no. 1. He dialed up his mentor Dr. J.
“I was like, ‘Doc, I need your advice,’” O’Neal says. “And he said, ‘Brother, do what’s best for you.’ And you know, he was the last guy that I talked to before I made the decision about leaving Orlando.”
Dr. J’s influence continues to span numerous generations.
Allen Iverson became one of the most beloved Sixers of all time. When Iverson’s career took some circuitous turns, Dr. J, a Sixers legend, became his sounding board.
When Jason Kidd retired in 2013 and contemplated a post-basketball life, he called the Doctor for guidance on how he could replicate Erving’s success with his bottling company.
Dwyane Wade, born and raised in Chicago, grew up idolizing—naturally—Jordan. But, he tells me, when he got to the league and signed with Converse, it was Julius Erving, a former Converse pitchman, who became his muse.
The Doctor also helped him understand how to adjust his own game when, in 2010, LeBron James and Chris Bosh famously joined him on the Miami Heat.
“I took a lot from Dr. J in my career from the standpoint of a star player in the midst of his prime to be able to sacrifice to win a championship,” Wade says. “And I respect that so much, so I model a lot of myself. I don’t know if people know that. I’m glad you asked that. Even his fashion, I looked at his fashion like, ‘Yo, Dr. J was a bad dude.’”