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Wednesday, January 28, 2004  

News and analysis: What becomes a legend least?

My fellow Tarheel, the much admired sportsman Julius Erving, is at the center of a seamy story. After 31 years of marriage, many of them marred by infidelity I suspect, his lovely wife, Turquoise, is divorcing him. Someone has thrown a Molotov cocktail into the mix - a video of Dr. J. having sex with another woman. A scandal sheet, Page Six of the New York Post, broke the story.

The tape was apparently shot several years ago. It shows Erving - who went to the NBA finals four times and led the Philadelphia 76ers to a title - in a hotel room wearing a sleeveless undershirt, boxers and metal-framed glasses. The Afro of his early years is gone, and the gray of his later years has yet to arrive.

His co-star is a voluptuous, dark-haired young woman with cinnamon skin wearing a negligee. A radio in the background is playing "Sea of Love" by the Honeydrippers as Erving adjusts the camera. The couple sips white wine and chats inaudibly before the kissing begins and they get naked.

The two unhurriedly run through several positions, including a Kama Sutra-like contortion. At one point on the radio, an early morning weather report of fog is announced for San Jose, Santa Cruz and Monterey.

Erving has had two childen out-of-wedlock since marrying Turquoise - tennis player Alexandra Stevenson, 22, and a 6-year-old identified in divorce papers last year.

Mrs. Erving's camp denies it is responsible for the release of the video.

The Seminole County, Fla., court ordered Erving, who listed his net worth at $9 million, to pay Turquoise $1,500 a week, plus household expenses and $8,000 a month for credit card bills.

"He made agreements to do things. He did not do those things. We're about to have a hearing for enforcement and sanctions," Turquoise's lawyer, Andrea Black, said.

As for the video, Black said, "I'm sad it's reached this point. We've been trying to resolve this amicably. Making something like that public would help no one."

I recall hearing of Erving's wondering eye when I was growing up and, again, when I lived and worked in Philadelphia. It isn't hard to understand why his wife stood by her man until now. As the girl who fought her way out of the hardscrabble life of people of color in Winston-Salem by marrying a star, Mrs. Erving had won a prize. The perks that come with being the spouse of a celebrity are difficult to give up after one has become accustomed to the lifestyle. So, I suspect she just accepted that her husband was far from hers sexually for more than three decades. In case she forgot, there were paternity cases to remind her.

A friend and colleague who knows Erving well, Pat Williams, has expressed his disappointment, tempered with awe.

"These guys have opportunity, finances, time, and the temptations that face all of us face them in abundance," said Williams, now the vice president of the Orlando Magic. "They have opportunities beyond opportunities and temptation that us commoners couldn't imagine."

He prefers another image of Erving.

The story takes Pat Williams back almost 23 years, and even now, his voice cracks and quivers over the telephone as he tells it. This was the summer of 1981, and Williams and Julius Erving had just finished renegotiating Erving's latest contract with the Sixers, and Williams had one more condition: He asked Erving to come to the mountains of northern New York State to help him coordinate a youth sports camp.

Erving agreed, but the day before he was to appear at the camp, he was in Colorado. He landed in Philadelphia at midnight, caught a 7 a.m. flight to Albany the next morning, and arrived in time to spend the day coaching the children.

"All those kids, they were so overwhelmed," Williams, the former general manager of the Sixers, said last night from a hotel room in Houston. "He just poured himself into that day - teaching, demonstrating, posing for pictures. When I drove him back that afternoon and left him at the airport, I sat behind the wheel and started weeping, that this giant of a man had given so much and didn't have to."

But, Alexandra Stevenson has said her father never contacted her during her childhood and snubbed her when she turned up at an elemetary school autograph session. Don't misinterpret. Erving seems to have been a perfect noncustodial parent in regard to child support. It is another kind of support that was lacking.

So, which of the images is the right one:

  • The all-American family picture the Ervings usually projected, including when the parents were shaken by the death of one of their children.

  • Dr. J. in flagrante delicto with a bombshell.

  • A father who allegedly signed an autograph for his baby-faced spitting image and then urged her to move on down the line?

  • All of them, I think. The celebrity machine simplifies its fodder before we're fed it. Pete Rose becomes just crooked. Martin Luther King, Jr. becomes just another liberal, not a revolutionary. Sylvia Plath? Some silly woman who committed suicide. Julius Erving as Dr. Player may be next on the menu. However, we are naive to accept such simplification. People are complex and people with opportunities tend to become even moreso.

    Philadelphia columnist Mark Sielski has been thinking about celebrity athletes. He talked to Williams about Erving, but formed his own opinion.

    But the hard truth is that Julius Erving can't be encapsulated by this anecdote from the Adirondacks, just as he can't by the scandalous videotape sent to the New York Post by his wife's legal team. [As I stated before, Mrs. Erving's team denies throwing the incendiary device.] As a basketball player he was held up as a hero, always gracious, always giving. Since his retirement his indiscretions have seeped out - his fathering two children out of wedlock while married to Turquoise, this tryst he and a lover videotaped somewhere near San Jose 15 years ago - and have painted him as a hypocrite, left him as a punchline for off-color jokes.

    Nothing is so simple, and sooner or later everyone who watches sports will learn the lesson of Erving, Kobe Bryant, Mickey Mantle and every other athletic giant hoisted onto a house of cards: Stop being surprised. Stop believing you know them. Stop thinking they're pure. They're only men. They're only us.

    Yes and no. Celebrities are only us, but with a plus when they deserve their name recognition. Each of them does something extraordinarily well. I believe we are right to appreciate the gifts they confer on society, but wrong not to suspect their feet may be resting on clay while they write that brilliant book, break that home run record or play a guitar riff so beautiful that it could awaken our ancestors. People are complex.

    7:15 PM