How, indeed? How did he stay aloft, without helium, without a motor or rotator blades or a rocket, that long? Long enough to drift behind the backboard and out the other side, long enough to cradle the basketball and then windmill it through the hoop. Before toppling back to planet Earth.
"An illusion," Erving said the other night at Xfinity Live! "If you move the ball or change hands, it just seems like you're up there longer than you are."
That's humility. That's grace. That's dignity. That's cooler than a creamsicle. And it's all there in NBA TV's documentary, "The Doctor," which debuts Monday at 9 p.m.
Some tourists visiting the Louvre in Paris, could "do" the legendary museum in 12 minutes. They followed the dotted lines on a sheet of paper that spotted the Venus de Milo, the statue of David and the enigmatic portrait of Mona Lisa. Wham, bam, thank you, mam'selle.
Same with Doctor J. Three works of art. There's that steal against the Lakers, Doctor J pounding to the hoop, Michael Cooper in pursuit. Erving takes off, rocking the ball in his right hand. Cooper realizes he is about to be "posterized," so he ducks and Erving windmills the ball home.
But first, you see him with the ABA's red-white-and-blue basketball. An early slam-dunk contest. Doctor J paces off the proper distance, turns and then carries the ball to the foul line, soars, eye-high to the rim, and wham hammers it home.
What? You'd forgotten Erving played in the ABA first, all schoolyard flamboyance, that regal Afro, those Converse sneakers? Virginia Squires first, where the checks bounced higher than that red-white-and-blue ball. Then the Nets, where he won two championships. He was holding out when the cash-strapped Nets sold him to the Sixers after GM Pat Williams explained to owner Fitz Dixon that Erving was "the Babe Ruth of basketball."
"There wasn't a whole lot of advance publicity," Erving recalled. "I was holding out. Training camp started. The Sixers had inquired about me. Two weeks later, they were told I was available. The deal got done.
"I never got to practice with the Sixers. Played in that first game. It was the start of an incubation period."
Incubation, sublimation, call it what you will. Erving got the word that he didn't have to soar so high or score so often. It was like asking Miles Davis to play with a mute in his trumpet.
"We had a lot of sensitive guys on the team," is the way Erving chooses to remember it. "They didn't want me rocking the boat. We operated from a big, blue playbook. That's what we did and we got to the Finals."
Darryl Dawkins recalls that shot-happy team in the film. "Whoever got it, shot it," Dawkins says impishly. The Sixers go up, two-zip, in the 1977 Finals, but there's a skirmish in the second game, and Dawkins hits teammate Doug Collins with a sneaky left hook intended for Bob Gross. Then he squares off with Portland's Maurice Lucas, fists curled inward, looking like a bare-knuckles fight poster. Looked like John L. Sullivan, fought like Maureen O'Sullivan.
Erving tries peacemaking, then retreats to center court and sits down, palms on his knees.
"The fight," Collins says, "was the turning point. Portland pulled together, we pulled apart."
Erving has a different view.
"Dawkins was going crazy," he said. "Lucas was bobbing and weaving. I tried to break it up. Then I thought, 'This is no place for me,' so I picked a spot and sat down.
"I don't think the fight was a turning point. We were in control of that game. We won it handily. The preparation going to Portland was less than what it should have been.
"We knew what they liked to do, but we had a difficult time stopping them. We struggled offensively. But rather than making adjustments that needed to be made, we relied on coach Gene Shue's playbook."
Maybe that explains why, in Game 6, with Erving playing brilliantly, the final play in a two-point loss was called for George McGinnis, and it clanked off the front of the rim.
Uh-huh, that George McGinnis, mired in a slump. A slump so wicked, his teammates chanted "brick, brick" every time he missed in practice. Water under the bridge, or memories brought back from the graveyard as Erving describes them.
It is a fine film, especially for those too young to have seen Erving float above the rim. And for those too young to have seen that championship team in '83, nearly fulfilling Moses Malone's prediction of fo' fo' fo'. "We went 12-and-1," Erving said proudly. "No other team has done that."
There is tragedy mingled with the triumphs. There is sadness. And through it all, there is Erving's humility, his grace, his dignity. "I was far from perfect," he said. "But you set goals and that's important.
"I wanted to be good, I wanted to be consistent, I wanted to be dedicated."