As he starts talking basketball, I think about how he came off over the years: the well-spoken intonator of careful sound bites, smart but a little boring. Yet the day I spent with him running around Philly, he surprised me, what a regular guy he is, relaxed, a little goofy, much younger-seeming than 53: As we were leaving Temple U hospital, where he got a knuckle replacement on his middle finger checked out, the elevator got peculiar, and when it opened, unbidden, a second time with nobody to get on or off, Julius looked down from his six-foot-six-and-a-half vantage to beckon: “Casper. How are you, Casper? Come on in, Casper.” Back in my car, his cell plugged into my lighter, he was an almost nonstop Barry White baritone of “Wassup, dawg. Yeah, I’m in Philly, just checkin’ in. Uh-huh, I’ll call you later, cuz.” And “Lambchops, how are you, Lambchops?” Or sonorous business with Val — his longtime around-the-clock secretary: “We should really move that board meeting to Wednesday afternoon.” A busy guy, and a guy at ease with anybody; Lambchops turned out to be Doris Taxin, the widow of Albert, the owner of Bookbinder’s who died of brain cancer in 1993 — she put on a charity golf tournament that afternoon at Valley Green in his name. Julius, an old buddy of Albert’s, spent a couple hours teamed up with three old stiff-swinging white guys, could only putt for them because of his bad finger, bur interrupted his cell calls to champion every tiny parabola of an iron, high-fived dropped putts, was not so much doing the I’m-your-buddy star thing as, clearly, enjoying himself.
So I wonder, now, if he had to hold himself back when he was still playing, giving us just a small part of himself in the guise of responsible spokesman.
“A lot of stereotypes of black athletes used to bother me when I was growing up. So I wanted to rectify some of that, I was influenced by Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, the things happening to Arthur Ashe. Bill Russell. Anytime they were interviewed, they took it seriously, they weren’t laughing and joking and shucking and jiving. They wouldn’t let people put words in their mouth. I saw microphones being shoved in front of certain guys who couldn’t articulate the Queen’s English very well — they spoke Ebonics. Or guys dismissed interviews as light and frivolous…
“WHOA!” Julius interrupts himself to admire one of Freddie’s shots. She looks over at us, we wait for the next one — ground ball, though the swing is pretty. Julius takes a pull from his cigar.
“When I got a platform, a stage, I didn’t need to get up there to be Mr. Bojangles. It was important to me to be Julius Erving, not Dr. J. On the court I could don the cape and fly and soar and play, but when I stepped off I needed to be a person, a person that commanded a certain type of respect.”