Julius Erving knows a thing or two about dunks so when he heaps high praise on Zach LaVine, you know it's legit.
We spoke with the NBA Hall of Famer from Japan where he's teamed up with new Raptors forward Jared Sullinger to appear on Fuji TV’s “27 Hour TV” show earlier this week. There, the two served as judges for a basketball tournament during the program called “Super Dunk." Featuring 27 amateur teams from across Japan competing for a berth in the final dunk contest in Tokyo, who better to serve as a judge than one of the NBA's most iconic dunkers?
We got a chance to chat with Sully and Dr. J about how the two acclimated to the Japanese culture, the difficulties of judging a dunk contest, and where LaVine, back-to-back NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion, ranks amongst the all-time great finishers in the eyes of Dr. J.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
What’s the lifestyle like in Japan?
JS: The lifestyle in Japan is very different. A lot of people on the street, a lot of cars moving, it’s almost like a New York type of atmosphere, but it’s everywhere.
Have you been hanging out with Dr. J? Is so, what’s that been like?
JS: Yes I have; it’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of knowledge and a lot of good old-time stories, just enjoying the time and having a lot of fun with him.
What’s it like to hang out with Jared Sullinger and the younger generation of basketball players?
JE: Jared is a very impressive guy. It’s funny—lots of times, big guys weren’t always the most verbal guys, they were always “I’ma let my game to the talking.” But he has evolved very quickly. He’s a good communicator, has a high basketball IQ, very intelligent guy, and very personable. I did see him play in Boston against the Hawks, and now he’s got a new address, clean slate, he’s going on to the next phase of his career. If he asks, if he wants some thoughts or impressions, I’ll surely be happy to share those.
So why Toronto? Why the Raptors?
JS: Why the Raptors? Why not. It was almost like a no brainer. It was a situation where not only money was great, but the situation of us winning—they lost Bismack Biyombo, they lost Luis Scola, they needed a other big, and I just said “Why not?” This is a team with hard workers, and you look at the team, and there's a lot of guys that were journeymen before they went to the Toronto Raptors. It’s just been the place to be, you got the whole country behind you, and they want to win. That’s the mindset out here.
What’s it like to have a whole country behind you, being that the Raptors are the only NBA team in Canada?
JS: It’s unbelievable. It’s unbelievable. They’re open-armed, and it’s a beautiful place. If you look at it, have those fans stand outside the arena, still cheering even when they was on the road, they were still outside the arena still cheering, These fans are loyal, they’re welcoming, and the best thing is our team wants to win just like them. With all the history that goes along with Canada, with the hockey and baseball, you just wanna feel like that leader.
What are you going to miss about Boston?
JS: Awh man, that city was amazing. The way they treated me was amazing, that was the team that gave me a chance in the draft. I had the back injury, and they gave me a chance. Forever and always, I will love Boston for that.
You’re gonna be a judge for the dunk contest out in Japan, can you compare and contrast basketball in American and basketball in Japan?
JS: The game is growing, as you can see. There’s a lot of people all over the world that’s in the NBa. The brand of basketball is getting better and better and the competition is getting better.
Dr. J, what’s the difference between a dunk contest in America and Japan?
JE: This dunk contest is gonna be aided by the use of trampolines. It’s going to be a major difference right now [laughs]. We have some noble guys getting airborne and putting on a show. I’m looking forward to that, because there is that extra factor. I always thought that one of the keys to being a great dunker was landing. If guys didn’t know how to land, they were very registered to get too high up in the air, so we tried a lot of big guys, and we didn’t jump a whole lot because they didn’t have good landing skills. So I’m really anticipating the high flyers over here in this dunk contest—fly high and land. It’s like the mascots in the states. They can really get acrobatic knowing they won’t land on a hard surface, they’ll land on a mat.
Who is the best dunker you have ever seen?
JE: I’ll tell you; Zach has put on a show the last couple of years. He has to get kudos. I don’t know if the surprise factor and the timing coordination dunks that he does are as impactful as what Vince Carter brought to the scene when he did a few things that hadn’t been seen before. I think with Connie Hawkins, myself, Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Clyde Drexler, there’s a lineage there, and I think Vince shook it up a little bit there with a couple of dunks there. I’m gonna let him reside in that spot right there.
Where did this past dunk contest rank on your all-time list?
JE: It was clearly as good as the Wilkins-Jordan showdown, and I had a showdown with David Thompson back in ’76 which was the last year in the ABA. It doesn’t get acknowledged as much, but it was a great showdown. But Zach and [Aaron] Gordon, in terms of the guys who are judging and to hear what they had to say during that time, records are made to be broken, and standards of the bar are established to be challenged so somebody can go above it. I would put those two guys, the things they did this past show in Toronto, at the top of the bar. Even for them to chase next year, or put some new guys next year to go after it...they have raised the bar to a different level.
What’s the pressure in judging dunk contests?
JE: It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do. I think you have to trust your instincts and your judgment and let that first impression be what your score reflects. You don’t get the benefit of the replay or slow motion, and somebody might see something in the replay or slow motion that you missed, so you just gotta go with how it makes you feel once you see it.
We’ve seen a couple of rule changes, even rumors about a 4-point line. Would you want to that?
JS: No. No 4-point line. It’s already hard enough for teams like Golden State and Cleveland, and all those top shooters like Kyle Korver, they have a four-point-line, and it’s gonna make a lot of defenses tougher than what it is.
JE: It would be a little bit of a travesty. To get big guys standing out there trying to make one with the game on the line, it’s kinda be a sad type, and the history sometimes coming over halfcourt. You’d have to literally pick up a guy foul line to foul line if he has that type of range.
If you had one rule change to make, what would you want to see the NBA do?
JS: My thing is the fouls, sometimes those just naturally happen. You can always tell, because of previous plays or anything like that, but sometimes, there’s a hard foul just so they can’t get a layup. I’d like to see more fouls get called.
Do you think that superteams are good for the sport?
JE: Well, do you consider Miami four out of the last six years being a superteam? Cleveland a superteam with LeBron [James] and Kyrie [Irving] and [Kevin] Love? The Knicks trying to assemble a superteam? Chicago trying to assemble a superteam. Parody is always “best of the league,” but somebody’s gotta set the standard. Somebody’s gotta be great, and it doesn’t always work out. Sometimes you get a big three or big four which looks like the Warriors might have, but they might not fare as well as they did last year. Obviously, you can’t catch anybody by surprise, everybody’s well-prepared for you, and there’s only one basketball. Now you have four guys who are used to playing a certain way, getting a certain numbers, touches, shots, certain plays called for them, etc., and now in [Kevin] Durant’s situation, he’s with three other guys who are all All Stars. We just have to see how that works.
Jared, are you a Drake fan?
JS: Yes I am.
So how do you plan on getting on his good side to get all the good hook ups and parties in the 6?
JS: [Laughs] How do I plan to get on his good side? It kinda helps me to have that Toronto Raptors jersey on my back. That puts me a step ahead already.