Life Advice from Julius Erving

By Sean Woods, Men's Journal

What’s the best advice you ever got?

My friend L.T. Brinkley once said, “Life is all about the dash.” I said, “Well, OK, what’s the dash?” He explained that in a cemetery every tombstone has two numbers: the year you’re born and the year you die. And there’s a dash between. “That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “The dash. What you do with your life and how you lived it are in that dash.”

What advice would you give your younger self?

The same advice I got from Muhammad Ali. I was walking through an airport with one of my teammates, and Ali had 20 people with him, and he came over to me and whispered in my ear, “You know what? You’re doing it right. I got all these people with me, and I’m paying for everything.” I took that to heart. I never traveled with a posse, and I’ve always been able to think independently.

What’s the secret to driving to the hoop?

I’d put my head down and keep my eyes up, and when I found the daylight, I’d try to improvise and make something happen. When you try to explain it to somebody, it gets really complicated. I did a little coaching and I found I couldn’t explain why I did certain things. It’s a gift, man, so I just take it as a gift and keep on coming, you know?

You grew up in a rough part of Long Island. How hard were those early days?

We had to go into survival mode, and in that environment my mom, my stepfather, and the rest of my family really stuck together. I remember losing people from age five right on through to a couple of weeks ago. So I’ve always had to deal with the ultimate test, the test of living. I’m well acquainted with it, and I feel like those were the things that prepared me for anything that comes down the pike.

Which athlete do you most look up to?

Bill Russell, far and away. We met when I was 19; he came to UMass and extended the hand of friendship, and we’re friends to this day. I spoke to him just last week. He’s an amazing guy who has had an amazing life. And he’s given me a lot of pearls of wisdom over the years.

Sports have gotten more political. When should an athlete take a stance?

It’s definitely personal. If you know the candidate, if you know the agenda — sure. But I’ve never been a fan of just doing it from afar. When I did things publicly, like with the Kennedys, it was because of my friendship with Eunice Shriver and my connection to the family. So supporting them whether they won or lost or whatever wasn’t the big issue. There’s a gray area with athletics and politics, because as an athlete and endorser of products, you’re trying to win over the general public, not just Republicans or Democrats. You have responsibility to your sponsor and your partners and your family to not just put yourself out there politically if it’s going to alienate you.

When is it time to say goodbye?

In my 15th season, I remember being in a hotel room in Cleveland, during a snowstorm, and both my knees were really hurting. I had to put a pillow between them when I was sleeping. I thought, “You know what? It’s time to move on.” A year later, after 16 years, I was ready to do it and not look back. I was 37 when I retired. I didn’t have to go ring hunting. Unfortunately some guys do that at the end of their career — they go from franchise to franchise, trying to get a ring. At the end of the day, the relationships that you build during the time that you’re playing are what it’s really all about, not a ring.

Do you have a basic philosophy in life?

I like to keep the carrot out in front of me. I think the best day of my life is ahead of me, not behind me. Look at all of the unbelievable things that have happened to me thus far. I’m the eternal optimist.
Life Advice

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Men's Magazine: Life Advice from Julius Erving
Life Advice from Julius Erving
Dr. J, the four-time MVP and winner of three championships, on ring hunting, leaving politics out of sports, and what Muhammad Ali told him.
Men's Magazine
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