NBA Entertainment's Dion Cocoros Talks About Strategy In Making Julius Erving Doc
NBA TV tonight debuts the latest in its "Originals" franchise with "The Doctor," celebrating the 30th anniversary of Basketball HOFer Julius Erving's '83 NBA title with the 76ers. The 90-minute documentary focuses on Erving's career in the ABA and NBA, but also notes his personal struggles with the deaths of his brother and son. NBA Entertainment Senior VP/Original Production Dion Cocoros took time to talk about Erving's impact on the NBA-ABA merger, his marketing appeal and the decision to forgo noting Erving's extramarital affair with sportswriter Samantha Stevenson.
Q: Dr. J had one of the more legendary careers in NBA history, so why now for this film?
Cocoros: We knew it was the 30-year anniversary of his only NBA title. We also were coming off a very successful documentary on the Dream Team. We felt like it was time to do something on his career, and obviously the ‘83 championship is in there. But he gave us access to his life story and his career, which is something a lot of people don’t know the depth of in terms of what a great player he was. It was kind of the perfect time to explore one of the greatest players of all time through our archives, especially coming off the Dream Team documentary.
Q: How involved was Erving? Was he open to it from the start?
Cocoros: Like any other film, we needed his interview and his life story to come to life. From the very beginning, we reached out to him, and he was all in. It was actually, in my mind, a little bit amazing that someone of his level and stature -- no one had ever done a definitive story for television. So I think it was the perfect time.
Q: How did you go about selecting your other interview subjects? Were any of them hesitant to participate?
Cocoros: We take research very seriously, so our producers and research team go through teams, childhood, high school and college for an extensive list of potential interview subjects. We spoke to Julius and got his thoughts on who was important in his life. His NBA and ABA days -- that’s our wheelhouse and we have great relationships with all those players. So we put our list together and we go out and needless to say, everybody was very happy to be talking about the Doctor and his great career. Everybody that we wanted to -- and that we needed for certain points in his life -- was very willing. Our reach is pretty wide and we were able to go to them and get the interviews done. It was a very fluid process.
Q: Was there any interest on the part of NBA TV or Julius in reaching out to (ex-wife) Turquoise Erving? What about Samantha or (daughter) Alexandra Stevenson?
Cocoros: When we began this project, like we do with every other NBA TV "Originals" project, we entered it open-minded. Julius provided us with unbelievable access and gave us carte blanche to explore his life. As producers, we needed to see what stories emerged -- and those are the ones we captured in this documentary. Obviously, it is impossible to touch on everything in a subject's life, but we are extremely pleased with the final outcome, and think fans will be as well.
Q: Dr. J had a great NBA career, but he really legitimized the ABA. Why was that so important to show?
Cocoros: It was very important to Julius. One of the first calls we had, he said, “People cannot forget about my ABA days.” We 100% agreed that what he did back in the ABA days was as important if not more important than what he did in the NBA. That and the combined fact that we have such a wealth of footage in our library, we felt it was time to bring that part of his career to life. He’s kind of a guy that was so great, but it was before the age of the Internet and “SportsCenter” highlights. He’s one of those guys where his highlights are a little bit mysterious and there’s a certain legendary status to them. We feel like the old ABA films and even the stuff in the NBA are things people have heard about, but haven’t seen. There’s kind of like a legendary feel to this story because it’s one we feel people have heard but not seen.
Q: He was also an important figure in the merger between the two leagues.
Cocoros: He was the star of the ABA and in a lot of ways helped make that connection possible, and obviously he was the crown jewel of the deal when the two leagues got together.
Q: Dr. J also had a reputation as a great marketer. Why was it important to feature that in the film?
Cocoros: He had appeal to all facets of American life. He was one of the first athletes to be marketed to the whole country. He talks about that and I think people kind of associate certain players with shoe deals and commercials. When you look back, he was one of the first pitchmen for a lot of products. I think he had that broad appeal -- people just loved to be around the Doctor.
Q: Is there a sense that some in the younger age demographic do not know who Dr. J is?
Cocoros: I think people know who he is, but they don’t know the story behind the man. I think his name kind of carries across. If you ask anyone in any generation, they’ll say, “Oh yeah, Dr. J.” Obviously the younger you are, the less likely it was that you’ve seen some of his exploits. Even people from his era, talking about what he did and how he changed the game and the way it was played. It’s kind of cool to hear people talking about him as a game changer, even those that saw him play. I do think the name Dr. J resonates, but I don’t think the younger generation truly appreciates who he was. I hope this film conveys that.
Q: Was there anything that surprised you during filming?
Cocoros: His openness. There have been a few tragedies in his life involving people that have passed on that he opens up about. Those tragedies really shaped who he was. You always want a subject to be open and honest and when he was getting emotional about his brother passing away and how that shaped who he was as a younger player -- that was very effective and it helped us tell the story. It was nice that he was comfortable enough to open up that part of his life.
Q: So there was not resistance on his part when talking about his personal life?
Cocoros: No. From the very beginning, we made it clear this was his basketball story. So whatever road that took us down, that was that. And he was fine with the treatment from the very beginning. But like any other show, it’s an evolving process. He really opened our eyes to ways in which to best attack this series.
Q: Are there any other docs you’re working on currently?
Cocoros: Not right now. We’ve had a very busy year. We’ve had a very productive and successful season and once we get finished with this, we’ll sit down and plan out next season’s strategy.