Julius Erving Doesn’t Want to Be a Hero Anymore

His son is dead, his marriage is unraveling over women and out-of-wedlock children, he has left the sport he loved, and he is without a home. Remember when Dr. J could fly?

I remember. I bought it. But then I tell him my reaction to Jules, the second kid outside his marriage, how it hit me like a punch in the gut. How can I merge the guy he was just talking about with that one?

“I’ve removed myself from having to answer to the general public on certain issues,” Julius intones, “and that would be one of them.” For 16 years of playing, he carried the mantle of being somebody, of representing something, a heavy burden he placed on himself. “After it’s done, it’s done. How that relates to my children, whether it’s children within my marriage or out of my marriage, are things I have to deal with, be accountable for, not the public. Not you.”

It feels like a too-convenient line in the sand. The million dollars a year the Orlando Magic threw at him in ’97 to be a public face on a troubled team — that long-standing persona as a dignified, respectable family man sure came in handy there.

But Julius is dug in, patiently waiting, as he stares out at the driving range, to move off this. He works his cigar. We’ll talk about his background, then: He was raised by his mother in an integrated project on Long Island; his parents separated when he was three, and he wasn’t close to his father. “Being successful beyond my own expectations — I attribute a lot of that to the strength I got from my mom. She buried two husbands and a son and a daughter, she lost a set of twins back In the ‘4Os. I look at her and don’t see her spirit broken, don’t see her faith deterred. I know that much of what I have gone through is pale in comparison to what she has gone through” — the story you’ve heard a million times, the sweet overview of troubled waters that avoids them.

Freddie, who has quickly grown hot hitting balls and taken a golf-cart run through sprinklers, now glistens right next to us, listening, bur I can’t help it:

“Did you feel disappointed in yourself when you had Jules?”

“Why are we going back to that?”

“Because I’m still curious about it.”

“Why? You think your readers are curious about it?”

“I don’t know, but I’m going back to it because I feel like you danced around an answer.”

“Answer my question. Do you think your readers are interested in it?”

“I think they’re curious like I am, how it meshes with who they think or believe you are.”

“My answer is, let them think what they want to think.”

Julius wants to keep his heroes — Lincoln, Kennedy, Cosby — heroic. He doesn’t go searching for chinks an the armor. The personal stuff is beside the point. “Do you,” Julius Erving wants to know, “disrespect Thomas Jefferson?”

Not necessarily. But the private side, the real side, of someone important to us, a hero — yeah, we need to know. Who they really are is more important than their simple myth.