All his life, he has been renowned for taking the ball to the hole. It still is the case, even though it is no longer a matter of grabbing the sphere in one of his huge hands while soaring above the rim. The man who put his stamp on professional basketball is now recognized by a different imprint. Each of his Ping irons is inscribed, right on the hosel: JULIUS ERVING.
"I claim to have a 12 handicap. Some days, I'm better, most days, I'm worse," Dr. J said Monday on the driving range at Friar's Head in Riverhead. He was there to play in the Mentor's Champions Golf Challenge as a tribute to Bill Russell, a leader in a national mentoring program and one of Erving's own mentors.
It was a special occasion for Erving on several counts. One, he owes it to Russell, who first advised Erving when the latter was at the University of Massachusetts. Two, any trip to Long Island is a homecoming for the Hall of Famer from Roosevelt. Three, he has found that getting hooked on golf was a slam dunk.
He began playing late in his career with the 76ers. On his retirement, Ping gave him a new set of clubs as a gift, and has kept him on its celebrity entertainment client list. It was with an 8-iron in 1989 that Erving had his only career hole-in-one. "Sept. 25, 1989," he said. "Two bounces, right in the cup."
For him, it is only natural that top athletes -- arguably the greatest ever from Long Island, Jim Brown, also was in the field Monday -- become transfixed by golf. "They migrate to it because you can't master it. Even the best in the world, they hit a bad shot, and they're like, 'Where did that come from?' You just don't know. Sometimes you don't care. The game is awesome," he said.
The Mentor's Challenge draws an A-plus list mostly because of Russell, but also because of Friar's Head, an exclusive blend of woods, sand and waterfront bluffs. "It is for people who love and respect the game of golf. To be honest, I think it's one of the best in the country," said Geoffrey Boisi of Locust Valley, chairman and chief executive of Roundtable Investment Partners, who was a founding member of Friar's Head and one of the founders of the Mentor initiative.
Erving lives in Atlanta now and attends the Masters every year, but he comes to Long Island a fair amount. He brings his clubs.
"I've played everywhere but Shinnecock. I'm not going to say I've been close. I've talked to different people from time to time who can make it happen. It just hasn't happened," he said. "Bethpage is awesome. I've played all the courses over there. That's the monster."
Some of his greatest professional work was done nine exits west on the Southern State Parkway from Bethpage Black. He thinks the Nets, who have retired his No. 32, will be "phenomenally successful" in Brooklyn and is hoping to hear from them. "Might be a place to hang out when I come to New York," he said.
When he was asked if a little of him still feels comfortable here, he said, "A lot of me. This will always be home."