BASN NBA Matchup: Julius “Dr. J” Erving or Elgin Baylor?

By Eric Williams
Updated: February 18, 2007

NBA LogoPHILADELPHIA — I saw one player make “house calls” up close and personal for years. The other, I have only been fortunate enough to catch glimpses of on old NBA footage. The former is one of the game’s greatest high flyers of all-time and possibly his sport’s greatest ambassabor ever. The latter was an multi-faceted scoring machine who was literally unguardable.

So, which player was better? The former (Erving) or the latter (Baylor)?

Tough question, no doubt. However, that is nothing compared to coming up with an answer – which I have excruciatingly done. Before I make my selection however, let’s take a quick look at the careers of both players.

Elgin Baylor

Born, Elgin Gay Baylor on September 16, 1934 in Washington, D.C., Baylor played 13 seasons for the NBA’s Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers. Baylor’s path to the NBA however, would turn out to be circuitous to say the least.

A less-than-stellar scholastic record kept Baylor out of college until a family friend managed to arrange a scholarship for him at the College of Idaho, where he was expected to play basketball and football.

After one season however, the school dismissed the head basketball coach and restricted the number of scholarships at the tiny school. Eventually, a Seattle car dealer interested Baylor in Seattle University, and Baylor sat out a year to play for an amateur team while establishing his eligibility at Seattle.

Baylor would go on to lead the Seattle University to the 1958 NCAA championship game (where they lost to the Kentucky Wildcats). In his three collegiate seasons, one at Idaho and two at Seattle, Baylor averaged 31.3 points per game.

The Minneapolis Lakers used the No. 1 overall pick in the 1958 NBA Draft to select Baylor, then convinced him to skip his senior year at SU and instead join the pro ranks. The Lakers, several years removed from the glory days of George Mikan, were in trouble on the court and at the gate.

The year prior to Baylor’s arrival the Lakers finished 19-53 with a team that was slow, bulky and aging. Baylor, whom the Lakers signed to play for $20,000 per year (a great amount of money at the time), was the franchise’s last shot at survival.

“If he (Baylor) had turned me down then, I would have been out of business,” Minneapolis Lakers owner Bob Short told the Los Angeles Times in 1971. “The club would have gone bankrupt.”

Baylor was seen as the kind of player who could literally save a franchise – and he did. As a rookie in 1958-59, Baylor finished fourth in the league in scoring (24.9 points per game), third in rebounding (15.0 rebounds per game), and eighth in assists (4.1 assists per game).

He registered 55 points in a single game, the third-highest mark in league history behind Joe Fulks’s 63 and Mikan’s 61. Baylor won the NBA Rookie of the Year Award and led the Lakers, from last place the previous year, to the NBA finals, where they lost to the Boston Celtics on April 9, 1959, in the first four game sweep in finals history.

Thus began the greatest rivalry in the history of the NBA finals between the Celtics and the Lakers. During his career, he helped lead the Lakers to the NBA Finals eight times (although never winning).

From the 1960-61 to the 1962-63 seasons, Baylor averaged 34.8, 38.3 and 34.0 points per game, respectively. His 38.3 point per game season average is the highest for any player other than Wilt Chamberlain.

Baylor, a United States Army Reservist, was called to active duty during that same season, and being stationed in Washington state, he could play for the Lakers only when on a weekend pass. However, despite playing only 48 games on the season, he still managed to score over 1,800 points.

Baylor once scored 71 points on November 15, 1960 - a record at the time. He also scored 61 points in game five of the NBA Finals in 1962, which is still an NBA Finals record. An underrated rebounder,

Baylor averaged 13.5 rebounds per game during his career, including a remarkable 19.8 rebounds per game during the 1960-61 season — a season average exceeded by only five other players in NBA history. Baylor was a 10-time All-NBA First Team selection and went to the NBA All-Star Game 11 times.

Baylor began to be hampered with knee problems during the 1963-64 season. The problems culminated in a severe knee injury, suffered during the 1965 Western Division playoffs. Baylor, while still a very powerful force, was never quite the same , never again averaging above 30 points per game.

Baylor finally retired nine games into the 1971-72 season because of his nagging knee problems. His retirement resulted in two great ironies. First, the Lakers’ next game after his retirement was the first of an NBA record of 33 consecutive wins.

Second, the Lakers went on to win the NBA Championship that season, something that Baylor never achieved. He finished his career with 23,149 points, 3,650 assists and 11,463 rebounds in only 846 games. Baylor’s signature shot was a running bank shot, which he was able to release quickly and effectively over taller players.

In 1977, Baylor was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame and in 1980 he was named to the NBA 35th Anniversary All-Time Team and again in 1996, he was named to the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.

In 1986, Baylor was hired by the Los Angeles Clippers as the team’s vice president of basketball operations, where he still is today. In 2006, Baylor was selected as the NBA Executive of the Year.

Here are some interesting quotes about Baylor from some of the greatest NBA players of all-time

“He was one of the most spectacular shooters the game has ever known”, Baylor’s longtime teammate Jerry West told HOOP magazine in 1992. “I hear people talking about forwards today and I haven’t seen many that can compare with him.”

Tommy Hawkins, Baylor’s teammate for six seasons and opponent for four, declared to the San Francisco Examiner that “pound for pound, no one was ever as great as Elgin Baylor.” “Elgin certainly didn’t jump as high as Michael Jordan”, Hawkins told the San Francisco Examiner. “But he had the greatest variety of shots of anyone. He would take it in and hang and shoot from all these angles. Put spin on the ball. Elgin had incredible strength. He could post up Bill Russell. He could pass like Magic [Johnson] and dribble with the best guards in the league.”

Julius “Dr. J.” Erving

Born Julius Winfield Erving II on February 22, 1950 in Roosevelt, New York, Erving is one of the most powerful catalysts of the modern era who helped launch today’s above-the-rim style that dominates the game today.

After graduating from high school, Erving enrolled at the University of Massachusetts in 1968 and in two varsity college basketball seasons, he averaged 26.3 points and 20.2 rebounds per game, becoming one of only five players in NCAA collegiate history to average more than 20 points and 20 rebounds per game.

Inexplicably, Erving failed to attract much public attention as professional basketball was in a state of flux, split between two leagues whose players rapidly switched clubs and leagues.

Erving joined the American Basketball Association (ABA) in 1971 as an undergraduate free agent with the Virginia Squires and immediately helped legitimize the now-defunct league.

As much some players today are considered “the team,” Dr. J was considered “the entire league” back then and was the main asset of the ABA when it merged with the National Basketball Association (NBA) following the 1976 season.

Erving quickly established himself as a force and gained a reputation for hard and ruthless dunking. He scored 27.3 points per game as a rookie, was selected to the All-ABA Second Team, made the ABA All-Rookie Team, and finished second to Artis Gilmore for the ABA Rookie of the Year Award. He led the Squires into the Eastern Division Finals, where they lost to the Rick Barry-led New York Nets.

When he became eligible for the NBA draft in 1972, the Milwaukee Bucks picked him in the first round (12th overall). This move would have brought him together with two other NBA legends, Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

However, he was unhappy there and tried to move to the Atlanta Hawks, but because of a legal injunction, he was forced to return to his ABA team. However, Erving did play most of the 1972 NBA exhibition season with the Atlanta Hawks.

Back in the ABA, his game flourished, and he achieved a career-best 31.9 points per game. The graceful forward with the trademark Afro was dazzling people with his flashy, exciting style of play, which fit well with the ABA’s up-tempo image.

The Squires, like most ABA teams, were on rather shaky financial ground. Eventually, they were forced to trade Erving to the Nets in 1973–a move which eventually sent the Squires into oblivion.

The Nets had been an also-ran for their first six years of existence, but Erving led them to their first ABA title in 1973-74, defeating the Utah Stars. Erving established himself as the most important player in the ABA and his spectacular play established the Nets as the ABA’s flagship franchise, and brought fans and credibility to the league.

By 1976, the ABA was failing. The Nets actually applied for admission to the NBA before the season, but were forced to play a lame-duck season in the dying league by court order. The Erving-led Nets defeated the Denver Nuggets (who had also applied to join the NBA) in the swan-song finals of the ABA.

In the postseason, Erving averaged 34.7 points and was named Most Valuable Player of the playoffs. In his five ABA seasons, Erving won two championships, three MVP trophies, and three scoring titles.

The Nets, Nuggets, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs joined the NBA for the 1976-77 season. With Erving and Nate Archibald (acquired in a trade with Kansas City), the Nets were poised to pick up right where they left off.

However, the New York Knicks threw a monkey wrench into the Nets’ plans when they demanded that the Nets pay them $4.8 million for “invading” the Knicks’ NBA territory.

Coming on the heels of the fees the Nets had to pay for joining the NBA, owner Roy Boe reneged on a promise to raise Erving’s salary. Erving refused to play under these conditions and held out in training camp. Boe had little choice but to sell Erving’s contract to the Philadelphia 76ers.

Erving quickly became the leader of his new club and took them into the NBA Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers and Bill Walton. After the Sixers took a 2-0 lead, however, the Blazers stormed back and defeated them with four consecutive victories. In contrast, the Nets crashed into the cellar, and have never really recovered.

However, Erving enjoyed success off the court, becoming one of the first basketball players to endorse products and to have a shoe marketed under his name. He also starred in the 1979 basketball comedy film, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.

In the following years, Erving coped with a team that was not yet playing at his level. The Sixers were eliminated twice in the Eastern Conference Finals. In 1979, Larry Bird entered the league, reviving the Boston Celtics and the storied Celtics-76ers rivalry; these two teams faced each other in the Eastern Conference Finals for the next four years.

The Bird vs. Dr. J matchup became the top personal rivalry in the sport, inspiring the early Electronic Arts video game Julius Erving-Larry Bird One-on-One.

In 1980, the 76ers prevailed over the Celtics to advance to the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. There, Erving executed the legendary “baseline move”, an incredible behind-the-board reverse layup. However, the Lakers won 4-2 with a superb rookie by the name of Magic Johnson.

Erving was named MVP in 1981, but the Sixers were still missing a legitimate low post player, so they went out and obtained another Hall of Famer, center Moses Malone, from the Houston Rockets.

Armed with one of the most formidable center-forward combinations of all time, the Sixers dominated the whole season, causing Malone to make the famous prediction of “fo-fo-fo(four-four-four),” claiming that the Sixers would sweep the playoffs. In fact, the Sixers went four-five-four, losing one game to the Milwaukee Bucks in the conference finals, then sweeping the Lakers to win the NBA title.

Erving maintained his all-star caliber of play into his twilight years, averaging 22.4, 20.0, 18.1, and 16.8 points per game in his final seasons. In 1986, he announced that he would retire after the season, causing every game he played to be sold out with adoring fans.

In his ABA and NBA careers combined, Erving scored more than 30,000 points and in 1993, was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Erving currently ranks fifth on the all-time scoring list, behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain and is one of the few players in modern basketball to have his number retired by two franchises: the New Jersey Nets (formerly the New York Nets) have retired his No. 32 jersey, and the Philadelphia 76ers his No. 6 jersey.

When he retired, Erving ranked in the top 10 in scoring (third), field goals made (third), field goals attempted (fifth) and steals (first). On the combined NBA/ABA scoring list, Erving ranked third with 30,026 points. As of 2005,

Erving won three championships, four Most Valuable Player Awards, and three scoring titles while playing with the ABA’s Virginia Squires and New York Nets and the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and is also the fifth-highest scorer in professional basketball history, with 30,026 points (NBA and ABA combined).

Here are some quotes about Julius “Dr. J.” Erving.

“As a basketball player, Julius was the first to actually take the torch and become the spokesman for the NBA. He understood what his role was and how important it was for him to conduct himself as a representative of the league. Julius was the first player I ever remember who transcended sports and was known by one name, Doctor”. — his coach, Billy Cunningham.

1 “I saw that basketball could be my way out and I worked hard to make sure it was.” – Julius Erving

2 “Respect is a lot more important, and a lot greater, than popularity.” – Julius Erving

“Here I was, trying to win a championship, and my mouth just dropped open. He actually did that! I thought, ‘What should we do? Should we take the ball out, or should we give him the ball back and ask him to do it again?’ It’s still the greatest move I’ve ever seen in a basketball game, the all-time greatest.” — Magic Johnson on the Baseline Move.

My Pick:

When I initially sat down to write this column, I was almost biased toward selecting Baylor as the better player although I had never seen him play live. There was almost a mystique about Baylor and his legendary feats that made me select him over Erving.

However, after careful consideration, I have to go with Erving, hands-down. I may not have seen much of his high-flying days in the ABA, but when he got traded to my hometown Philadelphia 76ers, I got to witness his genius up close on numerous occassions.

Yes, I know Baylor was a prolific scorer and rebounder in his own right, but I don’t believe that he was a better scorer than Erving and suspect that he certainly didn’t face the same type of competition on a regular basis.

As the league’s fifth leading scorer of all-time, not to mention, the NBA’s greatest ambassador ever, I had to select the Good Doctor as the better player here – and one of the classiest athletes in any sport of all-time.