This move by J.R. Smith last night made for Fun City at the Garden (well, for everyone except Anthony Bennett, the Cavs’ defender).
I recently had the chance to catch up with him and chat about Phil Jackson and the craft of writing a biography.
Dig in to this holiday Banter treat. Then go pick up the book.
It’s a good one.
AB: This is your sixth book and second biography—the first was on Peggy Lee. What was it like writing another biography?
PR: It was terrific because the first one taught me that to be a biographer, you’ve got to be a very different kind of writer.
AB: Different from being a newspaper or magazine writer?
PR: To write a biography, you have to become something of a different animal. You have to become a PhD in your subject. When Peggy Lee died, and I was asked to write her bio, I said to the editor “Thank you, it’s flattering but maybe you should get someone who knows the music of the ‘30’s, ‘40’s, and ‘50’s.” But he said, “No, we want you to come in from the outside. We think you’re a good enough writer to come in and surround the subject.” And that’s the only good book I’d ever written. When I was approached to write a Phil Jackson biography, and figured I wasn’t going to get him to cooperate — he was writing his own book — it freed me to surround his life objectively.
AB: He’s got a library of books he’s written himself.
PR: If you go into Barnes and Nobles to the sports section there’s seven categories – baseball, football, basketball, hockey, golf, boxing and Phil Jackson. Maverick and Sacred Hoops are worth reading. Mine might be, too.
AB: Don’t be so modest. It is. What have you learned as a writer since the Peggy Lee book that allowed you to do the Phil Jackson story in a way you might not have previously?
PR: That you should never judge anyone, or their actions, or their legacy, before doing everything you can to try and see the events of their life through their own eyes, from their own perspective–but then use that perspective as only one of your lenses. Phil had left behind his books, and gave his approval for friends to talk to me. I’d interviewed him several times in the past and we were cool. I had every lens available to see the guy’s life objectively and thoroughly.
AB: What was the difference between writing a bio of a dead singer, whose career arc had already ended, and someone who’s still got a few chapters left to go in his career?
PR: Peggy’s role in history had been predetermined. She was the only white top 5 jazz singer of all time. With Phil, everybody had ideas about him, but nobody had out them all together for an objective portrait. Some think he’s overrated because he coached Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaq and Kobe. Then there are those who say, “No, the man is a genius.” Nobody had ever gone in and found the middle ground, the third space. The truth is never black or white. And freed of his subjective perspective, I was able to enter this gray Twilight Zone where I could assemble the pieces that led to assembling the puzzle of the most successful coach in the history of sports — if you go by numbers, anyway, which I do. As Earl Monroe says in the book “Sports is a strange animal, in that you can make all the money in the world, but if you haven’t won the championship, you don’t have the same respect.”
AB: At the same time, Jackson briefly played with a guy named Neal Walk who was comfortable with himself even if he didn’t win. If he lost, he was like, “Oh I’m the first place loser.” Wouldn’t you believe that Neal Walk was a guy who was happy even though he didn’t get a ring?
PR: Oh, God yes, absolutely. Neal Walk and Eddie Mast were his blood brothers on the Knicks, and neither put all their stakes into winning. Those were the people who were saying to “Phil, dude, cool out, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose the game. You’re a Buddhist. It’s the journey not the destination.” Phil seems to be possessed by an almost surreal degree of competition. He needed Walk and Mast as early role models to temper that mania.
AB: But he was able to combine the two.
PR: You got it. He managed to incorporate and meld all of those ingredients. Here’s the bottom line: He never stopped questioning what’s real and what counts in this very short lifetime. Native American Indian culture, Buddhism, Christianity, mysticism — he kept exploring and he kept questioning.
AB: And that’s authentic right? That’s not an act.
PR: Completely authentic. None of his former players that I spoke with said it was for show. Burning sage in the locker room, giving his players books. Every one of them was affected. Whether it was 10% or 90% they were affected.
AB: I thought it was interesting that for some of them, the gesture was enough, it didn’t even matter if the book spoke to them or not. It was the act of him being thoughtful in that way that did have a certain meaning for them.
PR: Exactly. For a few it was both of those things. I’m thinking Craig Hodges, the three-point shooter who was showed up at the White House after the Bulls’ second championship and chastised George Bush and was blackballed from the game — until Phil Jackson brought him back to be the shooting coach of the Lakers. Hodges told me that the book Phil gave him—The Passive Warrior—changed his life. So yes, it was all authentic — and that’s why I actually wrote the book. I would never have written this book if I thought that Jackson was inauthentic in any way shape or form.
AB: You write about Jackson as a teacher, a searcher, and a survivor. How much of that resonates with you at this stage in your life?
PR: It felt as if it were time for me to write a biography of a guy who, in a weird sort of way, was paralleling my own life, at least in terms of trying to never lose curiosity about everything when you reach Act III of your life. In a way, as I wrote, I sort of thought that not talking to him almost didn’t matter, because the more I read his books and interviews over the last 40 years, and the more people I talked to, the more I recognized this innate need for searching, the more I seemed to understand him. Obviously, I’m not comparing myself to him in terms of career success, but I came to quickly sense that we shared a few psychological things in common, both on the ultra-competitive side and the intellectual-searching side. Which gave me the confidence to write the book authentically and truthfully.
AB: Would you have had to force this book had you written it 15 years ago?
PR: Absolutely. It would have been forced even five years ago, truth be told. But now, somehow, researching his life not only vibed with some of the exact questions I was asking myself, but I was finally mature enough to accept the validity, the intent, of some of his teachings and searchings and questions. That’s not to say I lost objectivity; just that, in a way I was finally receptive enough to learn from his philosophies — which only enhanced the book.
AB: Speaking of teaching, one of Jackson’s most important teachers was his coach with the Knicks, Red Holzman.
PR: Absolutely. Red taught Phil just about everything he ever learned about coaching, on the court and off. Phil couldn’t be on that first championship team because he had had back surgery that season, so he was Red’s defacto assistant coach—back then you couldn’t have an assistant coach. Red knew Phil had something going on, intellectually. In the locker room after games, after Red had given his post-game talk, he’d turn to Phil and say, “Did I do alright tonight?” Red knew.
AB: Now, you first covered Jackson when he was coaching Albany in the CBA.
PR: And before that, when I was a weed-smoking teenager and lover of sports, a rebel without a cause, fan of the Knicks, I just loved Phil Jackson. I loved the way he looked, I loved the way he tried so hard, I loved that he was clumsy, I loved that he was different. I’d read those same New York Post columns that I quote in the book. Everyone was so attracted to this guy who clearly didn’t fit the paradox. Fast forward to 1986 when he was coaching the Albany Patroons and I was working for the New York bureau of the Miami Herald. So we met for a column, and I could immediately sense that he was just a normal guy. Unlike any pro coach I’d ever covered. He was so normal, I became normal — not a writer, just a guy I was talking with. I wasn’t there as the sports writer trying to get something and he wasn’t there as the coach trying to give the right answers. It was like a couple of hours “Let’s talk about stuff.” I thought, “Wow, that’s really cool. I hope it works for him.”
AB: Was it that he was necessarily charming?
PR: Oh no, he wasn’t charming–I mean unless we’re all charming, unless you and I are being charming. He was being human and social and friendly.
AB: Did you ask him how come the Knicks hadn’t called on him after he’d won a CBA championship?
PR: Yes. He said, “I don’t know. I’m not political enough, I guess. I don’t say the right stuff, But hey, do you want a chocolate chip cookie?” He was getting ready to leave the CBA, and had no idea what he’d do next, which happened to be opening a health club in Montana. He was thinking of the law, or the ministry. Then, a few months later, the Bulls called. A few years after that he was the head coach. So I profiled him again, for the National Sports Daily, during his first season, and hung around Chicago for a couple of days, and wrote a piece whose gist was basically, “How bizarre! An actual person is a really good NBA coach. A real person you could have a conversation with about philosophy or the triangle or Bill Bradley or Wounded Knee was actually a good coach.” You could tell, just from the way Jordan and Pippen were listening to him.
AB: One of the things that’s interesting to me, you alluded to it already, here’s this guy, he’s a seeker. He’s a curious guy and he’s interested in all these different kinds spiritual pursuits. But the other part of him enjoys throwing quips and keeping people — essentially the press–off balance, as if even that were a competition.
PR: I came to understand him as a man trying to reconcile those two pulls, the pull of the peaceful “mindfulness” and the pull of the competitor. I think he was smart enough to see that when he was questioning all of reality — spiritually, intellectually, philosophically — he also had to succeed in a corporate world, and the fact that he was able to reconcile the two to the degree that he could is what really intrigued me. I think he knows that there’s a third space where it can all work out. Ultimately, the he was able to incorporate that corporate trope, that philosophical trope, that spiritual trope, and communicate it all to his players. He coached hundreds and hundreds of players for many years and every one of them, with a few exceptions, would say “Phil looked at me as if I was an individual” — and that, for me, is the road map for success in life. My guess is that Phil would say he’s a teacher. Not a coach but a teacher.
AB: You didn’t talk to some of the superstar guys, though. Before we get to that, I want to know why you didn’t speak to Jackson’s children or the women in his life.
PR: I didn’t want to.
AB: Why is that?
PR: Because I’m not a writer first, I’m a human being first and I just don’t want to go places where I’m not invited. I wrote a book about Phil Jackson because it seemed like the right book to write and I got offered money for it. But I have rules. I don’t compromise humanity. There’s something in me that just doesn’t allow me to step from person into journalist. I just can’t do it. I’ve been told that it has hurt my career. Somebody once told me, “Oh man, you’re such a soft core journalist, can’t you be a hardcore journalist?” And I said, “No I can’t because I’m a person, period.” If I can make money writing books about Phil Jackson and the other people I’ve written books about, that’s really cool, but don’t ever ask me to stop being who I am. Phil Jackson doesn’t want me to find his first wife. I could have tracked her down but I wasn’t going to find her because whatever happened with Phil and his first wife is between them. Am I a biographer of Phil Jackson? Yup. Am I a biographer of Phil Jackson on my own rules? Yup. Does that mean my books aren’t going sell as many? Yup. Do I care? No.
AB: As a reader, do you like reading those biographies that are lured in that kind of person detail?
AB: So this is about knowing who you are as a writer?
PR: How old are you?
PR: Alright. I’m 60, so when you get to 60 you’ll realize what I mean. There comes a point later in life where you realize that exploiting somebody else’s life for your own advancement is not only stupid, it’s destructive. I have my agenda, the reader has their agenda, but in between, there is a space where you can tell the truth and when you do that, people are going to buy your books, people are going to give you advances to write your books, and you don’t have to break news or have sensational stuff. There’s a point where if you’re just telling somebody’s truth or maybe your own, it works. I really feel as if I surrounded Phil Jackson. I really feel as if I understood him and could show the readers why Phil Jackson could be both a Buddhist, spiritualist, off-the-wall guy and the most competitive insane asshole ever and therefore won 11 rings–the combined total Vince Lombard and Pat Riley. I feel as if I am the first guy to tell it right but I don’t think I compromised any of my inner ethical rules writing the book.
AB: How much of an obstacle was it that you didn’t talk to Jordan, Pippen, Shaq or Kobe?
PR: The two best stories I ever wrote for GQ were about Ray Carruth, who took out a hit on his pregnant girlfriend, the number one pick of the Carolina Panthers, and Jason Williams, the former Net who shotgunned his driver to death. Neither of them talked to me. What I was able to do was approach their stories without them and that’s the best way to approach any subject. To answer your question, at the top, I had an editor who didn’t care that Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin wouldn’t talk to me. “This is your book,” he said. “I don’t care about what Scottie Pippin thought about him or John Paxton or Kobe, just tell me what the hell is going in Phil’s brain.”
AB: Stars don’t generally give the most insightful interviews, either.
PR: You’re exactly right. In this case, none of the superstars would have told me anything about Phil that they hadn’t already told a hundred other writers. The last guys on the bench are often more valuable for a writer. They’re all looking at their coach to see what they could learn from the guy — about the game, about what it is to be successful. They take notes in their head. I could go on and list the number of people who have been his 11th and 12th player who have gone on to tremendous success as athletes, as athletic directors, as high school coaches, as really enlightened individuals. Unlike Michael Jordan, who is clearly the unhappiness man on Earth. Do you think we’ll ever be able to talk about how happy Kobe Bryant is? I don’t think so. But talking to those who had seen him through a truly authentic lens—and that includes Diane Mast and his old friend Charley Rosen—I think I was able to get to why he was the most successful coach ever. Anybody who is truly a success is a guy who inspires people to follow him and I think every guy Phil ever coached was willing to follow him. They wanted to follow him out of the foxhole because he treated them as equals.
AB: There’s a great story you tell about Jud Buechler. Jackson asked him how his wife was doing and Buechler was blown away because no coach had ever asked him anything personal about himself. It seems like such a common gesture. It made me think how impersonal and screwed up the world of professional sports is.
PR: If you get a new job at Wall Street at Morgan Stanley, does somebody sit you down and ask you if your wife is happy that she’s moved from Indiana to Manhattan and Westchester, and how’s the school district? Phil did, and he didn’t do it because that’s what you’re supposed to do — because clearly that’s not what you’re supposed to do. He did it because clearly that’s who he was. That’s the point of the book. Phil was a guy who was guided by what you and I are guided by, which is that we’re all part of the same social fabric. If Jud Buechler becomes the 12th man on a team that includes Scottie and Michael , Phil wanted him to know not only that it’s important that he knows his role on the team, but to know that I consider him an equal as a person. That’s a gift, a gift that most people in charge of corporate entities never consider bringing into the equation. I’m not sure that’s why he won 11 rings, but I can’t think it wasn’t part of it.
AB: How did Jackson grow in his second go around with the Lakers?
PR: I’d like to think the time off made him examine how he fucked it up the first time around. He had great players and everything fell apart. He understood when he came back that teaching is a two-way street, and I think Kobe was finally willing to listen to someone who could teach him. He’d grown up, too.
AB: And Shaq was gone.
PR: I don’t think its coincidental that once you lose Shaq, you’ve got to completely reconstruct the entire paradigm. The second generation of Lakers he took over wasn’t as stable as his first go-round but he had Kobe. He needed Kobe to be the guy to hold the shit together. Phil went back in after writing a book that ripped Kobe as uncoachable. But when the two of them came back together, and then produced more championships, that was an example of both of them learning and both of them growing up. The two of them had an understanding and got to a place and that to me is what is great about Phil Jackson. He’s still willing to learn.
AB: I love the thing from the Lakota Indians, where one of the guys said, “Phil saw that for us, spirituality is everything in life — that spirituality is everyday life.” That sort of spoke to me about what Jackson seems to be about.
PR: The difference between Vince Lombardi and Phil Jackson is that Lombardi would wake up every morning thinking, “How do I game plan to win next week?” Jackson wakes up and asks, “How can I understand why I’m here?” Weirdly enough, the guy who asks “Why am I here?” every day winds up statistically a greater winner than Lombardi, Joe McCarthy, Red Auerbach or any of them.
AB: That’s funny.
PR: This guy whose entire life who has been built around non numbers, about how you cannot quantify success, happiness, whatever, ends up statistically winning more championships than anyone in professional sports history in the United States of America. At that point you say to yourself, “Why is it that a guy who can’t even show up on the radar of all the barometers and quantifiers of coaching success in American sports, how is it that a coach who doesn’t need any of those things turned out to beat everyone at the one statistic we worship? Is it a coincidence that Phil’s thinking outside of the box and treating his players as people as opposed to product resulted in him winning the marathon? Is that coincidence? That’s why I wrote the book. The guy never stops thinking. He simply doesn’t close his mind to anything.
Go here to order Phil Jackson: Lord of the Rings.
[Photo Credit: N.Y. Times, Albany Times Union, L.A. Times, SI, ESPN. Drawing by Michael Pitts]
Even with a Harvard-educated black man occupying the White House, the conception of black masculinity still revolves around the primal, not the intellectual. The first skill any African-American man learns in navigating the white world is how to make white people comfortable. He must be nonthreatening. Before he can profit from the snarl, he must first soften them with a smile. These tactics predate Matt Barnes’ tweeting of the N-word; they predate the NFL, Jay Z and the Civil War.
Yet no matter the tactic, no matter how powerful or savvy a black man might be, manipulation of his image remains a shadow currency. LeBron James was the first black male to gain the cover of Vogue, in 2008. His portrayal conjured images of King Kong — it was him roaring at the camera with a white woman, Gisele Bundchen, in his arms.
These old constructions, very much alive, were returned to light by Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito. Here was a case in which a white man used racial slurs to a Stanford-educated teammate who comes from a two-parent, Harvard-educated home. And more than anything else, the root issue was the eternal difficulty this country has in allowing black men to live in full dimension. Martin didn’t look the part. He didn’t conform to the accepted code of black masculinity, exposing the fault line that has always run underneath the American soil, transformative president or not.
On the Dolphins, Martin wasn’t seen as a real man. Uncomfortable with the strip clubs, he wasn’t trusted as one of the boys. And because he represented the images of scholarship and manners, of dignity and higher education — reputable qualities generally associated with white mainstream America — he was inauthentic in the eyes of black players, but no more authentic in the eyes of whites. His teammates preyed on Martin’s economic class and demeanor, viewing each as weakness, his education as a mimicry of whiteness. (It’s telling that John Elway and Andrew Luck, also Stanford grads, have never been accused of being soft.)
[Image Via: The Starting Five]
I remember coming home from school for lunch the day Len Bias died. I fixed myself something to eat, turned on the TV, and heard the news.
Bias would have been 50 today. Here’s Dave Zirin.
Well, Game 1 was revolting now, wasn’t it? Cards win tonight and they’ll have taken care of business. But they were shook last night and dammit if this whole postseason doesn’t have a bad vibe about it.
[Photo Via: Gu Photography]
Is there any good reason for anyone to believe anything Dwight Howard says at this point?
He’s on the market again. On Monday, as the bell announcing the opening of the free-agency market was still pealing, he was being romanced by Houston and it was said that the Rockets were attractive to him at least in part because Texas has no state income tax. (This is a nice perk if you’re Dwight Howard the ballplayer, who will be making a gazillion dollars and can afford your own private police force. It’s a bit of a drag if you’re Dwight Howard from the Third Ward who’s trying to get him some public services.) Yao Ming Skyped in to pitch the team, and Howard’s also met with Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, as well as with James Harden, who likely will not be joining them in Springfield. He’s going to take the grand tour. Howard will be meeting with Golden State and Dallas, too, before deciding whether he wants to pick up the great burden of being a celebrity athlete in L.A. again.
Is there a bigger fake in this league? Seriously, the guy came into the NBA with a smile on his face and Bible verses on his shoes, and there hasn’t been a player in my memory who’s dived for every nickel with the enthusiasm this guy has demonstrated. (Dwight? Rich man. Camel. Needle’s eye. Google these terms along with “New Testament” and get back to me.) He can’t help being injured. He can help being miserable, though, and this guy is simply never happy. He wasn’t happy in Orlando. He wasn’t happy in L.A., and he’s not going to be happy wherever he ends up next. This would be tolerable if he brought championship ball with him. (Shaquille O’Neal wasn’t always a field of buttercups, either.) But the guy doesn’t necessarily help you win. He looks great — not good. Great — in the uniform. At the baggage carousel, there’s nobody more formidable. On the court? Not so much. He couldn’t really mesh with Kobe Bryant and he never really got along with Mike D’Antoni, and now he’s back running the grift again. Please, Houston, sign this guy. Moses Malone will come back from retirement just to kick his ass.
Then there’s Chris Paul, who has condescended to return to Los Angeles now that the Clippers gave him 107 million good reasons to be coached by Doc Rivers. This is another guy with a costume-jewelry résumé whom the league nonetheless slobbers over. You have your analytics and I have mine, but if you’re a big-money point guard, the basic metric is whether you can get your team to win anything and, right now, Paul’s got one division title with L.A. He, however, has fewer rings than Rajon Rondo or Mario Chalmers. But he gets to hold up the Clippers to the point where they raid another team for its coach, throw the league into an uproar, launch a brawl between my favorite person in the NBA and my, uh, boss, and all so that Paul won’t take his stylish, couldn’t-beat-the-Grizzlies-with-a-hand-grenade hindquarters somewhere else in the league. The barstools are full of point guards who guided their teams to a loss in a six-game playoff series.
[Picture by Greg Guillemin]
The Knicks, essentially, not only took a contract albatross off Toronto’s hands — new GM Masai Ujiri was desperate to rid himself of the failed first overall pick — they paid the Raptors for the privilege. If the trade were just Camby and Novak for Bargnani, it would be a wash, two teams handing over each other’s soiled linens. But the Knicks threw in three draft picks because … well, because in New York, the future isn’t just something that doesn’t matter, it’s something to be actively avoided.
This has always been a thing in New York. For whatever reason, there is this sense among sports owners in New York City that rebuilding — or, rather to say, the process of compiling and amassing talent and resources that can be used to sustain perpetual success — is something that the fanbase will just not stand for. If your team is not competing for a championship that very year, obviously your franchise is a failure and unworthy to wear the words “New York” on the front of your jersey/uniform/sweater/hot pants.
This mindset leads to lunacy like just about every free agent acquisition the Mets have ever made — with the ironic exception of Carlos Beltran, the one many fans were the most angry about — or the Yankees giving Alex Rodriguez a 10-year contract or the Knicks trading for someone like Andrea freaking Bargnani. The logic behind the Bargnani trade, behind so many New York sports teams’ moves, is that if the move makes the team even slightly better today, it’s worth mortgaging whatever possible future there might be. Is having Bargnani on the team for the 2013-14 season better than having Camby and Novak? I find that an arguable point, but if the Knicks think so, and they do, then why not throw in three draft picks do make sure the deal goes down? We weren’t using them anyway! They’re draft picks!
So should the Yankees trade Robinson Cano, or what? They won’t but it’d be the ballsy move.
[Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images]
The Yanks lost cause they only scored three runs, Andy wasn’t great, and Joba and Boone served up a couple of homers as the Rays beat ‘em but good, 8-3.
But the story of the night in sports was Game 7 of the NBA Finals (and so long David Stern). The Spurs were valiant and the game was close but Lebron James had his best shooting game of the series, Shane Battier finally showed up, and that was the difference. Heartbreak for Tim Duncan and the Spurs.
“Missing a layup to tie the game,” Duncan recalled. “Making a bad decision down the stretch. Just unable to stop Dwyane and LeBron. Game 7 is always going to haunt me.”
Back-to-back titles for the Heat.
[Photo Credit: Yahoo]
The ballgame in the Bronx was called tonight. They’ll make like Ernie Banks and play two tomorrow (1 p.m. and 7 p.m.).
Meanwhile, there’s Game 6 of the NBA Finals. These two teams have been trading bolo punches all series so logic would have the Heat winning tonight and forcing a deciding game. They’ll put up a good fight but it says here that the Spurs win their 5th title. I’m rooting for them though part of me wants to see a Game 7 for the pure drama.
Anyhow, enjoy the evening you guys.
[Photo Credit: Greg Nelson/SI]
So LeBron James hasn’t played especially well in the first three games of the NBA Finals. He was particularly bad in Game 3. So I asked a friend who knows from basketball for his take. And this is what he e-mailed back to me:
He’s been held under 20 points all three games. There’s two sides to this.
The Spurs have a sound scheme. The Pacers gave the Heat trouble with their two bigs, and the Spurs are doing the same (except they have more offensive firepower). They’re laying off Lebron, tempting him to shoot jumpers, but he’s got a drive-first mentality that’s mostly good bball instinct but partially a hangover from the last series. The Spurs’ wings, Leonard and Green, are a great first line of defense, and with Duncan/Splitter in the middle, it’s really hard for him to find room. Leonard in particular is staying on his feet and not sending Lebron to the line. The Pacers let Lebron post up Paul George one-on-one and got burned, but the Spurs aren’t letting him back down for several seconds. So Lebron’s only option is driving and dishing, which means good assist numbers but not enough to combat that shrinking feeling that good defenses create. On top of that, the Heat rely on transition baskets– they either have to force turnovers or break off the defensive board. But the Spurs are shooting well AND Lebron & Co aren’t battling hard enough for the rebounds. (Mike Miller has to be playing for his 3s, but he’s almost as much of a defensive liability, somewhat due to lack of playing time.)
So the Spurs are doing what they should, limiting Miami’s strengths and magnifying their weaknesses.
But Lebron is clearly discouraged. He has lost confidence in his teammates, at both ends, and it’s affecting his effort. And he’s not getting the calls he’s used to, which will be especially true away from home. I think he thinks if he really asserts himself again and goes pure alpha-dog for stretches, he’s going to alienate them. And asserting himself means quick possessions, and it means launching long bombs and/or taking on three guys on the way to the rim.
I’ll tell you this. If the Heat are going to win a game in SA, Lebron’s going to have to have a 4-to-6-minute run where he does everything.
Then I asked him if he thought James would overcome these obstacles and he replied:
In the world where Tony Parker is hampered by a flukey hamstring injury, as he might be? Absolutely. Lebron would seize on that advantage, the unsteadiness it would create in the Spurs’ young guys, lead his team to ramp up defensively, and grab the momentum.
But if Tony Parker’s fine? I think Lebron’s going to have a couple more aggressive games, but it won’t be enough. Parker and Duncan and Leonard are too calm, and Pop’s got too sure a hand. They won’t get rattled.
That being said, Lebron is among the great ones. And what defines the great ones isn’t that they win all the time, no matter what. It’s that, despite superhigh expectations, they manage to surprise on the biggest stage. They face that moment when “isn’t he able to do more?” becomes “no, it’s not possible he can rise above this”, and they go ahead and do it. And I will gladly leave the door open for greatness.
Then I read this from Michael Wallace at ESPN. Tonight should be interesting.
A treat from Mark Jacobson. Originally published in Esquire in 1984 and anthologized in Teenage Hipster in the Modern World, a stellar collection of Jacobson’s non-fiction. Reprinted here with the author’s permission.
Michael Jordan is certainly the greatest basketball player of all time, but Julius Erving, the incomparable Doctor J, is my all-time favorite. No one ever gave me as much pleasure watching any kind of game. Since his retirement, Julius has been the subject of a number of distressing headlines, exactly the sort of stuff he sought to avoid during his career. He acknowledged the tennis player Alexandria Stevenson to be his out-of-wedlock daughter. Later, his son Cory drove his car into a lake in Florida and drowned. These are unfortunate, sad events, but even more so when connected to someone like Julius, who was once so effortlessly perfect. I’ve written numerous articles on sports figures, most of them basketball players, but Julius remains my number one. The fact that he used to pick me up at the Philadelphia train station in his Maserati, nearly unthinkable for a current-day player, is still one of highlights of my career. From Esquire, 1984.
I went for a ride through downtown Philadelphia with Julius Erving in his Maserati the other day, and with each passing block it became more apparent: Julius cannot drive very well. It wasn’t a question of reckless speed or ignored signals. Rather, he seemed unsure, tentative. His huge, famous hands clutched the steering wheel a bit too tightly, his large head craned uncomfortably toward the slope of the windshield. He accelerated with a lurch; there was no smooth rush of power. Obvious openings in the flow of traffic went unseen or untried. All in all, it reflected a total absence of feel.
This struck me as amusing—Julius Erving, the fabulous Doctor of the court, driving a Maserati with an automatic transmission.
Just an hour before, I’d compared the act of seeing Julius play basketball to Saint Francis watching birds in flight. It was my Ultimate Compliment. When a reporter with pretensions meets an Official Legend, especially a Sports Legend, it is mandatory to concoct the Ultimate Compliment, something beyond a plebeian “gee whiz.” Something along the lines of the august Mailer’s referring to Ali as a Prince of Heaven, whose very gaze caused men to look down. Or, perhaps, Liebling’s mentioning that Sugar Ray Robinson had “slumberland in either hand.” Saint Francis was what I’d come up with.
Viewing Doctor J move to the hoop inspired what I imagined to be an awe similar to what Saint Francis felt sitting in a field with the sparrows buzzing overhead, I told Julius. It was as if a curtain had been parted, affording a peek into the Realm of the Extraordinary, a marvelous communication that ennobled both the watcher and the watched equally. What wonders there are in the Kingdom of God! How glorious they are to behold!
“What you do affirms the supremacy of all beings,” I told Julius as we sat in the offices of the Erving Group, a holding company designed to spread around the wads of capital Julius has accumulated during his career as Doctor J. Large gold-leaf plaques calling Julius things like TASTEE CAKE PLAYER OF THE YEAR dot the walls. “Seeing you play basketball has enriched my life,” I finished.
“Thanks, thanks a lot,” Julius said politely. Then again, Julius is always polite. It was obvious, my Ultimate Compliment clearly did not knock his socks off. It was as if he were saying, “Funny thing, you’re the third guy who’s told me that today.”
Every serious hoop fan remembers the first time he saw Julius Erving play basketball. My grandfather, a great New York Giants baseball fan, probably had the same feeling the first time he ever saw Willie Mays go back on a fly ball. There was Julius, mad-haired and scowl-faced, doing what everyone else did, rebounding, scoring, passing, but doing it with the accents shifted from the accepted but now totally humdrum position to a new, infinitely more thrilling somewhere else. Who was this man with two Jewish names who came from parts unknown with powers far greater than the mortal Trailblazer?
Flat out, there was nothing like him. No one had ever taken off from the foul line as if on a dare, cradled the ball above his head, and not come down until he crashed it through the hoop. Not like that, anyway. Julius acknowledges a debt to Elgin Baylor, whom he calls “the biggest gazelle, the first of the gliders,” but, to the stunned observer, the Doctor seemed to arrive from outside the boundaries of the game itself. His body, streamlined like none before him, festooned by arms longer and hands bigger, soared with an athletic ferocity matched only by the mystical, unprecedented catapult of Bob Beamon down the Mexico City runway, or by the screaming flight of Bruce Lee.
Has any other individual in team sports radically altered the idea of how his particular game should be played to the degree Julius has? Jackie Robinson? Babe Ruth? Jim Brown? A more instructive comparison would be someone like Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio was impeccable, the nonpareil. He was simply better. Yet there is something hermetic about Joe DiMaggio. He did what everyone else did, but with incomparable excellence. Joe’s exemplariness is to be admired, but it doesn’t offer a whole program of reform. His greatness is a dead end, specific to Joe and Joe alone. Julius, on the other hand, may not have invented the slam dunk, the finger roll, or the hanging rebound—the entire airborne game in general. But he certainly popularized it, and by doing so he announced that others could follow in his footsteps, even surpass him. Seeing Julius fly to the hoop spread the news: it can be done, so do it. Nine years ago Julius appeared alone in his ability to go pyrotechnic at any time. This past year, however, lined up against a gaggle of his poetic offspring, “human highlight film” youngbloods like Dominique Wilkins and Larry Nance, Julius was content to make his final attempt a running foul-line takeoff: the “classical” dunk, a bit of archaeology demonstrated by the father of the form.
Befitting the matter-of-factness of a legend discussing his craft, Julius is not falsely modest about his contributions to the game. In the clinical fashion he employs when delineating the x’sand o’s of his profession, he says, “I’d say I’ve had an effect in three main areas. First, I have taken a smaller man’s game, ball-handling, passing, and the like, and brought it to the front court. Second, I’ve taken the big man’s game, rebounding, shot-blocking, and been able to execute that even though I’m only six-foot-six. What I’ve tried to do is merge those two types of games, which were considered to be separate—for instance, Bill Russell does the rebounding, Cousy handles the ball—and combine them into the same player. This has more or less changed the definition of what’s called the small forward position, and it creates a lot more flexibility for the individual player, and, of course, creates a lot more opportunities for the whole team. The third thing I’ve tried to do, and this is the most important thing, is to make this kind of basketball a winning kind of basketball, taking into account a degree of showmanship that gets people excited. My overall goal is to give people the feeling they are being entertained by an artist—and to win.”
Then Julius laughs and says, “You know, the playground game … refined.”
In Roosevelt, New York, the lower-middle-class, largely black Long Island community where he grew up, there is a playground with a sign that says THIS IS WHERE JULIUS ERVING LEARNED THE GAME OF BASKETBALL. Herein lies Julius’s triumph. He successfully transmuted the black playground game and brought that cutthroat urban staple to its most sumptuous fruition. He, once and for all, no turning back, blackified pro basketball.
He did it by forcing the comparatively staid, grind-it-out, coach-dominated NBA to merge with the old ABA, a semi-outlaw league that played the run-till-you-drop “black” playground game with a garish red, white, and blue ball. Julius was in the ABA, and the older, more established NBA could not allow a phenomenon like Doctor J to exist outside its borders. Most observers feel the NBA absorbed the whole funky ABA, with its three-point shots and idiotic mascots, just to get Julius. Once they did, the entire product of pro basketball was refocused. Surprise! The ABA, comprising many performers from Podunk Junior College and some who never went to any college, had a lot more than Julius Erving. Many players long scorned by the NBA brass became stars, the incandescent “Ice,” George Gervin, and Moses Malone among them. And there was a lot more running. Before the merger there was only one consistent fast-break team in the NBA, the Celtics. Now, with the ABA people around, it seemed as if the whole league was running, playing the playground game, Julius’s game.
This is not to say Larry Bird isn’t great, no matter where the game is, on the back lawn of Buckingham Palace or up in Harlem, but blackification was inevitable. No one will really deny that the majority of black players jump higher and run faster than the majority of white players, and that’s what pro ball, as it’s currently constituted, is all about—running and jumping with finesse.
Many people have wondered if all this running is such a good thing. Since the merger and the takeover by the “black” game, the pro sport has suffered reversals. Attendance is uneven and TV ratings are down; rumors of widespread social evils among the players abound. It is difficult to have any in-depth conversation about the status of the league without coming up against the Problem. A league official says, “It’s race, pure and simple. No major sport comes up against it the way we do. It’s just difficult to get a lot of people to watch huge, intelligent, millionaire black people on television.”
When presented with the notion that by elevating his art he may have served to narrow its appeal, Julius says, “It’s unfortunate, but what can be done about what is?” Well, at least the onset of the playground game has exploded several pernicious myths. If there is one thing Julius and his followers (Magic Johnson comes to mind) have proved without a doubt, it’s that just because you play “flashy” doesn’t mean you’re not a team player. No longer is it assumed that the spectacular is really, at its root, just mindless showboating easily thwarted, in the crunch times, by the cunning of a small man chewing a cigar on the coaching lines. Julius’s teams have always won.
For the hoop fan, though, likely the most treasured item concerning Julius Erving remains in that first cataclysmic moment of discovery, that first peek into the Realm of the Extraordinary. This has to do with the nature of the fan, the hoop fan in particular. All team sports have their cognoscenti, gamblers poring over the injury lists, nine-year-old boys with batting averages memorized, but somehow the variety of fan attracted to pro basketball is in a slightly more obsessive class, sweatier, seedier perhaps, but absolutely committed. This type of hoop fan I’m talking about isn’t much different from the jazz buffs of the 1940s and 1950s, white people digging on an essentially black world.
How Julius, the Official Legend, comes into this is that he approached the beady consciousness as Rumor. He was a secret. He wasn’t a well-publicized high school star like Kareem; he went to the University of Massachusetts (a school with no basketball reputation) and then played two years at one of the ABA’s most remote outposts, the Virginia Squires. There was no hoopla surrounding him, no Brent Musburger hyping the size of his smile. The Doctor was something for the grapevine.
It cuts both ways. Probably, by somehow staying out of the limelight (that was easier in 1970) and by choosing not to go to a “big program” school where a crusty Adolph Rupp might have made it a principle to correct all that boy’s strange habits, Julius was left alone to create his wholly new thing. And by virtue of this anonymity, the hoop fan was able to come upon Julius as a wondrous found object.
Magic Johnson, Sugar Ray Leonard—no one is knocking their talents, but they arrived on the scene tied in a bow, sold to anyone within eyeshot of a TV. They will always carry that stigma. Julius, however, remains eternally cool. You had to work to see Julius, seek him out. There wasn’t any cable; maybe you could catch him on an independent station that had been hustled into picking up one of the numerous ABA All-Star games. Even after he came from the Squires to the Nets, then the ABA New York entry, the hoop fan had to ply the forlorn parkways to the Nassau Coliseum to sit with four thousand dour faces expressing regret that they weren’t viewing a hockey game. You had to go out of your way to see Julius. But it was worth it. When you saw that Rumor was Fact, and a far more remarkable Fact than imagined, then you felt like you had your little bond with Julius, that he was in your heart.
That Julius has maintained the quality of play this long is gravy. How do you measure the benefit one gets from seeing beautiful things happen? Sometimes I find myself idly replaying some of Julius’s more astounding moves inside my head. The one against the Lakers in the championship a few years back, the one where he goes behind the backboard and comes around for the reverse layup? Ones like that bring tears to my eyes. Really.
Of course, it can’t last. Last season Julius’s club, the Philadelphia 76ers, for whom he’s played since the league merger in 1976, were mangled by the bedraggled New Jersey Nets, transplanted to the Garden State from Uniondale, New York. It was an upset. The year before the Sixers won the title in a near walkover. Of the thirteen games they played in the championship rounds, they won twelve. The Sixers didn’t come close to repeating. Julius did not have a particularly good series. There were several reasons. For one, it had been a grueling season for the Doc. Numerous Sixer injuries forced him to play many more minutes than he might have wanted to at his age. He responded with perhaps his best year in the past three and had his backers for league MVP. By the playoffs, however, he was weary, worn out. In the last moments of the deciding game he made repeated turnovers and missed key shots. Had a b-ball cognoscenti arrived from Mars right then, dumb to the history of the past fifteen years, he could have watched Julius’s play and pronounced it “ordinary.”
So it goes. Athletes get old, and soon they’re too old to play. In the variety of pro basketball Julius helped create, it happens even quicker. There is no DH in the NBA, and right now Julius, at thirty-four, is among the fifteen oldest guys in the league. If he stays another couple of seasons, as he hints he might, he could be the oldest. His Afro, once wild as a Rorschach blot and seemingly a foot high, is now demurely trimmed and flecked with gray. So it goes: a million dudes with the hot hand down in the schoolyard waiting for the Doctor to roll over so they can get their shot. No tears over that. But it’s this driving that’s upsetting, the way Julius is driving this Maserati with the automatic transmission. It’s all so ordinary, how Julius is driving.
“Don’t ask me any questions or I’ll miss my turn,” Julius says, smiling, as if to comment on his competence.
Then he makes this flabby, too-wide turn off Broad Street. What a deal: soon enough Julius is going to retire from basketball, but likely he’ll be driving that Maserati with the automatic transmission for years to come.
“As it came it can go, as it came it most definitely will go,” he says cheerfully, unaffected by his companion’s gloom. “It won’t really be that big a change for me,” Julius says. “I’ve always thought of myself as a very ordinary guy.”
This is a little tough to swallow, the Doctor an ordinary guy. This is not to say Julius Erving is not a regular guy. Sports-page “class”—Julius is the embodiment of it. Probably no athlete still playing has signed more autographs. His marathon sessions are spoken of with awe. Talking about it, Julius gives a look that asks, “Weren’t you ever a kid?” and says, “Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Should I accommodate today, or go straight ahead?’ and I usually find myself accommodating.” There is a limit, however. Walking through the icebound streets of Milwaukee, a fat guy accosted Julius, screaming, “Doc! Doc! Where’s the other shoe?” Julius frowned. “I gave that guy one of my sneakers three years ago,” he says, “and now, every time we go there, he asks for the other one. Some people are never satisfied.”
As far as hoop reporters are concerned, Julius is the best. “There is no second place,” says a Philly writer. This means that when deadlines are approaching and sweat is popping out on foreheads, Julius can be counted on to produce the proper verbiage, a smooth rap that, without much time-consuming translation, can be plugged into hastily written stories as “game quotes.” It is something Julius works on, like any part of what he calls “my basketball function.” He knows what reporters need and tries to give it to them.
“A courtesy,” Julius says. Ask the right questions (nothing controversial, if you please!) and Julius will, in a voice that makes Frankie Crocker sound shrill, calmly assess the team’s mood for you. He’ll also say that Denver’s Calvin Natt is among the toughest for him to score against, and that it is difficult to play Dallas’s Mark Aguirre because “his butt is so big you can’t get close to him,” and that George Gervin is his favorite player, and that the Knicks’ Bernard King, considered by many the best forward in the league, “will never get up to the level of the real all-timers like, say, Kareem, or myself, because he looks like he’s working too hard. When you reach a level of greatness, there’s a certain added element that goes into making it look easy.”
Mainly, Julius keeps a low profile. He will often make inquiries about jazz—more out of educational desire than passion, for he prefers fusion. You could call him elegantly laid-back, stylish, though certainly you’d never confuse him with Walt Frazier. He is always the clean-living family man and, while sharp, displays little outward flash. He leaves the five-pound jewelry to the Darryl Dawkinses of the world, although he appears to cop no attitude toward the more flamboyant displays, sartorial or otherwise, of his fellows. He has, after all, been around, and not much raises the Doctor’s eyebrow.
In Milwaukee, however, one John Matuszak, late of the Oakland Raiders football team and the movie North Dallas Forty, came close. The Tooz, as he has been known to call himself, appeared unannounced in the Sixers’ locker room, and he was calling some attention to himself. Even in a world of large men, the Tooz stands out. He goes six-foot-eight, about three hundred pounds. In addition, he sports a mug that resembles the sort of hood ornament Screamin’ Jay Hawkins might have mounted on his ’55 DeSoto to ward off unfriendly spirits. This is not to mention his dress on this particular night, which included a black silk coat, tuxedo pants, patent leather shoes, and a white satin tie over a leopard skin print shirt. He was also affecting a manner that would put him right up there for the Bluto part, should a remake of Animal Housebe made anytime soon.
It was the Tooz’s sworn purpose to have both Julius and Moses Malone, the Sixers’ famously intimidating center, join him at one of Milwaukee’s more stylish wateringholes.
First he invited Moses. “Gonna win this year, Moses?” was Tooz’s opener. Moses, no midget himself, was sitting on a stool stark naked. “Yeah, we’re gonna win, ” said Moses, laying on his usual Sonny Liston-style bale.
Then, like a shot, the Tooz was down on one knee. He clasped his palms together and drove them like a hammer into Moses’ thigh. “Don’t say we’re gonna win. Say we gotta win, Moses!!” the Tooz shouted, startling the few stragglers in the locker room. “Come on, Moses,” the Tooz continued, “repeat after me: WE GOTTA WIN!” And, to the amazement of onlookers, Moses, who had not uttered a word in public since telling Philly reporters, “I’ll be making no further comment for the rest of the season,” repeated this after the Tooz. Moses, however, steadfastly refused to have a drink with the former lineman.
Thwarted, the Tooz went looking for Julius, who was in the midst of taking a shower. Unmindful of the water splashing everywhere, the Tooz confided to Julius how much he loved him. “I love you, Doctor!” the Tooz bellowed. Then he said, “Come on, Doctor. The Doctor and the Tooz must have a drink together. I got some friends, it’ll be a party!”
Julius, never rude, thanked the Tooz for his offer but expressed his regrets, citing a 5 a.m. wake-up call the next morning.
“If you’re worried about people hassling you, forget about it,” the Tooz said with understanding. “No one will mess with you if you’re with the Tooz!”
The football player had now stepped over the edge of the shower, his long hair dripping down over his drenched suit.
Backing into the stall, Julius, seemingly unrattled, said. “You’re getting wet, you know that?”
“A drink, that’s all I’m asking,” Tooz repeated, reaching out to wrap his arms around the Doctor. “People love you, man,” the Tooz said with sincerity, “people live to see you do your thing.” Then, clearly disappointed, the Tooz left.
Several moments of silence ensued, during which Julius began to dress and Moses picked tape off his leg. Then Moses looked at Julius sleepily and said, “See those shoes?”
“What about the tie?” Julius said back.
Later Julius smiled and said, sure, it seemed like the Tooz was something of a boor, but you really had to get to know him better before you could say that unequivocally. After all, The Doc is not what you would call judgmental.
Teammates speak of him with healthy degrees of awe and camaraderie. Marc Iavaroni, a marginal forward cut by a couple of lesser NBA clubs before catching on as a “role player” in the Sixers’ system, says, “Playing with the Doc? Don’t pinch me, please. He looks for me. On and off the court. Can you imagine that! Doctor J looking to pass off to Marc Iavaroni? Know how that makes me feel?”
Nearly everyone close enough to Julius to have personal dealings speaks of some small kindness, a birthday remembered, an appreciated pep talk, a good laugh. League officials, always aware of the “image problem” of the sport, tell you how many young players Julius has done right by, how his example is primarily responsible for the “rehabilitation” of Chicago’s troubled Quintin Dailey. Julius’s community awards appear endless. Last year he got the Father Flanagan Award for Service to Youth at Boys Town; previous recipients include Mother Teresa, Danny Thomas, and Spencer Tracy’s wife. The list of charities supported, youth groups spoken to (he read Peter and the Wolf at a special children’s show of the Youth Orchestra of Greater Philadelphia), and hospital wards visited goes on and on.
“All part of my ‘nice-guy image,”‘ Julius says with a wink. He is aware that all these good vibes add up under the economic heading of “Doctor J”: is proud that the Q ratings of his numerous commercial endorsements show him rating higher in “believability” than in “popularity.” “But really,” he says, “I just try to be decent. I try to do the decent thing in the circumstances. Right now I happen to be a well-known professional athlete, so I attempt to be decent within that context. Being nice is pretty normal, I think. If someone was drowning in the river, you’d assume most people would throw them a life preserver. You’d figure most people would do that, under those circumstances. That would be the normal thing to do. That’s what I like to believe I’d do, being a normal person.”
This led to Julius’s further insistence that, really, he was a very ordinary guy. An ordinary guy dealing with extraordinary circumstances, perhaps, but ordinary nevertheless.
“I’ve never felt particularly unique,” Julius says. “Even within the context of basketball, I honestly never imagined myself as anything special. I remember, back home, when I first started playing. At nine, ten, I had a two-hand shot. Then by twelve and a half, thirteen, I got a one-hand shot. Always went to the basket, that pattern was set by then. Actually, I don’t think I’ve changed much as a player since then. Back then, before I was physically able, I felt these different things within me, certain moves, ways to dunk. It sounds strange, being five feet tall, thinking about dunking in a clinical way, but that’s how I was. I realized all I had to do was be patient and they would come. So I wasn’t surprised when they did, they were part of me for so long. But I didn’t find anything particularly special about it. I assumed everyone could do these things if they tried.”
Julius claims the idea of being a professional basketball player didn’t occur to him until he was among the country’s leaders in both scoring and rebounding at UMass. He wanted to be a doctor. That’s the source of his unbeatable nickname. In grammar school when the kids got up to say what they wanted to be when they grew up, Julius said, “A doctor.” “Doctor!” the kids shouted, and it stuck. Later, when playing in the Rucker League, the deejay types “announcing” games were calling him the Claw, a moniker based on his large hands. Julius, always sharp to the distasteful, objected and, when asked for a substitute, said, “Oh, why don’t you just call me Doctor.” Doctors, after all, Julius felt, were white-haired men with soothing voices, who surrounded themselves with a great air of dignity. They also made a lot of money. These were Julius’s two main concerns at the time. His father had left his mother and brother early on and wound up being run down by a car when Julius was eleven.
“I never really had a father,” Julius says, “but then the possibility that I ever would was removed.”
After that, security, financial and otherwise, became obsessional with Julius. Even today, with a contract that pays him more than a million each year and other lucrative interests (he refers to basketball as “my main business application”), Julius is notoriously parsimonious. Do not expect him to pick up the check. It was this desire for himself and his family (there are four children now, three boys and a girl, living in a mansion on 2.8 acres on the Main Line) that made Julius think of playing ball for money.
“That’s when I started hearing all these people talking about how different I was supposed to be,” Julius recounts. “When a hundred people, then a thousand people tell you you’re different, you just say to yourself, ‘Okay, I’m different. … Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. I liked what it got me. I was a young player, I was doing what came easy to me, I was having a good time, so I accepted it as a fact of life.” It was only during the stresses caused by his leaving the Nets (in a protracted contract battle), the subsequent league merger, and his arrival in Philadelphia to less than knock-out notices when Julius began to ponder, “Why am I different? Why, with all these great players all around, guys who play as hard as I do, guys who want to win as badly as I do, why am I Doctor J?”
Quite a picture: the angst-ridden superstar, his piston legs rocketing from the pinewood floor into the glare of the houselights, his seemingly inexorable gaze transfixed on the orange ring, yet, in reality, his leap goes nowhere, for he is lost.
That’s the way Julius paints it. During his first years in Philly it became commonplace to downrate the Doc. In the ABA he’d scored 28.7 points a game and nabbed nearly a thousand rebounds each season; now he was getting 21, 22, and his ‘bounds were way down. Some nodded and said it was true what they said about the old league; it was a circus, after all. In 1978 an unnamed coach was quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying, “[Julius] has been on vacation for three years.”
For his part, Julius complained that his knees were killing him (he has had a tendinitis condition for some time) and that he’d purposely hidden away much of the spectacular side of the Doctor, so as to better mesh with then-teammate George McGinnis, another ABA scorer not noted for his passing skills. Yet, it wasn’t fun. None of it. He let it slip that more than likely he’d be retiring when his contract ran out in 1982. Now, though, Julius says his main problem was a spiritual, not a physical, one. “I felt totally hollow,” he says. “It was eating at me. I started off asking, ‘Who is Doctor J? How did I get to be him? What does being Doctor J mean?’ … then it came down to asking, ‘Who, really, am I?’ I became very frightened when I began to sense that I really had no idea.”
One can imagine the terror Julius felt. He seems a very methodical person, someone who likes everything in its place, not one to rush into things. Perhaps due to his longtime regimen as an athlete, where every day the practice is set for a certain amount of time and the bus leaves at such-and-such o’clock, he is given to compartmentalizing his life and talking of it in terms of small, constantly repeated activities. “I admit to liking the feel of things being in context,” Julius says, “the sense of the familiar waters.” This extends even to the court. Julius contends, “Out of one hundred moves I make in a game, I’ve made ninety-nine before, at one time or another. Sure, that one new one gives me a hit, but actually I get as much or more out of doing the other ninety-nine, because when I do something I’ve done before it means that I’ve compiled this information in my mind and selected the right action for the proper situation. That gives me a lot of pleasure.
“Back then, though,” Julius adds, “I felt completely alone at times. Often, after a game and a late dinner, in one of those cities, I’d be sitting up, three o’clock, four o’clock, after eating a big steak, just watching that TV, with all the phones turned off. I never felt like that before.
“It was finding my faith that pulled me through,” Julius says, leaning back from the desk in his Philadelphia office. In front of him is a rectangular paperweight you’d figure would be made of copper or brass and say, in embossed letters, something like JULIUS WINFIELD ERVING JR., PRESIDENT. But it is wooden and appears to have been made in a junior high school shop class. It says JESUS.
Julius’s conversion occurred during the summer of 1978, at a family get-together in South Carolina. The previous season had been his worst yet. Julius had played poorly, and he was suffering from numerous injuries. The flak was getting intense. “I was feeling a little sorry for myself,” Julius says, “but when I got down there and saw all those people, people I didn’t know, some of whom I didn’t even know existed, yet people who were connected to me in some way, it was really something. Because I was well known, everyone sort of used me as a lightning rod, a common denominator. They used me to get closer to each other. And I felt all that love passing through me. It was a very strange and wonderful feeling.”
At the meeting Julius encountered an uncle of his, Alfonso, a preacher. He told Julius about a blessing that had been laid on the family that, Alfonso said, was now being manifested through Julius. “After that,” Julius says, “things fell into place for me.”
When the subject of Julius-as-Christian comes up, a good portion of the cognoscenti express surprise (it is not well known) and then shake their heads. However, to the reporter with pretensions, it seemed a great boon, a fabulous opportunity. This isn’t to say Julius won’t go Jaycee on you at any moment; no doubt his “Dare to Be Great” speech ranks with the best. He is also given to saying things like “Did I want to open the doors to essential knowledge or did I want to remain on the merry-go-round of nondiscovery?” Primarily, though, here was an intelligent, observant man, who by the vehicle of a mysterious “blessing” had been thrust into the Realm of the Extraordinary. The hope was that he would have the presence of mind to keep his eyes and ears open while in this marvelous land, and that hope was rewarded. I mean, you could enter into a metaphysical dialogue with this man!
On a Milwaukee street we mulled over the notion of the Divine Call. On a bus in Detroit we beat around the dichotomy of true Needs and venal Wants. In a Madison Square Garden locker room we pierced the outskirts of the Spirit of Giving. But it wasn’t until our discussion in his office, during a laborious spiel of mine concerning the duty of the seeker to examine the varieties of religious experience, that Julius began to get pissed.
“I just can’t agree,” he said, “because even if you do manage to synthesize all these systems, what good is it going to do you? Even if you’re the smartest man on earth, even if you’re Albert Einstein, you’ll still only have a thimbleful of all the knowledge in the world. Where does that lead you? Digging and grinding on this unbelievable quest? Is there happiness in that? So it comes down to making concessions … down to knowing you’re not the wisest or the smartest, not the ultimate of anything, but knowing too that you have this powerful need to grasp something meaningful, something purposeful … you want a way, a way that makes sense for you, that you can embrace.”
It was clear what Julius was getting at. After all, he is a black guy in America, the son of a very religious church lady mother. He reached out to what was available to him, and it worked. He found himself capable of faith. But really, was there any other solution for the intelligent, humble man with the nice-guy image? Doctor J has not simply been a great player, he has been the epitome of a player, God’s own fantasy of a player. If Julius meant to “deal with logic, infused by faith,” as he says is his bent, was there any other conclusion but to accept the notion of the involved, controlling presence of a Higher Power? There seemed a profound sanity in Julius’s belief, and the reporter with pretension found it very satisfying.
Julius says he has no fear of life A.B. (After Basketball). “The thing that frightens me is what I heard about spiritual casualties. A spiritual casualty is someone … say a well-known athlete who takes a spiritual stand, and then the focus shifts from looking at that person as an athlete to something else. Suddenly there are all these people who want to put this athlete in the forefront because they assume he can be as significant spiritually as he was athletically. Then this famous athlete uses this forum to talk about what he feels about this new field he’s entered … and he doesn’t know what he’s talking about … like, say, someone might say, ‘Kareem, he’s a superstar ballplayer, so he should be a superstar Muslim.’ A spiritual casualty is someone who falls for that.”
Julius shivers at the mention of Eldridge Cleaver, who did much to make a mockery of himself in his post-Panther days, showing up on The Hour of Power one minute and modeling codpiece trousers the next. Julius is well aware of what went into the creation and maintenance of Doctor J, and he will do almost anything to keep that image from being defiled. “The last thing I want to be perceived as is a flake,” he says warily.
Some suggest that Julius might be a little less cautious. There have been intimations that by stressing his “Christian umbrella,” Julius has demonstrated a degree of naïveté concerning day-to-day life in lower-rent districts. This talk became increasingly intense after Julius’s no-profile stance in the recent Philly mayoral election, which pitted liberal black W. Wilson Goode against neo-Neanderthal Frank Rizzo. Hearing this, Julius gets as close as he does to bristling. “I’m very sensitive to this type of criticism,” he says, “but I’m not going to be pressured by it. My track record in the black community speaks for itself. You know, I’m not blind, I understand how things are. I remember what it was like growing up, and when we go to Boston and Chicago, there’s racism there. We hear what people shout, you know. I understand the danger of getting so far from a situation that you fool yourself and say it doesn’t exist, or get the illusion that because you’re a well-known ballplayer it doesn’t apply to me. I’m not living in a dream world, but I’ll tell you I’d be a fool not to use the advantages I’ve earned through playing in behalf of my family. But I’m not going to invite a potentially hostile situation into my life, into the lives of my wife and children, for just anyone’s idea of solidarity. If I can afford an extra layer of protection, I will exercise it.
“I’ve never been a political person. I’ve never backed a political candidate in my life. When I was with the Nets, a picture came out of me in the newspaper with a local candidate. It was just some function for the team, but this guy was there and he was running for some office, and then all these people were asking me why I was supporting the Republican candidate. I don’t want that to happen again. It would threaten my livelihood. If I backed the Democratic candidate, I’d run the risk of alienating half my public, and the other way around.
“But mostly it comes down to: I’ve played basketball for twenty-five years, almost every situation that can come up has come up. Therefore I’m qualified to sit here and talk to you about basketball. I don’t have those sort of memory cells concerning other areas.”
So, Julius says, he will enter the realm of the ordinary as a businessman. “An entrepreneur,” he says, professing to have always had “a deep yearning” to be such a person. Typically enough, most of his investments have reflected a stolid, blue-chippy side. He is a large stockholder in the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of New York. He makes earnest use of the products he endorses, which have included Coke, Converse, Spalding, and Chap Stick.
Don’t look for Julius dancing in the back row of a Bally’s Park Place Hotel Casino commercial, or any Doc’s Dunkshot Bar opening in the East Sixties. Julius does, however, keep some mad money around for what he calls “risk capital ventures.” One of these ventures was the now-defunct Doctor’s Shoe Salon, a chic fulfillment of one of Julius’s long-cherished fantasies. Throughout his life, especially since he got rich, Julius found it galling that he could not find high-fashion shoes to wrap around his size fifteens. The Doctor’s Shoe Salon assumed there were many others in the same boat and sought to fill that need by offering a wide selection for the hard-to-fit dog, mostly in the two-hundred-dollar range. The shop, poshly appointed and located on Philly’s South Second Street, was slated to be the prototype for a far-flung chain that would eventually take in all the NBA cities. It was not a success. “It caused me untold duress and aggravation,” Julius says sheepishly. “A lot of people expected, because my name was involved, that I’d be there all the time. When I wasn’t, they got mad. And when I was, I couldn’t concentrate on the business. I got bombarded with all kinds of questions, basketball stuff, A to Z. Plus we had a lot of trouble with kids who thought it was a sneaker store.” Kind of humorous—the great Doctor as the harried shoe salesman. But never let anyone say Doc doesn’t learn from experience. Currently his “risk” project is REACH, a camp for gifted and highly motivated children. Nowhere on the brochure will you find the name Julius Erving.
Basically, though, Julius says, his business goal is “to work four hours and rest twenty, as opposed to now, when I’ve got to work twenty hours to rest four.” Until he gets there he has other things to think about. The end of all those hotel rooms and 5 a.m. flights to the next city will mean a lot more time at home, a lot more time.
“One hundred and thirty to 140 more nights,” Julius relates, admitting some anxiety about this. Now, Julius, his wife Turquoise, and their four children (Cheo, Julius III, Jazmin, and Cory) are pretty much your all-American family, as was witnessed at last season’s dunk contest, during which the kids told Dad which shots to make. But 130, 140 nights. “A lot of nights,” Julius predicts, “they’re gonna be saying, ‘Him? Again?”‘ Then he laughs and says, “This is all first-generation problems for all of us, my wife and I, dealing with the circumstances we find ourselves in. There’s going to be a lot of trial and error, that’s for sure.” Then he says he’s thinking of calling up John Havlicek, Jerry West, “some old-timers, people on my level,” to get some pointers on the life ahead. Somehow, you figure, he’ll get over.
Mark Jacobson is a writer and journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. He is known for his explorations of the seamy side of urban life, both here and abroad, and for his offbeat and witty take on popular culture. His 2000 profile of Frank Lucas formed the basis for the Ridley Scott film American Gangster. He is the author of The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans; 12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time: A Semi-Dysfunctional Family Circumnavigates the Globe; and the novels Gojiro and Everyone and No One. He has been a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Esquire, and New York. You can find more at his website.
About Last Night…
The Knicks visit Indiana tonight for Game 6. They lose and their season is over. I wish I had faith in them. I wouldn’t be shocked if they win but I also wouldn’t put any money on it.
But I’ll be watching all the same.
Get ‘em, boys.
[Photo Via: Bread City]
Cool little feature over at Esquire. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar lists 20 things he wish he’d known when he was 30:
Be patient. Impatience is the official language of youth. When you’re young, you want to rush to the next thing before you even know where you are. I always think of the joke in Colors that the wiser and older cop (Robert Duvall) tells his impatient rookie partner (Sean Penn). I’m paraphrasing, but it goes something like: “There’s two bulls standing on top of a mountain. The younger one says to the older one: ‘Hey pop, let’s say we run down there and screw one of them cows.’ The older one says: ‘No son. Let’s walk down and screw ‘em all.’” Now, to counter the profane with the profound, one of my favorite quotes is from the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “Talent hits the target no one else can hit; genius hits the target no one else can see.” I think the key to seeing the target no one else can see is in being patient, waiting for it to appear so you can do the right thing, not just the expedient thing. Learning to wait is one of my greatest accomplishments as I’ve gotten older.
Listen more than talk. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.
Being right is not always the right thing to be. Kareem, my man, learn to step away. You think being honest immunizes you from the consequences of what you say. Remember Paul Simon’s lyrics, “There’s no tenderness beneath your honesty.” So maybe it’s not that important to win an argument, even if you “know” you’re right. Sometimes it’s more important to try a little tenderness.
When choosing someone to date, compassion is better than passion. I’m not saying she shouldn’t be passionate. That’s a given. But look for signs that she shows genuine compassion toward others. That will keep you interested in her a lot longer.
Over at Deadspin, here’s Jim Windolf on how Daily News writer Frank Isola became the most hated man at MSG.
As a fan of the Knicks ever since Phil Jackson donned a uniform, I really, really, really, really, really hope that @TheRealLJ2 is not the real Larry Johnson, former Hornet, former Knick, even though there’s nothing to indicate on his Twitter site that he isn’t. Photographs of the real LJ, and his wife, and pictures of Knicks, and running commentary on Knick games, and the Tweeter’s photo being a shot of Larry Johnson as a Knick — all of it indicates that if the tweeter isn’t the real Larry Johnson, @TheRealLJ2 is an incredibly deft and savvy LJ impersonator.
I do not hope that this is a fake site simply because of what he has tweeted in the last two days, albeit sort of ungrammatically (these are accurate transcriptions): “homosexuality is nothing to fear, I don’t think it belongs in a mans locker room”; “I’m attracted to women, is it ok for me to walk around a women’s locker room naked, and they be naked”; “I don’t Jason Collins personally but he seems like a great guy. Me personally gay men in the locked room would make me uncomfortable”; “Ppl ! this is nothing against Jason or homosexual’s,all I’m saying is this don’t belong in a man’s locker room”, and “I don’t judge anyone!! I have fallen short of the grace of Allah myself, but stop trying to make this acceptable.” (That one got 12 retweets.)
On the Wikipedia page for Larry Johnson the former Knick (“This article may contain wording that promotes the subject in a subjective manner without imparting real information”) I discovered that LJ has recently converted to Islam. The Twitter site includes a posting about how bad it is to eat pork, which, well, it probably is, but, IMHO, not for religious reasons.
The Wiki site makes no mention of the fact that LJ reportedly sired five children by four different women. It does say he once signed a contract with the Charlotte Hornets for $84 million, which at that point was a record-breaker, and appeared in an episode of Family Matters. But none of that is really relevant to my point, I guess.
To be clear: If the tweeter is the real Larry Johnson, he has every constitutional right to air his assertions, although they seem a tad, um, dumb, because they seem to infer that a) when someone sees someone naked, the sight of said nudity is automatically arousing (he has apparently never been to the linemen’s corner in an NFL locker room, or the pitcher’s corner in an MLB locker room); b) that unlike heterosexual men, whose lives comprise balanced appetites, gay men think sex is the be-all and end-all to life, and that the sight of a genital would make them start frothing at the mouth, and quite likely be unable not to pounce upon the possessor of said genital; c) a real “man,” who should be the sole occupant of the inner sanctum of a locker room, is defined as a man capable of impregnating any woman who crosses his radar.
No, to be clear: What worries me, and not just as a Knick fan, is that the team’s website, as of 4/30/13, lists as “Business and Organization Representative” a man named Larry Johnson. And that the Wiki site mentioned that Johnson was now occupying said position. And that whatever that job title actually means, the word “Representative” implies that he is representing to someone, presumably outside of that manly locker room, The New York Knickerbockers.
I may be alone here, but, given recent occurrences, I do not think that he should be representing a basketball team when we seem to be taking the first steps toward turning a very important corner, gender-preference-in-sports-wise. Turning that corner may take decades, and it’s going to be like walking into a hurricane wind, but it’s sort of dumb for a team to be represented by a – excuse my German – Neanderthal. But that’s only if the tweeter is the actual Larry Johnson.
This morning, always (and probably deleteriously to my own career advancement) having always followed the Hippocratic Oath (“First, Do No Harm),” I e-mailed the Knick PR guy and apprised him of the circumstances.
He answered with one word: “Thanks.”
He did not say whether @TheRealLJ2 was Larry Johnson, but then, I hadn’t asked him. I wanted to be, like, a person first, and not a journalist. (Plus, as a journalist, who wants to piss off the PR guys if you need access for your next book?) And I figured that this was the first he’d heard of the situation.
And I really, really, really, really. really want to be believe that the tweeter isn’t the man we knew so humorously as “Grandmamma” in those Converse commercials. Even if I can’t help wondering whether the real LJ knows the grandmammas of those five kids.
So please, Knicks: Track down this imitator, threaten him with a lawsuit, and end this farce. Your “Representative” should not be saddled by the specter of an ignorant imitator haunting your employee. You’re having too cool a season to have an albatross like that hanging around your neck.
Jason Collins’ coming out party. From SI.
[Photo Credit: Kwaku Alston/Sports Illustrated]
Here’s Dennis Eckesley:
People say baseball players should go out and have fun. No way. To me, baseball is pressure. I always feel it. This is work. The fun is afterwards, when you shake hands.
When I was a rookie I’d tear stuff up. Now I keep it in. What good is smashing a light on the way up the tunnel? But I still can’t sleep at night if I stink. I’ve always tried to change that and act like a normal guy when I got home. “Hi, honey, what’s happening?” I can’t. It’s there. It doesn’t go away. But maybe that’s why I’ve been successful in my career, because I care. I don’t have fun. I pitch scared. That’s what makes me go. Nothing wrong with being scared if you can channel it.
I used to hide behind my cockiness. Don’t let the other team know you’re scared. I got crazy on the mound. Strike a guy out, throw my fist around—”Yeah!” Not real classy, but I was a raw kid. I didn’t care. It wasn’t fake. It was me. This wasn’t taken very kindly by a lot of people. They couldn’t wait to light me up. That’s the price you pay.
I wish I was a little happier in this game. What is so great about this shit? You get the money, and then you’re used to the money. You start making half a million a year, next thing you know you need half a million a year. And the heat is on!
Used to be neat to just be a big-league ballplayer, but that wore off. I’m still proud, but I don’t want people to bother me about it. I wish my personality with people was better. I find myself becoming short with people. Going to the store. Getting gas.
If you’re not happy with when you’re doing lousy, then not happy when you’re doing well, when the hell are you going to be happy? This game will humble you in a heartbeat. Soon as you starting getting happy Boom! For the fans—and this is just a guess—they think the money takes out the feeling. I may be wrong but I think they think, “What the hell is he worrying about? He’s still getting’ paid.” There may be a few players who don’t give 100 percent, but I always thought if you were good enough to make that kind of money, you’d have enough pride to play like that, wouldn’t you think? You don’t just turn it on-or off.