Iconic Plays: Dr. J's reverse layup

Published December 10, 2021, 12:43 PMMiguel Flores

Recalling the moment Julius Erving hung in the air for a baseline scoop reverse in the 1980 NBA Finals.

Photos from Getty Images | Artwork by Melvin Rodas

To commemorate the NBA’s 75th anniversary season, NBA.com Philippines launched Iconic Plays, a series that dives into special moments from the league’s 75-year history. We kicked off the series with Michael Jordan’s ‘The Last Shot’ and Kobe and Shaq's alley-oop. In the third installment, Miguel Flores looks back on Julius Erving's baseline scoop layup from behind the backboard.

The Setup

The 1970s was a special era. The whole world was changing. Even The Beatles sounded different - but not as noisy as the new bands like Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath that kids loved back then.

Most basketball fans didn’t even have the NBA on their radars yet. But those who were into the NBA during that time most likely heard of someone named Julius Erving, an afro-wearing freak of nature that had dominated basketball by figuring out how to fly. He was called Dr. J because he operated on his opponents. 

Julius Erving was the reason the NBA-ABA merger happened in 1976. The NBA couldn’t resist not having Dr. J in its stable. And Erving delivered as promised almost immediately, helping the Philadelphia 76ers reach the NBA Finals in 1977 where they lost to the Portland Trail Blazers.

After disappointing performances in the 1978 and 1979 playoffs, the Sixers made a deep postseason run in 1980. Even if they finished with the second-best record in the conference, Philadelphia was the underdog heading into the playoffs. Dr. J, who at the time many thought was past his prime at age 29,  led the Sixers past the Washington Bullets and Atlanta Hawks in the first two rounds. In the East finals, Erving had one of his best series ever, averaging 25.2 points in a five-game romp of the Celtics.

In the 1980 finals, the Sixers – again underdogs against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, and 1979 top draft pick Magic Johnson – pushed the Los Angeles Lakers to the limit in Game 1. Absorbing the loss, the Sixers took a Game 2 win, with the series heading to Philadelphia. The Lakers woke up in Game 3 and dominated. 

Game 4 was a classic, with neither team giving way. The fourth quarter was shaping up to be a duel between Magic and The Doc.

The Moment

It’s hard to describe just how good Julius Erving was without diving into superlatives. He truly was way ahead of his time with how he saw the game. If there was an apt comparison for his game today, he sort of handled defenses like Giannis Antetokounmpo. If you give Giannis any space, he’d use it as his launching pad to the hoop for easy dunks and layups.

Dr. J was similar - he was at his best when he got out in the open court. He wasn’t an incredible shooter, but defenses were still wary of leaving him open and giving him space to sprint and take off into the paint where he weaved his sorcery.

That was a lesson Lakers bench man Brad Holland learned the hard way. Holland was absorbing some early fourth-quarter minutes to give Magic Johnson some time to rest. He did his best against Erving, but the Doctor had already scored a bucket on him in that quarter.

With around seven minutes left, Holland turned his head a bit while guarding Dr. J off the ball. The next thing he knew, Erving had sprinted to the open space out on the left wing, receiving a pass from Bobby Jones.

Erving went right and he loved to go right. He had been going right the entire series and the Lakers were slow to rotate most of the time. This time, however, Kareem was there to contest and close off the baseline.

Instead of jumping up, Dr. J jumped to the side – towards the baseline out of bounds to avoid Abdul-Jabbar. And, instead of falling like a regular human, Erving decided to spend a couple of extra seconds in the air to swing his right arm underneath the backboard and spin a layup on the other side. Two points. Philly up, 91-84. The move was so nice, Lakers coach Paul Westhead had to call a timeout to calm the ruckus Philadelphia Forum crowd.


The Degree of Difficulty

Rule-breakers have mastered the rules so well that they know exactly how to manipulate them. Basketball players in the ‘70s were taught to never go baseline as much as possible. You weren’t supposed to jump out of bounds, either.

But Julius Erving knew those rules didn’t apply to him. This was one of the first iconic moves in a league that would become defined by more split-second, mid-air exploits of its superstars in the coming decades. Before Dr. J, the best and most celebrated individual basketball moments were game-winners. Think “Havlicek steals the ball” or Jerry West from half-court.

After Dr. J’s move, the league discovered that the best parts of the game are the mid-air, split-second exploits of their superstars. 

The Aftermath

The Sixers held on to win Game 4 but lost the next two games thanks to a legendary Kareem performance in Game 5 and Magic Johnson’s iconic Game 6 start.

This NBA Finals appearance did cement Dr. J’s place among the giants of the game. It wouldn’t be until 1983—when the Sixers paired him with Moses Malone—that The Doctor would win his first and only NBA title.

That move forever changed the league. It was the first real basketball footage you could show anyone and be amazed at. Dr. J was the basketball player you could show highlights of and immediately translate his greatness, without the need for intricacies or rule-explaining. It was a guy floating in the air. You could have shown it to anyone at the time and gotten the same reaction as from when they watched the moon landing.

The scoop shot was a lightbulb moment for the NBA. Through Dr. J, the league found out what was the most fun and compelling aspect of basketball. Later on, the league would go all-in on marketing the game through their high-flying artists. Without Dr. J, we would never have gotten Michael. Or Kobe. Or Vince. Or LeBron.