When the Hawks announced, on April 11, 1972, that they’d signed Julius Erving, Atlanta fans rejoiced and began to entertain fantasies of an NBA championship. With an offense featuring the high-flying Dr. J and the magical Pistol Pete, the Hawks, they figured, would be unstoppable. The team stoked the enthusiasm with a fresh marketing slogan, “It’s a Whole New Ballgame in Atlanta.” A dark cloud loomed, though, because the validity of Erving’s agreement with the Hawks was in doubt.
The issue was not the generous contract – $1.4 million over five years, along with a $250,000 bonus, a new Jaguar, and an apartment – but whether or not Atlanta had the right to sign Erving. The Hawks signed Dr. J two days before the 1972 NBA draft. In that draft Milwaukee picked Erving and immediately filed a complaint with the league’s Board of Governors, claiming they, not Atlanta, held the star's NBA rights.
The dispute remained unresolved when training camp opened in early September in Savannah, Georgia. Erving, fresh from playing summer hoops in Harlem’s Rucker League, was jazzed to be Pistol Pete’s running mate.
“It really was one of the joys of my life to play with Pete and to be in training camp with him,” Erving told Basketball Digest’s David Friedman. “We used to stay after practice and play one-on-one. We would play for dinner. I did the same thing with George Gervin, once he became my teammate. I pretty much learned that from Pete. If this guy’s going to be your teammate, you really need to stay after practice and get to understand his game, and know his likes and his dislikes – where he likes the ball, and that kind of stuff. The best way to do that is to just play.”
Mike McKenzie, the new beat reporter for the Atlanta Journal, recalled the immediate rapport.
“The most memorable part of it was just the raw talent on the court. Everyone just stopped what they were doing to watch. Great veteran players watching Maravich and Erving do their shtick. Together, they were unstoppable.”
Ten days into camp, Erving’s case was finally adjudicated. The Board of Governors ruled that Erving’s rights belonged to Milwaukee and charged Atlanta with a violation of the league’s by-laws. Commissioner Walter Kennedy banned the Hawks from using Erving in practice and exhibition games. Atlanta ignored his edict and even profiled Dr. J in its 1972-73 media guide.
Erving played his first Hawks exhibition game, against the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels, on September 23, 1972, in Frankfort, Kentucky. Wearing No. 54 and high-top Converse All Stars, Erving was stellar, contributing 28 points and 18 rebounds in the 112-109 victory. Maravich pitched in 17 points. It was also the debut of the new Hawks head coach, Lowell “Cotton” Fitzsimmons. (Fitzsimmons stood just 5-8 and Pete used to joke that he could “sleep in a pillow case.”)
The next day 4,824 fans crammed into tiny Alexander Memorial Coliseum to see a return match. Erving’s Atlanta debut was eagerly anticipated.
“The Hawks never drew that many people to an exhibition in their lives at home,” observed Atlanta Journal sports editor Furman Bisher. Some older Hawk fans, feeling nostalgic, may have showed up because this would be Atlanta’s last game in the cozy college arena.
In a nod to the Colonels, the first half was played under ABA rules, with a red, white, and blue ball. A temporary three-point line was painted on the floor with white shoe polish. NBA rules applied in the second half. The Hawks dominated early, at one point leading by twenty-four, but the Colonels fought back and squeaked out a 104-103 win. Erving collected 23 points and 14 rebounds, while Pete added 12 points and nine assists.
NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy fined the Hawks a record $25,000 for the two games Erving had played and promised to mete out escalating penalties. Even NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle weighed in. “The action by the Hawks is considered a threat to all professional sports’ common player drafts,” Rozelle told the Atlanta Journal’s Mike McKenzie. The Hawks countered with a two million dollar anti-trust suit.
The Hawks defied the league a third time, on September 30, when Erving suited up to play the ABA’s Carolina Cougars in Raleigh, North Carolina. Future basketball legend David Thompson, entering his sophomore year at N.C. State, was in the bleachers at Reynolds Coliseum and looked on in amazement.
“Man, it was insane. Those two just played like they had been teammates forever,” Thompson recalled. “Pete was awesome. He was everything I had read about and more. He was 6-5 but could handle the ball and was quick, and could jump. People don’t realize how high he could jump. He could shoot anywhere from across the half court line.”
Maravich’s deft passing was particularly impressive to Thompson. He remembered Maravich dribbling hard on a fast break, flanked by Erving and Hudson. At the top of the key, Maravich head faked the Carolina defender, locked both elbows as he looked right but threw left – a perfect bounce pass to Erving. Pete’s old “wrist-pass” was still effective.
Erving explained to Friedman, “I would just grab a rebound, throw it out to Pete, and get on the wing. Pete would always find you. He got his points, but he loved to pass the ball. He could hit you in full stride in a place where you could do something with the ball. That was a measure of his greatness.”
Marty Bell, in his 1975 book, The Legend of Dr. J, also marveled at the artistry of the duo.
“It was like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelley dancing together. Maravich had the most moves of any guard in the league. And Julius had the most moves of any forward.”
Erving scored 32 points (14-15) in a 120-106 rout of the Cougars and Maravich had 19 assists, including an array of brilliant passes. Erving and Maravich looked like a sensational fit. Dr. J provided bushels of points and Pete seemed content to feed him passes. Hawk fans couldn’t wait for the season to start.
Then their hopes were dashed.
Commissioner Kennedy told the Hawks' new president Bill Putnam that if Erving continued to play the fines would be deducted from Atlanta’s cut of its national television revenue. Putnam caved. After just three games, the Dr. J and Pistol Pete show closed.
“Julius was the most creative player that I’ve ever played with,” Pete said in 1987. “It was so easy to play with him. I think during that time my average was about 14 or 15 assists per game. I’d just come down the court and his eyes would see mine – and I knew that he was going to the hoop. I’d just throw a little rainbow up there and it’d be history because nobody could get up like Dr. J.”
In 2000, Erving called Maravich “a basketball genius.”
Dr. J reluctantly returned to Virginia. He wished it had turned out differently.
“I would have been a Hawk for the rest of my career,” Erving said in a 2005 radio interview.
Richie Guerin, Atlanta’s general manager, believed the situation was avoidable.
“The only time I ever disagreed with [Hawks president] Bill Putnam my entire time in Atlanta was over the handling of the Julius Erving situation,” he said in 2003. “Through a series of negotiations and conversations and meetings with Irwin Weiner [Erving’s agent], they finally worked out a contract. Now, Irwin Weiner said to Bill Putnam, ‘Bill, I have one request from Julius – don’t announce this until after his playoffs.’ Erving didn’t want to let his [Virginia Squires] teammates or the city down during that crucial time. I disagreed with that. My reasoning was that the NBA was going to have their draft in a few weeks. He’d been out of college already and was playing professional basketball. Therefore, he was not eligible for the college draft in our opinion. We should have just announced that we signed Julius Erving, sent his contract into the league office, and if that meant we had to forfeit our No. 1 draft pick for that year, we’d be more than willing to do it.”
When Erving retired from the NBA in 1987, Fitzsimmons reminisced to a Miami Herald reporter about Dr. J.’s brief Hawks tenure.
“I was the coach, I saw an excitement, even in just those exhibitions, that he was able to bring like no one else. I saw us as one of the great teams.” Fitzsimmons added, “I think we could have won a championship.”
Wayne Federman is an actor, comedian and writer. He has appeared in more than a dozen movies, including The 40-Year-Old Virgin. He has his own stand-up special on Comedy Central and is a regular on the Tonight Show. Marshall Terrill is a veteran reporter for The Chandler Connection and is the author of 10 books.
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