“We were an unstoppable team,” Erving told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in reflection several years ago. “I don’t know if anybody could have stopped us. It would have been different for everyone involved.”
Erving left the University of Massachusetts after his junior season in 1971. Since he couldn’t be drafted into the NBA as an underclassman, Erving signed a four-year contract with the Virginia Squires of the American Basketball Association. That contract was questioned by Erving when he learned his agent, Steve Arnold, was being compensated by both the ABA and the Squires. That would lead to a lawsuit and an eventual request that the contract be terminated.
Erving hired a new agent, Irwin Weiner, who began gauging interest from NBA teams after he averaged 27.3 points and 15.7 rebounds in his first season with the Squires.
Then things got messy.
The NBA announced it would honor all valid ABA contracts. Potential suitors fell aside – except the Hawks. The Hawks signed Erving to a four-year contract April 9, 1972, one day before the NBA draft and with the Squires still involved in the ABA playoffs. For that reason, the pending deal was not announced. The Milwaukee Bucks drafted Erving with the 12th pick without knowledge of the agreement.
Bill Putnam, the president of the Omni Group that owned the Hawks, Flames at the brand new arena The Omni, was prepared to wait for Erving. He finally announced that the deal with the Hawks would become valid at the expiration of Erving’s contract with the Squires.
“Even if we do have to wait three years to get him, he’s still worth it,” Putnam said at the time. “He’s just turned 22 and is one of the most exciting players I have ever seen.”
As the 1972-73 season approached, the Hawks, Bucks and Squires all had a claim to Erving.
Then things got really messy.
The Hawks opened training camp Sept. 11, 1972 in Savannah without Erving. The next day a Georgia Superior Court judge ruled that the contract with the Squires was void. Erving immediately joined the Hawks for camp.
There was still the little matter with the Bucks. The Bucks asked the Hawks for a great deal of compensation, including Maravich. The NBA Board of Governors then ruled that the Bucks owned the rights to Erving.
While the legal issues were ongoing, Erving remained with the Hawks. He played in an exhibition game against the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels on Sept. 23 and finished with 28 points in a 112-109 victory while wearing No. 54.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Furman Bisher would write: “You’ll notice the unusually a-goggled size of my eyes today. I’ve just come from watching Julius Erving play.”
The NBA fined the Hawks $25,000 for playing Erving in the exhibition. Erving was held out for a while but played in another exhibition Sept. 30 and scored 32 points in a 120-106 victory over the ABA’s Carolina Cougars. Another $25,000 fined from the NBA followed.
Then things got really, really messy.
On Oct. 2, the U.S. District Court issued an injunction, preventing Erving from playing for any team but the Squires. He played for Virginia during the 1972-73 season and averaged 31.9 points and 12.2 rebounds.
In August 1973, the Hawks and Squires worked out a deal for Erving to play for the ABA’s New York Nets. He played three more ABA seasons with the Nets, which included two championships and two ABA MVP awards.
In June 1975, the NBA ruled the Hawks had to pay the league $250,000 (later reduced to $100,000) and give the Bucks $150,000 and two second-round draft picks in the 1976 draft. Of note, the Bucks used one of those second-round picks to select Alex English, an eight-time all-star who was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1997 after playing most of his career with the Denver Nuggets.
Following his ABA career, Erving finally made it to the NBA, joining the Philadelphia 76ers in 1976. He played 11 seasons with the 76ers before retiring in 1987. Erving won the NBA MVP award in 1981, won the NBA championship in 1983 and was an 11-time NBA all-star. In his combined ABA/NBA career, Erving had 30,026 points (24.2 average), including 18,364 in the NBA, and 10,525 rebounds (8.5).
Julius Erving is a basketball legend. For a time – albeit brief – he was an Atlanta Hawk.