NBA

The Real Story Behind Julius Erving’s ‘Dr. J’ Nickname

Julius Erving is not mentioned nearly enough, yet he changed how people viewed basketball players. What made him stand out was how he moved akin to a gymnast. Or, you could liken him to a gravity-defying Harlem Globetrotter. Fortunately, Erving still lives today at the ripe old age of 70. While not often interviewed, all his years in the ABA (American Basketball League) and the NBA made his nickname, Dr. J, a household designation.

Those who wondered where he got that name should know it was never given to him during his pro years. Erving already acquired it long before then, even if urban legends still abound.

‘Dr. J’ came from Julius Irving’s high school years

The 76ers' Julius Erving making a basket in 1985
The 76ers’ Julius Erving in 1985 | Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

Many NBA stars usually get their famous nicknames when they start playing in the big leagues. According to most official sources, Erving earned the name “Dr. J.” while in high school. This was Roosevelt High School in Roosevelt, New York.

A lot of mystery still surrounds where he got the name exactly while in high school. According to Biography.com, the story goes that a fellow basketball player student gave Erving the name because he gave his friend the name “Professor.” Yes, such a scenario sounds like something more apt to happen in college.

Erving was already showing superior skill in high school. No wonder it only took a short time for him to start playing in the ’70s-era ABA. His name “Dr. J” stuck with him all through college where he played at the University of Massachusetts. With 20 points and 20 rebounds there, his record is still relegated to only a select few who managed this scoring record.

He quashed a few other nicknames when he went pro

When Erving did an interview on CBS This Morning back in 2013 to discuss a new documentary about his life, he brought up the “Dr. J” story himself. During the interview, he mentioned that once he turned 21 and became a pro, others started to throw other nicknames at him.

A couple included “The Claw” and “Black Moses.” Those alone seemed to describe his dunking skills to a tee on the court as just starters. It was Erving himself who requested those giving him other names just call him “Dr. J” based on his old high school friend giving him the moniker. His anonymous school friend probably felt proud knowing he created one of the best NBA nicknames ever.

The moniker was used widely in the media once Erving started playing for his first team, the Virginia Squires. At one point, he almost joined the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, yet a lawsuit pulled him back into the ABA with the Squires for a time. Not until playing for the New York Nets in 1974 did he finally manage to win major titles.

The days when Dr. J became known around the world

Of course, Erving’s best-known years were with the Philadelphia 76ers, starting in 1976. Even though he lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1977 NBA Finals, Erving became an international superstar.

It took a few more years until he could muster up an NBA title win for the 76ers. Not until 1983 did a win finally happen after constantly battling the L.A. Lakers with a young Magic Johnson during the early ’80s.

Retiring in 1987, Erving had 30,000 points to his all-time scoring roster. Nowadays, some might find “Dr. J” being used in jest sometimes when talking about famous doctors. Even though he never had a medical license, his famous near-balletic moves on the court were more like a wizard.

Giving him the name of “Doctor” made him stand out from the rest, including during a time when Michael Jordan was just beginning to rise in the ranks.