Ryan, who has coached kids on Long Island for nearly 60 years, took on a new role last year: mayor of the Village of Hempstead. Erving endorsed him in the campaign.
Their relationship dates to 1962, when Erving was 12 years old and shooting hoops in the cold with a friend at Campbell Park in Hempstead. A parks official suggested they head across town to the Salvation Army, where Ryan was volunteering as a youth basketball coach. Once they arrived, they asked to join the team. Ryan welcomed them.
“It was a good move,” said Ryan, who watched Erving develop over the years. “Each time I saw him, I kept raising the bar. When he played for us, I thought he’d be a great high school player. Then in high school, I said, ‘He’s going to be a top college player.’ And then when I saw him in college, I said, ‘He’s going to be in the pros.’ ”
By the time Erving returned to Long Island to play for the Nets, Ryan was convinced that he was watching a future Hall of Famer. He was not alone.
Erving divides his career into thirds. Part I: His five years in the A.B.A., first with the Squires and then the Nets. Part II: Jumping to the N.B.A. and “searching for a meaning to it all,” he said, as he chased rings with the 76ers but lost three times in the finals. Part III: His final five seasons, when he found professional fulfillment with a championship in 1983. He retired in 1987 as a 16-time A.B.A. and N.B.A. All-Star.
Yet he seems to reflect on his time with the Nets with particular nostalgia. If his returning home presented its share of distractions — “And that’s an understatement,” he said — he built his self-described brand and cemented his reputation as one of the game’s brightest, highest-flying stars just a few miles from where he grew up. His childhood was not without challenges.
“I think back to the projects that I lived in, and how each and every day life presented something different,” he said. “I think about the meaningfulness of that and getting through it.”
Plus, the Nets were winners. Erving averaged 28.2 points and 10.9 rebounds a game with the team and was the A.B.A.’s Most Valuable Player in each of his three seasons.
At the time, his influence was just beginning to be felt. Consider Byrd, who, in 1974, was entering his senior year of high school in California. A promising player, he took a recruiting trip to Columbia, and the school arranged for him to have lunch at the PanAm Building — now the MetLife Building — with an alumnus who happened be Erving’s personal physician.
“That’s right: Dr. J’s doctor,” Byrd said. “I thought that was just the coolest thing.”
Columbia could not have made a better impression. Byrd went on to set the school record for career assists. Credit Erving with one of them.
The Nets, who were one of four A.B.A. franchises that the N.B.A. absorbed in 1976, moved to New Jersey in 1977. Erving was gone by then, plying his trade with the 76ers. But to this day, he said, he shares special relationships with his former teammates and with the community that helped raise him.
As for the Long Island Nets’ conscious effort to acknowledge and even adopt pieces of the New York Nets’ history, including his own, Erving said he had mixed feelings. He worries that young people will equate the A.B.A. with the G League and consider it a secondary league. There was nothing secondary about it, he said.
“It’s awfully confusing to the next generation, all that history,” Erving said.
But all that history is worth remembering, especially with basketball back at the Coliseum, where the old will be new again.
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