In this job sometimes you get the chance to meet people you’ve idolized or that hold a special place in your past. Earlier this season I got the opportunity to meet my all-time favorite Sun, Charles Barkley, who was a big reason — don’t worry Chuck, that’s not a fat joke — why I became a Suns fan. This past Sunday, I got the chance to meet someone who was a big reason why I love the game of basketball.
Yes, it sounds like one giant humble brag, but as a hoops fan that happens to work within the organization, I don’t feel it’s fair to keep these choice encounters to myself. It’s my job to give you a peek behind the curtain of the organization and let you share in the experiences vicariously.
The man I got to meet in the bowels of US Airways Center Sunday was the one and only Julius Erving. While I didn’t get to watch him play live many times, mostly because I was 4 years old when he retired. Dr. J still had a large impact on my love of the game.
It was the NERF basketball hoop featuring his image and autograph that I received on Christmas of 1986. It was the first basketball hoop I ever played on and it sparked a major interest in the game.
Dr. J’s impact wasn’t just felt by a goofy 3-year-old in Phoenix, Ariz., but it was felt league-wide for years. He was a player who almost single-handedly gave the game, both in the ABA and NBA, clearance to take off and no longer be land bound.
“I do kind of look at myself and a few others as the linchpins between the old game and the new game,” Erving said. “What you see now is the new game. A lot of above the rim. A lot of in your face and a lot of creativity. To be at the forefront of that has been an honor and a pleasure. I think I enjoyed it as much as the fans did.”
He even left an impression on former NBA point guard and current Suns Head Coach, Lindsey Hunter, who used to watch Dr. J during his formative years.
“I remember watching him as a kid,” Hunter said. “My dad would stay at home and I would have to go to church and miss Dr. J playing every Sunday. As a kid everybody loved Dr. J. When he went up and under and dunking on people under there. You remember all of those things and how high he can jump and how fast he was.”
Although Dr. J takes pride in helping the game evolve into the high-flying one we now know and love, he also isn’t afraid to tip his hat to one Suns legend. This person not only influenced Erving’s game immensely, but also was the person Dr. J was compared to to throughout his playing days.
“After learning about Connie Hawkins as a teenager, there were a lot of comparisons, but there is only one Connie Hawkins,” Erving said.
There is only one Hawkins, this is true. But there is also only one Dr. J. One who pioneered the free throw line dunk in the ABA dunk contest, who helped coin the phrase “slam dunk,” who starred in commercials, who was one of the first to have a signature shoe, who created amazing highlights and who helped me learn the sport that I’d love and eventually work in.