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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

'The Doctor', the birth of cool

The Doctor
Way before Lebron and Kobe. Before 'His Airness'. And even before Magic and Bird, there was Julius 'Dr. J' Erving, the most exciting player of the second half of the 70s and early 80s. An all-time player that won titles at ABA and, finally, at the NBA, a sensation, a culture icon, a basketball ambassador, and a figure genuinely revered everywhere. But also, somewhat of an eclipsed, overshadowed player, which imo hasn't received that much attention, needless to say overseas (I was an unborn-little baby when he was one of the biggest basketball stars, so didn't have the chance to watch him live). So folks, how excited I was to watch this documentary!

Made by NBA TV, the league-owned network, 'The Doctor' is pretty straightforward and clearly wanting to capture and show the epic and magic of his playing, as well as his human dimension through some deeply affecting tragedies suffered during his life, 'The Doctor' is an engaging documentary for everyone who loves this sport. It advances smoothly, with dynamism and an overall feeling of joy and respect, fuelled by the archival footage and the enthusiastic comments of heavyweights like Magic Johnson, Pat Riley, Bill Walton or Darryl Dawkins, who portray him as a shock to the system, and alien, a revolutionary for basketball, as well as a role model. Because he was a human highlight, someone who seemed to levitate on air, a slam-dunk artist, and some sort of pioneer who made aesthetics, looks and flair translate into the court, as well as off-court (that hair and ultra-cool wardrobe). He was the coolest cat. He was the 70s. 

'The Doctor' development is simple, but the conventional, chronological order, works flawlessly well. We get to know about his college career, where he wasn't, at least initially, considered to be that great of a prospect. Then we know about his first, teenager success and how he became a legend in town after exploding in the mythical Harlem courts of Rucker Park (comments by the great Tiny Archibald and streetball wonder Pee Wee Kirkland, by the way). Julius was coveted as an exciting player but doubts on how his flashy game could adapt to the pros. But he took the Virginia Squires and the New York Nets by the storm. He simply turned into the face of the ABA.

The documentary takes its time (arguably the most exciting moment of the film) to portray that peculiar coexistence,  constant collision that was really a one-sided battle, and contrast between the two leagues, and how Erving ended being the major attraction of the dying ABA. But when the NBA finally absorbed the latter, the Nets ended selling Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers, and the final chapter of the myth began. Doubts about his adaptation to the league quickly vanished, but despite his star-status (in and out the court, being the lure of many commercial ads as well as NBA events) superhero games and otherworldly moves, he struggled to win a title, while the league entered into the unforgettable decade of the Bird-Magic rivalry... until Moses Malone arrived to the team and Julius finally found the well-deserved relief (that's the stressed word) with the 82-83 championship. It's amazing how even rivals seemed to cheer for Erving in these finals. Basketball owed the final recognition to Dr, J. His career slowly faded after that triumph, but his legacy (Michael Jordan and Lebron James acknowledging he was a major figure to imitate) is one of the most solid ever built in the game of basket.

Unfortunately though, 'The Doctor' falls pretty short in several areas, constraining itself to an extremely likeable hagiography that leaves out relevant information. We understand and, as touching highlights of the movie, value the personal side of Erving's life shown. But alongside the traumatic deaths of his young brother (when Erving breaks in front of the camera, it's hard not to get emotional) when he was a teenager playing at UMass, as well as the car accident that took away the life of his soon Cory in 2000, there's some related familiar turmoil "skimped" to us, such as the acrimonious divorce of Erving and first wife Turquoise, the two kids he had with other women when he was married to him, or the the drug problems of his ill-fated son. There's also some strange omissions in what regards to his professional career, like his first failed attempt to shift from the ABA to the NBA that resulted in an ugly feud involving the Atlanta Hawks and the Milwaukee Bucks.

Although as a documentary 'The Doctor' might be rated as a small underachievement, one has to admit I was deeply entertained (and moved at the aforementioned, sensible scenes) during its whole length. Granted, it lacks some depth and avoids controversy, but Erving fans or curious basketball lovers will for sure enjoy the story of the incomparable "human highlight reel".

SCORE: 6,25/10

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