The blurb for Vincent M. Mallozzi's Doc: The Rise and Rise of Julius Erving isn't provided by a heavyweight in the sports literature genre such as Leigh Montville or Michael Lewis, but none other than yammering “basketball analyst” Dick Vitale, who has spent decades bringing college hoops to the masses by providing exactly zero analysis at maximum volume. Listening to a game broadcast by Vitale like being in a one-way conversation with a basketball-obsessed, catchphrase-spewing psychotic.
Here’s Vitale's blurb: “Doc was awesome, baby! with a capital ‘A.’ Dr. J was the consummate Hall of Famer. He electrified crowds with his dazzling display of dunks.” Vitale’s blather serves a purpose, though I’m sure it’s not the one Mallozzi intended. A good blurb compels you to read a book. Vitale’s quote is a warning prospective readers should heed, even if a book devoted to Erving seems can’t-miss.
Erving, or “The Doctor” or “Dr. J,” influenced a generation of players and inspired millions of fans with an aerial artistry that no one had ever seen, so much so that his performance kept the upstart American Basketball Association afloat years past its expiration date. He was Michael Jordan before Jordan conquered the world. Erving will forever be known as a class act and a gentleman on the court—accolades that Mallozzi recites like a brainwashed cult member—but whose life after basketball has been tumultuous. He cheated on his ex-wife Turquoise repeatedly, fathering several illegitimate kids, including one-time tennis pro Alexandra Stevenson. Somewhere there’s a Dr. J sex tape floating around. In 2000, Erving’s youngest son Cory never returned after picking up a loaf of bread for a family cookout. The event and its tragic aftermath—Cory was found dead less than two weeks later—were national news.
That’s quite a life, so there’s no reason why Doc couldn't be an absorbing biography, right up there with Frank Deford’s work on tragic tennis legend Bill Tilden or Richard Ben Cramer’s demystification of Joe DiMaggio. Of course, such laudatory works are capable if the author doesn’t spend nearly 300 pages making googly eyes at his subject. Mallozzi is a longtime fan of Erving’s, dating back to the early 1970s when Erving had a gigantic Afro and was dribbling a red, white, and blue basketball. I’m all for one having heroes, but Mallozzi’s admiration for Erving does not make him qualified to be his biographer. Here, it makes him sound like a publicist with romantic stirrings for his client.
Consider the following passages from Mallozzi:
On meeting Erving for a 1999 interview: “Despite the flecks of gray dancing in his hair, the Doctor still looked fit enough to get out on a fast break and assault a rim. Appearing to have the body fat of lettuce, his biceps bulging through a white business shirt, the forty-eight-year-old Erving had defied Father Time the way he once defied gravity.”
Describing Erving’s 2008 Dr. Pepper commercial: “His beard was now a lot more salt than pepper, but he still looked fit enough to give an NBA team solid minutes off the bench.”
On Erving’s early ball-playing days: “. . . Erving was in the neighborhood, polishing his skills before family and friends and leaving them oohing and aahing by taking off for the basket with the same graceful force displayed by the jets soaring off the runway at nearby Kennedy Airport.”
This fan approach would be okay if Mallozzi, a longtime writer for The New York Times, was writing something personal like a memoir on his Erving-obsessed childhood or an oral history on Erving’s playing career. Excellent books, too many to mention here, have employed similar templates. Mallozzi straight-ahead biography/fan letter ranges from passable to embarrassing with his intentions, spelled out in the epilogue, doubling as a death sentence: “This entire book is basically a grand Valentine from one of his biggest fans.”
That’s a swell attitude if you’re writing greeting cards or, well, valentines, but not biographies. Doc starts strong, as Mallozzi covers how Erving’s love of basketball carried him through a mostly fatherless Long Island childhood. The information on Erving’s game rounding into form at the famed Rucker Tournament in New York and at the University of Massachusetts is illuminating, as is how Erving’s supposedly spontaneous moves were the results of rigorous practice. Once readers get past the evolutionary phase of Erving’s basketball skills, Mallozzi’s work crumbles. His sources dry up as do his reporting instincts, especially in covering Erving’s post-basketball life. Mallozzi decides to rely on pages of excerpts from other articles and even from, God help us, Larry King Live. What gives? Mallozzi’s response via the epilogue: “I simply stated the facts as they had previously been reported in a variety of well-respected publications.”
I find this stance troubling. In covering anyone’s life, an author should hunger to find new information or interview subjects willing to provide fresh insight. Mallozzi’s reporting technique is especially dubious because he happily unearths the good stuff—glowing quotes from Doc’s childhood friends, a scouting report describing a high-school Erving—but chooses not to get his hands dirty with the older, hey-ladies Erving. Well, that approach doesn’t work. Not only do you short-change your subject, you disrespect the readers who are investing their time and (sometimes) money with your work. Their $25.95 should not be spent on news they can Google.
With Doc, Mallozzi can’t decide whether he should write as a fan or as a reporter, and pretty much every page shows how badly a decision needed to be made. Sportswriters have an old adage: no cheering in the press box. Doc proves how telling that saying is. In fact, it’s almost blurb-worthy.
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and The (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.