Dr. J makes house call as Julius Erving comes home to Roosevelt
The long-ago superstar is in late middle age now, his hair short and gray and the echoes nearly a half-century old as he walked the creaky hallways and stairways of his boyhood home.
Sometimes Julius Erving wasn't quite sure what was imprecise memory and what was reality back at 90 Pleasant Ave. in Roosevelt, which he has visited twice in the past two years -- most recently with a camera crew in tow.
It generated complex emotions for a man who still dreams regularly about his childhood and now was confronted with a tangible reminder of it.
"A lot of the recollection is from the dreams as opposed to the actual happening because that was so long ago,'' he said Friday during an interview at NBA headquarters in Manhattan. "You're talking about 50 years ago, but the dream could have been two weeks ago.''
The return to Pleasant Avenue is a highlight of "The Doctor,'' a documentary that premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on NBA TV and chronicles the life and times of an iconic Long Island star.
It follows a trip back to the playground where it all began in Hempstead but gains resonance in Roosevelt, where Erving recalls long talks with his younger brother, Marvin, who died of lupus at age 16.
"I have many dreams of those years when I was between 13 and 21 and just going up and down the stairwell, sitting and eating with the family, going into the basement, little crevices and corners of the basement where you don't go, the backyard, the side yard, the attic,'' he said.
Reliving all of that, he said, "was pretty cool to do'' but not easy. His parents are gone now, as is his sister. All are buried, as is Marvin, in Nassau County, the main reason he still visits the Island from his home in Georgia.
Erving, 63, also speaks in the film about his most devastating loss of all -- the death of his son, Cory, at age 19 in 2000.
Such personal details round out his life story, which he will further chronicle in an autobiography due for release in November. But the centerpiece of "The Doctor'' is a trove of video evidence of his transcendent game for those too young to remember it -- or who did not get to see him at his flashiest and freest as a Net from 1973-76.
Erving said that when asked where he is from, "I very proudly say 'Long Island,' '' but from age 15, he started seeking out the best competition in the five boroughs and didn't stop even as he reached young adulthood and budding stardom.
For five years in the early 1970s, he played at famed Rucker Park in Harlem, an era that comes magically to life in "The Doctor'' from participants fondly recalling fans hanging from the rooftops to video evidence of exactly that.
Erving said there was pressure to put on a show for people who took pride in players validating themselves before a demanding grass-roots audience.
"That community in particular, they like to lay claim,'' he said. "I always claim Long Island because I don't want to diss Long Island, but that was a step along the way, and it was an important step because of the confidence you get playing against pros and playground legends.''
By the time Erving returned to Long Island to live after two years as a Virginia Squire, he was an established pro and the face (and hairdo) of the ABA. First he lived in a townhouse in Lido Beach and later in a home he purchased in Upper Brookville, all the while experiencing the pros and cons of playing in one's home area.
"On paper, it seems like a dream come true. Then when you have to get 60 tickets to a game and you're scrambling around, that's a nightmare,'' he said.
Alleged friends and acquaintances were coming at him from all directions. Some were insulted when he didn't remember them, others when he did -- and he recalled not getting along with them in high school.
"But we were successful on the court and that made living back in New York and on Long Island great,'' he said. "I was celebrated as a hero, a champion. I visited a lot of schools. There was a lot of demand on my time, needless to say.''
Then it was over, after two ABA championships in three years. The NBA absorbed four ABA franchises, including the Nets, but Erving was shipped to the 76ers, where his greatness was undiminished but some of the pizzazz was lost.
"I think it's fair to say I had a lot more freedom in my Nets years,'' he said. "[Kevin Loughery] just turned over the reins and said, 'Hey, the game plan ain't working. Just make something happen.' . . . Obviously, the results of that were probably more highlights, more spectacular moments.''
Erving doesn't throw down spectacular dunks anymore, but he does make it a point to dunk at least once a year "just to see if I could do it.''
After a recent pickup game against "hot-shot, high-flying eighth-graders'' that included his 14-year-old son, he said, "I was feeling my Wheaties so I went over and dunked the ball three times.'' He figured that covers him for the next three years.
Erving said his priority these days is raising his three children, ages 14, 11 and 7, with his second wife -- "They keep me young,'' he said -- and running Dr. J Enterprises, which manages his business and philanthropic activities.
So there is plenty to do in the present. But the past never is far from his thoughts.
When Erving first knocked on the door at 90 Pleasant Ave., he did not know what to expect. What he found was "Harvest for the World,'' a soup kitchen, food pantry and homeless shelter run for the past 10 years by Joanna Bell-Richards.
She said Friday that having grown up in the neighborhood, she knew Erving had lived in the house, but she never reached out to him for help, not wanting to take advantage of a celebrity. Since finding her on his own, he regularly has offered assistance.
Erving also noted a new charter school on the street that wasn't there when he was growing up.
"The street has turned into a very, very productive asset to the community of Roosevelt, which is a much-troubled community,'' he said. "It needs to survive, it has to survive and it's going to survive, but it's going to survive because of people like [Bell-Richards] just rolling up her sleeves and taking seriously the need and trying to supply an answer.''