Due to ABA’s “hardship” rule, which allowed players to leave college early, Julius Erving left Massachusetts to sign with the Virginia Squires.
Forming a superteam in Milwaukee
After an All-ABA Second Team worthy rookie campaign with the Squires (27.3 points and 15.7 rebounds per contest), Erving wanted to reconsider the initial deal he had signed with Virginia, only to discover both the ABA and the Squires were compensating his agent during the negotiations. Feeling misrepresented, Julius filed a lawsuit against the Squires, demanding a contract nullification.
In the meantime, he hired a new agent, Irvin Weiner, and immediately began looking to take his talents to the NBA. “I talked to five or six NBA teams,” Julius said. “Then the NBA came out with an announcement saying all valid ABA contracts would be honored by the NBA. When that happened, all but one NBA team backed out. Atlanta was the team that showed good faith.”
Erving signed a four-year contract with the Hawks that would begin once his ABA deal with the Squires expired. Julius requested the organization not to announce the signing and headed into the ’72 NBA Draft without the other teams knowing about his unavailability.
The Bucks had options in the draft
Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Bucks were looking to add another piece to enhance their chances of winning another championship after winning the organization’s first-ever NBA title in ’71. Despite going deep in the ’72 NBA Playoffs and losing to the Lakers in the WCF, Milwaukee possessed two first-round picks at No. 6 and No. 12 going into the NBA Draft.
After taking Russ Lee – a 6-5 forward out of Marshall – the Bucks selected Julius Erving 12th overall but were soon faced with the pained truth that a 22-year-old had already committed to the Hawks.
"Julius Erving has signed an agreement with the Atlanta Hawks that will become valid at the expiration of his contract with the Virginia Squires. Even if we do have to wait three years to get him, he's still worth it. He's just turned 22 and is one of the most exciting players I have ever seen."
Bill Putnam, NBA
On the other hand, the Bucks were convinced they owned the rights to Erving. That's when a real drama began. As both teams were going through extensive negotiations, trying to settle their disputes, a Georgia Superior Court judge ruled Erving's contract with the Virginia Squires "voidable, terminated and of no further force or effect," after which Julius joined the Hawks' training camp in preparation for the 72-73 NBA season.
Negotiations between Atlanta and Milwaukee eventually broke down since both teams were unable to find common ground, mostly due to the Bucks asking for an extremely steep price, including Pete Maravich, Lou Hudson, and draft picks.
The matter was ultimately brought to a Board of Governors where Julius’s NBA rights were awarded to the Bucks. But despite the vote, Erving stayed with the Hawks and even participated in their preseason games, which induced hefty fines by the NBA and its commissioner Walter Kennedy. The team’s owner Bill Putnam responded with an antitrust suit worth $2 million.
"You can believe we will refuse to pay. We’ll just let the courts decide the matter. At this point, we have filed our suit, and we’ll do our talking in court."
Bill Putnam, NBA
Just as things reached fever pitch, a federal judge issued an injunction that prevented the 22-year-old Julius from playing professional basketball for any organization except the Squires. The two sides eventually settled their differences, and Erving spent one more season in Virginia as the ABA’s leading scorer before getting traded to the New York Nets in ’73.
Julius eventually joined the NBA and had an all-time great 10-year run with the 76ers. The Hawks were ordered to pay $150,000 to Milwaukee and trade them two second-round picks in the following draft as compensation. And the Bucks — they have to live with the fact they came within an inch of assembling one of the greatest teams the NBA has ever seen. Had it happened, the basketball world would’ve been changed forever.