The following is an excerpt from Julius Erving and Karl Taro Greenfeld’s book, Dr. J: The Autobiography, which can be purchased online here.
My third son, my beautiful boy Cory, is born in 1981. We are blessed with healthy children, who mirror our own sound bodies. We are a family that is embodying the American dream. I’m a millionaire, with a beautiful wife, four gorgeous children — and a new dog — we have cars, clothes, an estate. We are an oil painting come to life, some white supremacist’s nightmare, the beautiful black family that has somehow displaced English nobility and taken up their wardrobe and home. We are the wishes of our ancestors, I think, the culmination of the struggles of the dreams of Abneys and Ervings and Browns.
What is it about newborn babies that pulls you toward their cribs, even when they are sleeping? Sometimes, I go into Cory’s room and bend over to kiss his soft cheeks and sometimes I just go in there and stand and sniff the air, smell his smell. It is, I suppose, the species ensuring its survival. A new baby in the house settles things down, exerts a focus and calming influence. The machine of family is working, the engine is running, the product is this: a beautiful child.
I peer in on Cory in his upstairs nursery and then walk down the hall to my office, taking my seat behind my desk, making sure my leather desk pad is parallel to the edge of my desk and my pens are in order. My drawers are neat and tidy, the top left locked like it always is. My checkbook is where it should be, inside my top drawer and flush against the bottom of the felt interior. Good.
I open my mail, sorting through the bank statements, credit card statements, lease statements, the usual fan mail and requests from friends and acquaintances. And there is a personal letter, handwritten on yellow stationery.
It is from Samantha Stevenson, the former sportswriter, and she writes that she has a daughter, Alexandra Winfield Stevenson, and I am the father.
After reading that letter from Samantha, I sit with it for a while. I’m thinking this over. If Alexandra is really my daughter, then I have to own up to that, that’s the right thing to do. I have to deal with this in my marriage and be straight with my wife.
I go downstairs and find Turq in the kitchen. She’s drinking tea from a white ceramic cup. I take a deep breath and show her the letter.
Turq is a swinger, in that when she is mad, she starts throwing punches around. And the girl can hit. As she is reading the letter, she is torn between getting to the end of the letter and unleashing a haymaker.
She is pisssed. As Don King would say, she is pissed to the highest degree of pissivity.
“You fucking pig,” and she is pounding me, hurling punches that I’m trying to parry with my arms crossed over my chest. I’m backing up, until finally I’m against a cabinet. Then she picks up her teacup, and she’s throwing that at me, along with a spoon, a pot, another pot, another cup. I need to get out of here.
Turqoise and I have some violent fights. A man can’t win these fights. If I hit back, then that only enrages Turq more and she’s going to start swinging harder.
I’ve hit her, but only in self-defense. I’m not inclined toward that kind of confrontation. I may not always be the best judge of a situation — that is, coming downstairs and handing that letter to Turq — but I don’t ever touch her unless I’m being attacked. There are guys I know, ballplayers, who say “Hey, if a girl starts a fight, slap her and she’ll back down.” But I know Turq. She doesn’t back down from a fight. Ever. That’s also what I love about her.
I get in my new Mercedes and I’m driving out east, along the Long Island Expressway, all the way to the Hamptons, where I check into a motel.
I call Irwin and we hire this hardball attorney from Philadelphia who is going to handle the paternity issues. He says we need to DNA test and until we get those results, we need to sit tight. In the letter, Samantha wrote she was sure I was the father. But I did wonder how she could be certain, since I was suspicious she’d been with another player as well as another sportswriter, but something about the letter made me believe her.
The tests come back confirming that Alexandra is my daughter.
Turqoise calls me after three days and tells me, “You need to come home.”
“You’re gonna hit me!” I tell her.
“Our babies need you,” she says. “I won’t hit you. I may kill you, but I’m not gonna hit you.”
I come home. Turqoise tells me how it’s going to be. The lawyers will draw up an agreement, providing support for the child — Turq doesn’t care about the money — but I am to have no contact with the mother or child. Ever. It is to be a purely financial arrangement. There will be no emotional connection. The child should not even know I am her father.
What choice do I have?
We have the lawyers draw up the contract. I will give Samantha $4,000 a month until Alexandra is 18. She will get a car when she is sixteen and there will be private school tuition.
I’m not happy about this, but I need to work on the family that I have right here.
Bill Cosby also has a house in Philly, so he and Camille become regular guests at our place. In the summers, we have parties every weekend, inviting Arthur Ashe, Grover, Teddy Pendergrass, Lynn Swann, Patti LaBelle, other Philly athletes like Mike Schmidt (Doug Collins’s best friend), Harold Carmichael, Reggie White, Garry Maddox, and many of my teammates and Sixer staff. Billy Cunningham lives just up the street, so he and I are often at each other’s houses, talking shop. Turq and I start to have these weekend afternoon events I call Hit, Sip, Dip, and Dine. That’s a little tennis, a beverage, a swim in the pool, and then dinner.
Velvetine manicured grass that my friend John Havlicek might call Celtic green extends from the house an acre in every direction, to the stands of maples and spruce, green and going gold in the late summer. The treetops undulate in the afternoon breeze, their tips waving good-bye to the season. The oval pool, wrapped by a granite patio, is down a mossy stone path from our back deck. There are children in the pool, our own, our guests’, their peals like aural confetti swirling around us. On the tennis courts behind me, I can hear a game in progress, the hollow thunk of well-struck shots, the grunt of a point lost. Turq is in the kitchen, working hard. She is a wonderful cook, her creations, usually hearty southern-style fare, are the reward after a hard day of play.
A man walks through this patio, along this deck, a glass of wine in hand, and he feels that he is somehow at the center of the world. He has beautiful children, a lovely wife, fine friends, and here around him is the evidence of that, every blade, every leaf, every splash: it is all a blessing that he never takes for granted.
But beneath that image, or around it, are the great strains of my life, and ahead of me, there is so much pain still to come. I have to admit I am no longer that shining example of promise and potential. I am now fully realized but that means I also have to admit that this is what success is, what it looks and feels like. I appreciate its every minute, but with success comes previously unconsidered problems and concerns.
One thing I am now confronting is how different my children’s experience is from my own. Cosby had told me that nothing about growing up poor teaches you how to be a rich dad. My eldest son, Cheo, whom we nickname Bam-Bam for his physical strength, his nose for disruption and heavy-handed chaos, his frank boyishness and unremitting mischief, is an indifferent student, dismissive of his teachers. He’s a bright boy, cat quick when he wants to be, but too rarely shows that at school, where he is a steady disciplinary problem, the concerned calls home from teachers and administrators a regular occurrence.
His younger brother J idolizes him — I wince when I realize that this is how Marky must have looked up to me. J will follow Cheo through any of his perilous, ill-conceived ventures — a plot to heist small change or record albums or candy or extra soda pop.
When Cheo is twelve and J is eleven, I get a call from my teammate, Steve Mix, saying that someone has called him and told him that my kids are smoking cigarettes behind the Friends School in Philadelphia. Now, my children are the children of a celebrity, for better or worse, and therefore are subject to constant scrutiny. That’s the downside, I suppose, of being Dr. J’s sons.
I call my boys into my office and ask them where they’ve been today.
They tell me, “Nowhere.”
“How come you got home so late from school?”
“We were playing a little ball,” Cheo says.
I nod. “Suppose I told you I got a call about you guys smoking cigarettes behind the school. Does that mean someone’s lying on you?”
They realize they are busted. I can see Cheo running through the calculations about whether it is better to come clean or to spin another lie.
They fess up.
And then here comes the lecture. About honesty. About smoking. About drugs. About all of that, but the pattern is established. I tell them that no matter what, I will help them. I will fight for them, that Turq and I will always listen to them and try to find a solution.
Cheo nods, agrees, promises to tell the truth.
But this is something I don’t understand. How he can look me in the eye and deny what I know to be the truth? And J will nod along with him. The two of them are dissembling right through their teen years. They can never keep their stories straight. They say they are going one place and actually heading to another. And throughout their teen years, Turq and I share this frustration in understanding our boys through these lies.
I don’t want to write too much about my sons’ stories, out of respect for their privacy, but perhaps the greatest challenge for me as a father is to resist viewing their lives through the prism of my own adolescence. I was a different boy from Cheo and J.
As the first generation of our family to have money, Turquoise and I turn to our friends and associates for parenting advice. We consult specialists and counselors.
It is a mistake on my part to try to solve my sons’ issues — as our Mainline neighbors suggest, at least by their prosperous example — by finding them a different school. They begin a labyrinthine journey through elite private schools. Their upbringing is so different from mine. I didn’t have choices. If you flunked out of the local public school, well, that was it. There was no alternative. With money, however, come all kinds of options, of parenting solutions far more esoteric than my mom beating me with a switch.
I never hit my children. I break that terrible tradition. But I perhaps create a too lenient alternative where my children are indulged. Instead of telling them, “You stick it out. You hang in there. You follow rules,” I impart the message that we will change the rules to better accommodate them.
It is, I now believe, a colossal mistake.
Perhaps I am overcompensating for being absent so often. A professional athlete’s life means extended absences. I am gone too often, and so I try to make up for it by providing in money what I can’t always give in time. My job is to play basketball, and the time that demands is not optional, it is required. So I miss too much of my children’s lives. I don’t know that there is anything I can do about that. I am as involved as I can be. Either Turq or I will go to every parent-teacher night, to every soccer or basketball or lacrosse game, to every performance and recital.
And there is a certain amount of nature that can’t be overlooked in this discussion of where my nurturing was wanting: Jazmin is a good, studious girl who stays at Episcopal Academy through high school. She’s smart, steady, beautiful, and seems to thrive despite, or perhaps because of, being my daughter.
Part of it, of course, is that Cheo and J are the sons of “the Doctor,” and they have had it whispered in their ears by friends, by their peers, that, hey, they don’t have to worry about anything because, “your dad is Dr. J.”
Like they have it made.
My dad was Tonk. I never had it made.
That may be the biggest difference right there.
But I love my children with an intensity that causes its own distortions. I’m not a stern disciplinarian, and so perhaps we are too lenient, are too soft where perhaps a hardness is required. I am reacting to my own upbringing.
I play ball on our backyard court with J and Cheo, challenging them to beat me two against one. I explain to them that two should always be able to beat one, and they need to find a way to do it. I’m not allowed to shoot layups. No dunks.
We spend days on that court. Each of them tries to take me off the dribble or tries to make long jumpers instead of using the passing game to beat me.
I always tell them, “Figure it out.”
Eventually they do.
But I’m very conscious of never forcing them to play sports, or in any way judging them as athletes. I know that they will be measured by too many others against the accomplishments of their father, and that’s not fair.
They need to be allowed to just be boys. That’s what I was before I became Dr. J.
Moses Malone is the reigning MVP of the NBA, which means that we have the two most recent MVPs on this team. But what inspires confidence in training camp isn’t the hardware or the statistics, it is Moses’s work ethic. From the first day, he is running harder than the rookies trying to make the team. He says he’s not even playing until he’s sweating.
And he is a world-class sweater. I’ve never seen a grown man sweat so much. There is water dripping off him everywhere. It’s puddling on the floor. We’re hydroplaning in Moses’s sweat, splattering it up into the seats and onto the backboard. He is so intense. In every scrimmage, the second team never comes close to the first team because Moses refuses to lose in practice.
We may never drop another game.
Moses makes it clear from the beginning that he feels this is “Doc’s team.”
“There’s a lot of Indians, but there can only be one chief.”
But he still leads by example.
Moses vows to go after every missed shot. He says he figures there are a hundred chances for rebounds in a game. If he fights for every one of them, then he’s bound to get at least 15.
Our owner, Harold Katz, has solved our rebounding problems in a spectacular manner, by bringing in the best rebounder of all time. The only problem is that Moses was looking forward to playing with his old friend Caldwell Jones, and when he finds that we’ve given CJ to the Rockets as compensation for Moses, Big Mo almost backs out of the deal. I’m also terribly disappointed to see CJ go. He’s a warrior, our only player who has been willing to deal with Kareem or Parish straight up. But to get Moses, you are going to have to sacrifice something. Moses, after balking, signs, and he immediately reaches out to me and we establish the rapport that we still have to this day.
He remains one of the funniest and most perceptive individuals I know. He is shy and often speaks cryptically, and this causes many to dismiss his intelligence. But Moses has a sharp mind; he just chooses not to share it with many people.
Moses is a country boy from Petersburg, Virginia, and like Darryl [Dawkins], he never went to college. Only Moses didn’t need to. When Moses left home at nineteen, after one of the craziest recruiting wars in the history of basketball, with sixty-five or so college coaches and scouts staying at motels and in rented rooms all through Petersburg, his momma gave him a Bible, which he carries with him everywhere.
“That’s my rock,” he tells me.
He nods. “Momma gave me something to put in there. That’s my rock.”
“She wrote in there?”
“Okay, Mo, can I read it?”
“Nah, nah, I can’t let nobody read it.”
At this point in the NBA, Moses is the man. He’s taken over the title from Kareem as the best center in the league. Larry and Magic are still coming into their own. I’m in my twelfth season. Moses is the alpha dog.
But he’s still so country, with this arch sense of humor that comes out in flashes, like when he is checking out of a hotel in New York and the clerk hands him his bill. He studies it and says, “I just want to pay for a room, I didn’t want to buy no hotel.”
This is the first team I’ve been on since ninth grade where I’m not clearly the best player on the team. Even I have to defer to Moses. He is such a warrior down low that Billy has no choice but to run more of our offense through him. Moses takes more shots than I do, he scores more than I do. He becomes, in many ways, the physical leader of our team while I remain the verbal and spiritual leader.
And with the continuing emergence of Andrew Toney as a devastating scorer, we have so many weapons, not to mention Mo Cheeks and his steady hand at the point. Pat [Williams] has signed a free agent rookie named Marc Iavaroni, a big, strong player who had preceded Ralph Sampson at Virginia before playing in Italy for three seasons. Iavaroni ends up starting, so Bobby [Jones] can continue to come off the bench. Bobby still plays more minutes, of course.
At thirty-three years old, I’m picking my spots where I can impose my will. I’ve missed 24 games in total in the previous eleven seasons, so my knees are definitely feeling the wear and tear. It is a luxury to have a guy like Moses, whose presence forces defenses to double-team. Moses has led the league in rebounding three of the previous four seasons, and last year he averaged 31 points and nearly 15 boards. And we added that to a team that was already an NBA finalist.
Throughout camp, we are scrimmaging and playing with a certain anger that has never been there before. Every guy has Moses’s sneer and steely determination. I’m talking to Bobby and to Billy and to Little Mo, and we can all tell there is something different about this team. We felt great in ’80 and ’82, but we didn’t have this kind of confidence. “Now I know what it feels like,” says Little Mo.
“Now I know what it feels like to know you can win every night.”
One evening, I stop in to see Billy at his house, to talk over some issues from practice and generally discuss the state of the team. Sometimes, if Billy and I have an issue, instead of raising it in front of the guys, we talk privately. We’re practically neighbors, so it’s easy to just knock on each other’s door, which we do frequently.
Billy says he couldn’t be happier with the way this team is performing.
“Do you think we have enough?” he asks.
I start laughing. “I’ve been there three times. In ‘eighty I thought we had enough. Last year, too. But this does feel different.”
He nods. “It feels great.”
We open the season with six straight wins, including a double-overtime victory over Boston in which Moses goes for 28 with 19 rebounds, I score 28 and Toney adds 24. Moses plays fifty-six of fifty-eight minutes. We win ten of our first eleven and eventually are 50-7. Moses is the leading rebounder in the league; in fact, he has more rebounds than Dawkins and CJ combined the year before.
“Basically,” Moses says, “I just goes to the rack.”
In January, the Lakers come to town, and we play another overtime thriller, with Magic dropping a triple double on us, including 20 assists. McAdoo, Wilkes, Worthy, Nixon, all of them put up big games. Kareem is out with migraines. But the Lakers are still an all-star team.
But we have our own big stars now, with Moses and Andrew. I score 27, and on a deflected pass from James Worthy that I control near the half-court line, I get a breakaway with only Michael Cooper between me and kaboom. I have great momentum toward the hoop, but I want to make sure Cooper can’t get at the ball before I bring it down. I know Cooper is a high flier — and a fine dunker himself — so I cup the ball in my right hand and rock it back behind me before windmilling it down for the jam. Cooper, realizing that he can’t block the shot, wisely ducks beneath the backboard.
We finish regulation tied at 112, and then with twelve seconds left in overtime and the score tied at 120, Billy calls a time-out to set up a play for Moses. This seems like the prudent option. With Kareem out of their lineup they don’t have a shot-blocker who can body up to Moses. But when Little Mo gets the inbounds, he is trapped by the Laker guards and hands the ball off to Toney. Toney is having a good shooting night, already going 12 for 22 from the field, so he’s not looking for Big Mo or me, he’s thinking basket.
Billy is screaming at Toney.
Moses is already busy boxing guys out.
The entire Laker defense is converging on Toney, with Magic, Kurt Rambis and Jamaal all closing quickly. On the left side of the key, about ten feet out, Toney stops and puts up a soft jumper, somehow clearing all those outstretched hands, and banks the shot in for the win.
As great as the victory feels, it is even more encouraging that we outrebound the Lakers 40 to 37. We sweep the regular season series with the Lakers.
In February, Billy and Pat call me into Pat’s office and they ask me again, “Do you think we have enough to win it all?”
I repeat what I told them, that I thought we had enough in ’77, in ’80, in ’82, so maybe that means you can never have enough.
They are both looking at each other. I can tell they are thinking about a specific move.
“Look,” I tell them, “if there is something you can do to make this team better, then you have to do it.”
That’s when Pat swings a deal to get backup big man Clemon Johnson and shooting guard Reggie Johnson. Clemon is a huge piece of the puzzle, because he’s basically as mammoth as Moses and almost as difficult to handle. We now have a back-up center who doesn’t give opposing defenses any kind of break, and with Reggie we have another bench scorer who makes up for the fact that we no longer have Steve Mix on the squad. Our younger players, Iavaroni and Earl “the Twirl” Cureton, are also making steady contributions. We are deep.
We send four players to the all-star game in Los Angeles — Big Mo Malone, Little Mo Cheeks, Toney, and me — where Marvin Gaye does his incredible national anthem, setting up the metronome, tick, tick, tick as he makes his art. (It’s one of those moments, like Miles on his horn, or perhaps like one of my dunks, where it feels like it could spiral out of control, yet somehow it never does, and as he keeps singing, somehow harmonizing and working his voice into spaces in the music we didn’t even know were there, it emerges as this masterpiece.) After the song, he comes over to greet the players. I’ve hung with Marvin a few times, though I’m closer to Teddy Pendergrass, obviously. But Marvin is one of those artists I admire.
“I got something coming out you need to hear,” he says.
The album is officially titled Sanctified Lady. “They changed it up because I wanted it to be called Sanctified Pussy. You listen to it, but in your head, change the words to ‘Sanctified Pussy.’ It makes more sense.”
I’m laughing. “You crazy, man.”
I am the MVP of the all-star game, scoring 25.
But Moses is the MVP of the league.
We finish 65-17.
Moses promises “Fo, fo, fo,” and to this day I don’t know if he meant we would sweep three straight playoff series or if he was simply promising that we will win the title. We have no doubts about the latter, as we annihilate the Knicks and Moses goes 38-17, 30-17, 28-14 and 29-14. Though he can operate out of any low-post position he wants to, Moses prefers to play facing the basket — he will end up teaching Hakeem Olajuwan many of his post-up moves during off-seasons in Houston, where the Dream is in college. “I think I’m learnin’ that dude too much. He’s getting too good,” Mo tells me.
But in crunch time, Moses has no problem backing up to the basket for easy entry passes. And he’s such a good foul shooter that there is no way for a defender to bail out by sending him to the line.
Our only playoff loss is to the Bucks. And we win game 5 at home to put them away.
Finally, we’re back to the finals and the Lakers, who have won 58 games and are playing in their third championship series in four years. This is still a five-Hall-of-Famer team, and now they’ve added my old roommate Steve Mix to their roster.
Still, they are missing their rookie sensation James Worthy. But even if they had James, there is something different about our team this year, and I think even Magic and Jamaal can sense it. For one thing, whenever they take a lead, which they do early in games 1 and 2, we come storming back like it’s no big deal. And I can see in Magic’s and Jamaal’s body language, they aren’t as confident as in years past. During time-outs, when I catch a glimpse of them, they are looking at each other like, What do we have to do to put these guys away? In previous matchups, it would be our team that jumped out ahead and then felt helpless as the Lakers went on a tear and then put their dagger into us. Now we are in that position. They can play rabbit all they want, but with Moses down low, we are always coming back. His line this series is 27-18, 24-12, 28-19 and 24-23. We’ve completely reversed the rebounding situation, so that the Lakers are now struggling on the glass. Moses goes through stretches where he takes over games, going up and grabbing offensive rebounds and getting putbacks that break the Lakers’ spirit.
The fourth game is typical as the Lakers pull ahead by 11 at the end of the third quarter at home. But then Moses goes to the rack and I have a stretch where I score 7 in a row in the fourth quarter.
Finally, Mo Cheeks steals the ball. I’m running downcourt ahead of him, waiting for Little Mo to set me up for the fast-break dunk, but Little Mo just keeps going. He makes one of his very rare dunks. It’s over.
So this is what this feels like? The NBA title, after seven years of trying, and we are finally here, walking down the tunnel away from the Forum floor. In the locker room, I’m hugging Billy and Andrew and Little Mo. I’m up on the podium with Brent Musburger and Moses. I don’t want to drink any champagne because I want to be completely, 100 percent sober in order to savor all this.
On my way to the shower, I’m hearing guys whooping and hollering when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror.
No matter how old I get, no matter what I accomplish, I still see a lanky fifteen-year old staring back at me. I’m still Mom’s son and Marky’s brother. I’m still Junior.
Occasionally over the years I hear about Alexandra. I know she’s a promising tennis player. In that world, the pro tennis circuit, there are already plenty of rumors circulating about who her father is. I run into the tennis legend Pancho Gonzalez down in Miami, and he starts talking to me about Alexandra, about what great strokes she has and the way he’s saying it, it’s obvious that he knows she’s my daughter. And at one point I’m walking with John McEnroe through LaGuardia Airport — we’re actually on our way back from Michael Jordan’s golf tournament — and he’s telling me about Alexandra, how good she’s getting, how she’s turning pro. So, among tennis people, my paternity is well known.
Still, I’m caught off guard in 1999 when Alexandra turns pro two weeks after graduating from La Jolla Country Day School and makes a great run at Wimbledon. She’s the first woman qualifier in the Open Era to make a semifinal. The English are going crazy over her play and her dainty curtsies as she acknowledges their applause after another victorious point. But the speculation is becoming rampant about who her father is. A sportswriter from a local newspaper has been calling me repeatedly, asking questions about Alexandra, which I’m careful to dodge. But when Alexandra makes the semis, the paper publishes a story that I’ve denied being her father, which I never do. I simply refused to corroborate his story.
I have no choice but to release a statement confirming that I am the father and asking the media to give her space on this issue. I’m hoping that will put the story behind her before her semifinal match against Lindsay Davenport.
I also have to tell my other children that they all have a sister they haven’t known about. I’ve paid a terrible price for my sins, I suppose, and there is some justice in that. But why should Alexandra have had to pay any price? What sin did she commit?
Samantha obviously did a fantastic job as a single mom raising her daughter, and I have nothing but praise and admiration for both of them. As I said, there are facets of my life that are less than heroic. This is an area where I wish I could have done it differently. I wish I could have been there for her from the start, to have fought harder against Turquoise’s ultimatum about how this was to be handled. (I can’t blame Turq, of course. She was just protecting our family.) There is no villain here, though I would say — and this is my book — that there is one person who is more at fault in this affair than the rest, and I raise my hand.
Alexandra and I have since reconciled and have spent plenty of time trying to forge a relationship after over twenty years of a vacuum. She knows her brothers and sisters, and they know her. I’m trying to encourage those relationships. She’s had some problems with injuries. As she’s making her comeback, she’s asked me to come watch her play, and I did, going to a tournament in Hilton Head. I’ve given her substantial financial support as she tries to revive her tennis career. She’s a wonderful athlete and deserves that opportunity.
But she’s also got to be sensible. Is it really worth spending several thousand dollars in air travel, accommodations, and additional expenses only to come in third and win $900? At one point in Los Angeles, we sit down and have a talk.
“I want to be involved in your life,” I tell her, “but I don’t want it to just be a financial arrangement.”
“I want us to be father and daughter,” I say, “and that means more than you calling me and asking for checks.”
Relationships with grown children are complex, and perhaps ours was bound to be even more complicated because of all the time we missed. How could it not be? But at least we have a relationship.
I miss her. I always missed her.