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How Julius Erving mentored Michael Jordan to build a brand empire

Dr. J was such a classy guy. I knew of his basketball and the creativity that he had. But the business understanding that he had was unbelievable. And his advice was to 'be who you are'
How Julius Erving mentored Michael Jordan to build a brand empire

Julius Erving mentored Michael Jordan from the early days in his career

Michael Jordan didn't build his empire from high flying dunks and game-winning shots; he built it from obsessively mastering the game - the real game - the business of accumulating wealth while becoming a generational icon. But for Dr. J - that game didn't exist before him. So as you'll soon see - he had to create it himself. From sneakers, stocks, films, videogames, and everything in between, Dr. J laid out the groundwork for what Jordan would eventually take to the next level.

The 'IT' Factor

Nothing ever came easy for Julius Erving. He turned pro in 1971 but could not enter the gates of the NBA since he had not attended four years of college. But the ABA - thanks to the 'Hardship Rule' - welcomed him in. The ABA, for context, was a joke. With its trademark red, white, and blue ball, the controversial three-point line, and bear wrestling at halftime to encourage fans to come (no, that really happened), the league was looked down on by NBA heads as a gimmick. The Doctor changed all of that.

There are many ways to judge a player. Stats, teammates' anecdotes, impact, awards - all of which Julius passed with flying colors. But where he really stood out was 'the eye test'. Whispers of a player so mesmerizing and so unique with 360 layups and free throw dunks got too loud for the NBA to shrug off - eventually bringing him in with a massive new contract.

He won MVP of the All-Star game and went to the NBA Finals in his first season in '77. In '81, Erving won MVP honors, the first non-center to do so in 17 seasons. In '83, he did win his NBA championship, losing only one game in all playoffs. The rumors were true.

Because it's not a coincidence that Julius and Michael were two of the most outstanding player businessmen ever while exhibiting two of the most mesmerizing games ever. When hearing people talk of either star, you could replace their names without thinking twice.

Here's what Bill Walton, leader of the championed Blazers of '77, said about Erving on the TBOB podcast, "While Kareem was the greatest player I ever played against, Larry was the greatest player I ever played with. Dr. J was the single most vibrant and exhilarating and exciting player that I ever saw up close first hand. He had the physical gifts, but he had the personality and he had the stature and he had the calmness and that majestic level of 'I'm Dr. J and no one else is and I'm coming to throw it down'".

Because before we analyze the off-the-court dominance and ingenuity of The Doctor, it must be noted that what made Jordan iconic were mere imitations of Erving. Flying through the air for a free throw dunk - Julius did it first. The behind-the-backboard layups - Julius did it first. The transcendent ethos of unimaginable athleticism and confidence in an all big man league - Julius did it first.

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Robert Parish talked about the NBA's Houdini on the TBOB podcast, "I think it's a combination of how he played, he was a high flyer. Also the way he carried himself off the court. The dignity, the pride, the grace in which he handled himself, he handled his success, how he handled his brand. A lot of people tried to mirror the Doctor on and off the court. Even though we didn't have his athletic ability… Doc would slam through the air and I was just walking through the air. I just tried to emulate The Doctor on some of my break-away dunks. Even though I didn't have the lift that The Doctor had".

Julius Erving mentoring Michael Jordan

NBA players were not making any real money on the side because major companies feared giving people of color would not be effective pitchmen. Julius changed all of that.

Julius Erving was one of the first athletes to sign a shoe deal. He launched a $20,000 a year deal with converse sneakers in what was a landmark event. This was the biggest of its kind at the time and is what hooked millions of kids to basketball, including Michael himself.

"Dr. J was one of the guys that I idolized from the business side of things. I wanted to take that same passage and show that I was more than just a basketball player," said Jordan on the TBOB podcast.

But it went way past shoe deals. He was even starring in films like in '79, with 'The fish that saved Pittsburgh'. As Jackie McMullan says on the TBOB podcast, "this was the new definition of an NBA icon. A black movie acting alongside industry greats."

In '83, Dr. J signed with Coca-Cola as a commercial spokesman. He also negotiated to be a Coca-Cola shareholder. Two years later, he and a New York businessman purchased one of Coca-Cola's bottling plants, becoming one of the largest black-owned businesses in the nation at the time. That same year, Erving invested in a video game titled, 'One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird' - which was started by the company that eventually became EA Sports.

With no help or formulas from previous NBA players, he single-handedly changed the landscape. Doug Collins, who played with Erving for five seasons on the Sixers, claims Dr. J had become the premier attraction in the NBA. Claiming that "people were now seeing this and now people were going out in their backyard - these young kids - 'I want to be Dr. J, I want to be that guy who plays like that,'" he said on the TBOB podcast.

But Dr. J would not hold his secrets to himself, eventually mentoring MJ to take from his teachings and create something more significant. Michael idolized him on the TBOB podcast, "Dr. J was such a classy guy. I knew of his basketball and the creativity that he had. But the business understanding that he had was unbelievable. And his advice was to 'be who you are. Learn because you're basically in school. So you're learning the business of basketball'".

Michael might have added a jolt of energy to the league. But The Doctor shocked the entire sports world.

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