On May 11, 1980, in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the NBA Finals, Julius Erving drove around Mark Landsberger, who managed to pin him under the basket with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s help. But he easily evaded both defenders with the most audacious layup I’ve ever seen in the NBA, swooping up from under the backboard with the ball extended over the out-of-bounds line and kissing it off the glass for the score.
Dr. J wasn’t the first player to dunk on guys and play with style and swagger, but he was so far ahead of his time that, retrospectively, it feels like he invented a certain expressive style of basketball. I wasn’t around during his era, but on old grainy highlight reels, he pops. Elgin Baylor, another dude who pushed the stylistic boundaries of the game, later pulled off a similar version of the layup but with about 15 percent of the eery elegance. Maybe it’s Dr. J’s short shorts or maybe it’s his full arm extension before he drops the hammer, but Erving looked so damn cool out there.
In-game dunks are only as cool as the dude you mash it on, but that layup was otherworldly. Erving went up against one of the greatest shot blockers in NBA history not with power but with a cool grace, avoiding a collision with an ornate sweep around the hoop. It’s no wonder Abdul-Jabbar sort of gawked at him instead of lunging or jumping at the ball. He looked as stunned as anyone. Magic Johnson describes the layup like he saw the birth of Christ:
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” says Lakers guard Magic Johnson, whose mouth actually dropped after witnessing Erving’s basket. “It’s still the greatest move I’ve ever seen in a basketball game, the all-time greatest.”
Dr. J won a championship and an MVP, but he’ll always be remembered, and rightly so, for changing how basketball was played, and this single play is the best highlight-sized encapsulation of his revolutionary abilities.