I was saddened to read that Julius Erving – THE legendary figure in professional basketball in the mid- to late 1970s, before Bird and Magic, and the guy who was Michael before Michael – is auctioning off the mementos from his illustrious career, including his two ABA championship rings and his 1983 Philadelphia 76ers NBA championship ring.
While he denies he’s liquidating his collection to pay off a reported $200,000 debt to a Georgia bank, and in fact this may just be a case of a former star clearing out the closets, it’s hard to imagine his Most Valuable Player awards from both leagues and his three championship rings are just taking up space.
(As a UMass alumnus I’m immediately drawn to his 1969-70 UMass game-worn jersey, but it carries an opening bid of $15,000, so I’m just a gawker.)
This story is a reminder of so many other unfortunate ones over the years – former stars who were forced to liquidate their memories to pay off debts after the crows stopped cheering and the paychecks stopped coming in. I remember former baseball slugger Jack Clark – the star of my beloved San Francisco Giants in his early years before helping the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series in 1985 – declaring bankruptcy as his playing days ended. He made millions during his career but had millions in debt that led to his bankruptcy filing during his final season. His multi-million dollar homes, classic car collection, and massive credit card debts all contributed to his fiscal downfall.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers Joe Gilliam and Mike Webster both experienced periods of homelessness prior to their untimely deaths at the ages of just 49 and 50, respectively. J.R. Richard, the incredibly intimidating 6’8″ fireballer for the Houston Astros in the 1970s whose career was cut short by stroke, was living under a bridge in Houston at one point, penniless and addicted. When I met former San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Angels slugger Leon Wagner in 1996, he was living in his car. He passed away just a few years later.
Chemical dependency, physical ailments, bad business deals, poor financial decisions, greed…whatever the reasons, it’s a sad legacy of professional sports that so many past greats have had such troubled lives after the lights fade.
Fortunately there appear today to be more protections in place for players than there were years ago when Dr. J and “Jack the Ripper,” as Clark was known in his prime, were making headlines. From player education efforts by the leagues to stronger certification standards for agents, players today make much more money and also have greater opportunities to make it last. But it’s still disheartening every time a former superstar of his sport makes headlines for financial problems. Dr. J didn’t have lingering physical impariments or drug problems that forced dire financial problems. Neither did Clark. Whether Erving’s sale is motivated by financial need or not (and the reputed bank debt seems to indicate it might be), his is just the latest reminder of a long line of childhood heroes who couldn’t make their stardom pay their bills forever.