UMass legend Julius Erving makes Western Mass. appearance at Basketball Hall of Fame

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 08-31-2023 5:20 PM

SPRINGFIELD — The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame hadn’t been as packed all summer. Hundreds of basketball aficionados across several generations poured onto center court and filled the bleachers to listen intently to a legend of the sport.

Former UMass superstar and Hall of Famer Julius Erving walked in to a standing ovation from the buzzing crowd, several wearing his No. 32 Minutemen jersey, as he capped off the final “Hoophall Hangout” of the summer on Aug. 23. The hangouts consist of 30-45 minutes of a Q&A session, including an opportunity for the crowd to ask questions, and a chance for each member of the audience to get a picture and/or autograph from the featured player. The Hall of Fame labeled 2023 as its “most successful summer in history.”

Erving walked the crowd through each part of his basketball career, including his incredible tenure in Amherst under legendary head coach Jack Leaman. Erving was one of the most highly recruited prospects in the entire country during his senior year of high school — and he stacked up plenty of evidence to showcase that.

After receiving nearly 100 letters from colleges all over the country, Erving narrowed his list down to seven or eight schools, and began visiting each of those programs. One of them stood out above the rest, however, because of the connection that school had to his high school coach, Ray Wilson.

“When I visited UMass, I wanted to come back a second time,” Erving told the crowd in Springfield on Wednesday. “It was the relationship with the coach at that time, Jack Leaman. He had a great influence on my life. He and my high school coach attended Boston University and played basketball together. Their relationship carried over to me. I went to UMass because of that relationship.”

UMass wasn’t considered a powerhouse basketball program at the time by any stretch, but Erving wasn’t worried about that. He was focused on setting himself up for the future.

“It was a good school, it was a mid-major school,” Erving said. “Their basketball program there was pretty good; they were rebuilding kind of, but it was pretty good. I just thought that I would have a good experience.”

Erving enrolled at UMass a shell of his future self. After arriving in Amherst, he grew a ton, put on weight and worked hard to be the best player he could be. Professional basketball wasn’t even a thought for Erving — until he realized just how dominant he was.

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“When I came out of high school, the last thing on my mind was becoming a pro,” Erving said. “I wanted to go to a good school, get an education and continue on with my career path and what I wanna do the rest of my life. I didn’t know that I was gonna grow or gain 30 pounds, or be a 20-20 scorer and rebounder in two years.”

Due to a rule the NCAA had in place at the time that banned freshman from varsity competition, Erving played junior varsity his first season on campus — averaging 18 points and 14 rebounds. A year later, he proved the wait to be well worth it. Erving exploded onto the college basketball scene and was soon recognized as one of the nation’s top basketball players. He shattered his previous year’s totals by putting up 25.7 points and 20.9 rebounds per game. This was all without being allowed to dunk, in large part because of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor).

“My sophomore year they took the dunking out of the game,” Erving said. “You could dunk in warmups, but then by my junior year, no dunking in warmups or the games. That was because UCLA had this guy, Lew Alcindor, who was such a dominant force.

“They wanted to try to neutralize him, but all it did was make him better because he developed the sky hook,” Erving joked.

During Wednesday’s event, Erving made it a priority to continuously encourage the younger kids in attendance to keep striving to be great. He emphasized that each and every person has the ability to accomplish anything they set their mind to, just as he did throughout his illustrious playing career.

“The good Lord upstairs blessed me with certain gifts, and certain opportunities that allowed those things to happen,” Erving said. “And when it happened, I capitalized on that.”

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