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January 23, 2014

Dr. J autobiography details a classy man

Cooperstown Crier

---- — It’s easy to envy professional athletes. They seem to have it all. Who wouldn’t want to make a living playing a game you love and get well compensated for it? Athletes often make more in a year than the rest of us do in a lifetime. But it isn’t all peaches and cream. Many of them suffer through the indignities of life that prove that money does not buy happiness.

Think about it. Many professional athletes grow up poor and don’t know how to handle money when they suddenly have millions heaped upon them. They have hangers-on who are either friends or family who think they deserve a piece of the pie. If these “buddies” aren’t bad enough there are plenty of unscrupulous agents and financial vultures trying to screw the athletes out of their money. The number of professionals that sign multi-million dollar contracts and end up bankrupt is staggering.

Add to that the groupies that follow the pros from city to city and the fans that harass them whenever they appear in public. It makes you wonder if all the fame and fortune is really worth it. Maybe we mere mortals should count our blessings that we live relatively quiet, sedate lives.

With all the stories we hear about professional athletes going bankrupt, becoming drug addicts, ending up in jail, or fathering multiple children out of wedlock, it’s inspiring to find one that appears to stay on the straight and narrow. For better or worse we would like to think of our athletes as “heroes” and we can’t help but feel good when one of them lives up to expectations.

One of these is Julius Erving, better known as Dr. J, one of the most gifted basketball players of all-time.

 Fellow superstar Magic Johnson once said, “When greatness meets class, that’s what God created in Dr. J.” 

 It’s hard to find anyone who has ever said a bad word about him. He’s universally admired.

Erving has just written his autobiography, simply titled “Dr. J,” and it is “classy” in the sense that he is open and honest about everything. Despite all his success he did not have an easy life. He suffered through many personal tragedies and boneheaded decisions but persevered through them all. You sense a quiet dignity that gives you a greater admiration for the man despite all his shortcomings.

What’s impressive about Dr. J (who got the nickname by the way he “operated” on the basketball court) is that he grew up with the right value system. Despite being a product of a broken home and growing up in the projects on Long Island his mom instilled the importance of education, hard work, and staying out of trouble. He may have been blessed with exceptional athletic talent but he didn’t waste it.

Erving not only took school seriously but worked several jobs growing up to help his family and provide himself with spending money. The only drawback was a bakery job that ended up providing a lucrative income for his dentist! But by keeping his priorities in order and having basketball coaches that doubled as father figures Erving attained an athletic scholarship and positioned himself to become the first member of his family to graduate from college.

One lesson he learned early in life was on a trip to South Carolina to visit relatives. Despite his poverty he grew up in a neighborhood that was multi-racial. Erving had friends who were both black and white. The exposure to the Jim Crow South exposed him to a whole new world of intolerance.

Even though Erving admits to making several mistakes in his life the one that seems most regrettable (not necessarily to him) is when he decided to leave college a year early to turn pro. 

He was wise enough to choose a college, UMass, based on its academics and environment rather than its basketball reputation. But he gave up getting his degree (he did complete it many years later), a stable and promising relationship, and the maturity that another year in college would have provided. He eventually became a millionaire and NBA superstar but the pratfalls he experienced along the way might have been less bumpy if he had graduated.

The jet set life of a professional athlete is something that can grow old after a while, especially for a family-oriented man such as Dr. J. The constant time away from home strains a marriage and puts guilt trips on a father who wants to be with his kids. The superstar also faces the same issues that we all do with our children and having money doesn’t make it easier.

Julius Erving is a man who wanted to live a dignified life and didn’t always succeed. But it doesn’t really diminish who he is. Dr. J is still a classy person and his classy autobiography allows us to appreciate both him and our own standing in life.