New Dr. J Documentary Better Viewing Than Anything the Sixers Have Done Recently

Erving once dunked on a guy so hard, his teeth fell out.

The Doctor begins with archival footage of Magic Johnson asking Isaiah Thomas for his favorite memory of Julius Erving. The Hall of Famers smile as Thomas recalls Erving’s visit to his summer camp as a kid. All the kids started clapping in unison as Erving sped toward the basket, took flight from the top of the key, then stopped in midair. He was up there so long he had time to invite the kids to join him. Magic and Isaiah double over in laughter—just another legendary story in the nearly mythological career of Dr. J.

It’s a fitting way to kick off this 90-minute documentary, which debuts tonight at 9 p.m. on the NBA Network and aims to give Erving his due props as a true sports pioneer. The film sticks mostly to the chronology of Erving’s career, from his childhood playing ball in the projects of Long Island, to the origin of his nickname in high school and his journey to the pros. Most basketball fans today can’t recall the ABA, a renegade street-ball sideshow with threes and dunks—neither of which were allowed in the NBA of the 70s. Erving’s career with the New York Nets was more the stuff of rumor than record, since the ABA didn’t have a big-time TV contract. When the leagues merged and the Nets shipped Erving to the Sixers, his high-flying wizardry transformed the game.

A host of characters reminisce about Dr. J’s otherworldly exploits on the court. One Rucker Park baller remembers Doc dunking on him so hard that his teeth fell out of his mouth. Darryl Dawkins marvels at how Doc could slam on the “air brakes,” pausing mid-flight, which prompts Chocolate Thunder to squeal “like a girl.” Former Laker Michael Cooper—who was on the receiving end of Doc’s famous “rock the baby dunk”—admits his only defensive option was to duck.

A few local names offer their thoughts on Erving’s career, including former Inquirer columnist Bill Lyons, Howard Eskin, and Norristown’s Mike Piazza, who says he’s still moved to tears by highlights of his boyhood idol. Sixers fans will get chills over the 1983 Finals footage, ending with Dr. J addressing a packed Veterans Stadium on parade day (and chuckle at his wide-framed ’80s glasses that are now back in style).

On a conference call last week to promote the film, Erving said he gave the filmmakers “carte blanche.” He doesn’t shy away from the tragedies that bookended his career—the losses of his younger brother and his son, Corey—or the collapse of his marriage. But The Doctor explores little of his post-basketball life: no mention of his recent financial troubles or his tennis-star daughter, Alexandra Stevenson, the product of an extramarital affair during his Sixers heyday. Much like Isaiah and so many others, the film prefers to highlights best of Dr. J—the Afro’d superstar, the thoughtful spokesman, the hard-fought champion, and the first baller to play above the rim.

On that conference call, I asked Erving what the Sixers can do to bring back the excitement that he inspired 30 years ago. “I think the passion for basketball in the 9-73 year went on vacation,” he said with a chuckle. “Basketball became a tough sell … It’s come and gone, ebbed and flowed, and now it needs to come again. The ownership group lowered the ticket prices and did some very creative things to bring the fans back. And that’s part of the goal—bring the fans back, put a team on the floor that can compete in the playoffs and become a title contender, and the last piece is to win it all. They’ve gone on record as saying in seven years from the time the acquisition was made, they think all that can happen. So that’s how long it took when I first went to Philly, seven years … to get it done.”

Of course, this team doesn’t have a Julius Erving. He continued: “I admire what they’ve done and I believe that they believe. That’s what’s been put out there so we’ll see what happens.”

Not exactly a rousing endorsement, but the Sixers will take it. As for their fans, I’d recommend watching The Doctor. Its vision of the past is far more satisfying than the team’s plan for the immediate future.