The Doctor debuted this week on NBA TV amid much anticipated hype.
The 90-minute documentary chronicles the unparalleled basketball exploits of Julius Erving, one of the NBA’s greatest, universally admired and most captivating players.
The Doctor superbly paints the evolution of a skinny, under-rated 6’3” high school athlete from Roosevelt, Long Island to a mythically dominant dunker, defender, deadly scorer and the NBA’s greatest star of his era.
Admitting that Dr. J helped save a struggling league in the 70s, exiting NBA commissioner David Stern acknowledges the immense influence Erving wielded both as a breathtaking athlete and cross-cultural celebrity.
Basketball luminaries Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Pat Riley, George “Iceman” Gervin and Michael Jordan collectively gush in the film in admiration of the former Squires, Nets and Sixers star. They laud this NBA MVP, NBA Champion, 11 time NBA All-Star and NBA Hall of Famer as both an outstanding player and a worthy ambassador of the sport.
More importantly, the documentary focuses on the enormous positive impact Dr. J had as a timely bridge who helped unite a culturally and racially divided American society.
The documentary offers professional basketball history, noting that before LeBron, there was Michael (as in Jordan). And, before Michael, there was Magic (Johnson) and Larry (Bird). But, before Magic and Bird, the Doctor shined brilliantly as a harbinger for our country’s changing society. More importantly, Erving was celebrated as a star and acknowledged by a changing and less color blind American sports populace.
Magic Johnson labels Erving the “embodiment of class” for the way he eloquently conducted interviews and professionally comported himself under intense media scrutiny.
Few, if anyone, could argue Johnson’s point.
Julius Erving transcended sports when he played, and not just basketball. His athleticism left many to marvel. His creativity on the court represented a mental emancipation of the way things were traditionally done in sports. His afro epitomized cool. His poise before the press spoke of excellence. His soaring basketball legacy was grounded in greatness.
However, The Doctor could have probed harder and more closely analyzed the personal life story away from basketball of one of America’s most iconic athletes.
Before viewers could understand the complexity of Dr. J’s life, the producers of the The Doctor sutured the wounds of Erving’s personal pain. As a result, The Doctor left viewers begging for more.
What were the challenges that plagued and motivated one of our generation’s greatest heroes? What about the role of women, Dr. J’s Achilles heel, that contributed to his acrimonious divorce and fractured relationships with his multiple children? Why did he publicly acknowledge some offspring, while obscuring others?
Erving might have shared about the painful memories of losing his brother and his son; however, he never opened up about his conflicted family life.
Dr. J appeared genuine when asked about his personal struggles, but only to a point. Erving never offered, and the documentary’s producers never pried more earnestly, into the well documented chinks in the armor of this great American sports hero.
Nothing is mentioned about Dr. J’s bankruptcy in which he recently auctioned off much of his career memorabilia. How could this extraordinary athlete lose his well earned fortune?
Nothing is covered about this high flyer’s unchecked high flying life style away from the hardwood. Didn’t he think his careless behavior would eventually affect his perceived perfect marriage?
Nothing is spoken about the NBA Hall of Fame basketball player’s fathering children out of wedlock. Hadn’t Erving thought that not publicly acknowledging these children, though secretly supporting them, would eventually find its way into the public eye?
Finally, nothing is offered about his not being a strong enough father at times which might have contributed to his sons’ drug dependency. Did he view his path to celebrity more important than watching over the welfare of his kids?
Given the opportunity to interview Erving, these are some of the questions I’d ask.
Certainly, he was flawed personally, as is everyone.
And, it is clear that this entertaining, though wanting, documentary from NBA TV failed to probe more surgically into the life of one of our country’s greatest athletes and social icons.
In spite of his flaws, I still admire the Doc. About 30 years later, I fondly recollect #6′s “rocking the baby dunk” on the LA Lakers’ Michael Cooper or his sweeping, gravity defying under-the-basket one-hand flick memorialized on NBA highlights.
We all know that Julius Erving never sought a medical degree, probably never read a hospital chart, never held a scalpel or touched a stethoscope. And, in hindsight, Erving himself would admit that he could have been a better father and more faithful husband.
But, as evidenced in the NBA TV documentary The Doctor, Dr. J always knew how to operate spectacularly..…on the basketball court.
MIKE – aka Mike Raffone – thee ultimate talking head on sports!
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