EDITORS NOTE: Every year when the Finals come around, we wait, and watch, and wonder: Will we ever see a play as great as the one Julius Erving made in 1980, swooping behind the backboard against the Lakers, making Kareem Abdul-Jabbar look as if he wasn't even there? And every year, the answer is: No. The Doctor is the standard-bearer, in so many ways. Eric Neel caught up with the living legend for an interview on the state of the game, both yesterday and today.
NEEL: First things first. Who do you like in the Finals?
DR. J: I like Texas, man. San Antonio is fresh and deep. It would be a real testament to Detroit's greatness if they could win this series. They have to be considered the underdog. Part of what I'm waiting to see now is who rises up. The Spurs have guys like Ginobili, who, if they shine in this series, can attain legendary status. Parker, too. And Tayshaun Prince, the Wallace boys these guys can become something more than what they are right now in this series. That's what this moment is all about.
NEEL: We're one game into the Finals now, with two very good, evenly matched teams. But I have to ask you: Have you seen a team in the last 20-odd years that you think could have competed with your Sixers team in 1983?
DR. J: I think the Bulls team in '97 certainly earned its stripes. They had a lot of pieces; they played really good defense. Now, of course, they won without a dominant center, so Moses would have given them fits. And our team, if we hadn't started resting guys for the playoffs, we probably could have won 70 games also but the Bulls, when they had it going, they were as good as I've seen.
That 1983 season was a dream season for me. That was the first team I played on where every night we stepped on the court, we felt we could win. And when we lost a game, it was like, "How the hell did that happen?" [laughs]
NEEL: Basketball suffered a major loss last week when George Mikan died. How would you describe his influence for someone coming up today who might never have heard of him?
DR. J: He was, to me, the face of basketball of his era. One of my idols, Bill Russell, idolized this guy, and because of that, the name George Mikan got my attention at a young age. Growing up, I'd heard of his exploits, but the footage I saw was old and kind of grainy [laughs], so you really couldn't get a feel for him. But I remember my JV coach used to make me do this drill he called the Mikan drill you had to shoot hook shots from both the left and right side of the basket, left- and right-handed, without letting the ball hit the ground. After a while, you start to do it very efficiently. Eventually, you could do it with your eyes closed, all feel and touch. And that, too, aroused my curiosity about this guy who was one of the godfathers of the game.
I remember when I first met him. He was a senior gentleman, but he came over to me and he stuck his hand out and grabbed my hand and shook it real hard. It was a manly handshake. There was still such bravado, such energy about him, even long after his playing days. He just acted like a big man, you know? He knew he was big. His loss is a great loss to the sport.