I was lucky enough to attend an advance screening last week in the City of Brotherly Love for “The Doctor,” the new documentary on basketball legend Julius “Dr. J” Erving, promoted to death on NBA TV and finally debuting tonight. In fact, so merciless has the promotion been for this documentary that the first thing Erving did in his pre-showing press conference was to apologize for how “shamelessly advertised” the movie had been. Hell, if you’ve been watching the last few rounds of the playoffs at all, you can probably do a pretty good impression of Magic’s unavoidable “When greatness … meets class … that’s what God created in Dr. J” quote by now.
But the promotional blitz makes sense — NBA TV clearly took a step up in terms of prestige for its original films with last summer’s rapturously received “Dream Team” documentary, a fantastically fun, impressively deep look into the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled on one squad. Archival clips of the team playing were a blast, everyone showed up to be interviewed, everyone shared hilarious and revealing anecdotes, and watching some of the rarely-if-ever-before-seen footage felt like getting to listen to bonus tracks from Nirvana’s “Nevermind” for the first time 20 years later. It was a slam dunk of a doc that raised the bar for the channel’s feature-length documentaries, especially considering how rote and by-the-numbers most of their original programming had been to that point.
“The Doctor” can’t possibly live up to “Dream Team” in terms of star power or behind-the-curtain revelation, but it does do a fairly good job of demonstrating the many strengths and few weaknesses of the NBA TV doc format, and what should be a model for the channel’s original docs moving forward. Like its predecessor, “The Doctor” is littered with visual goodies (clips of Dr. J playing at Rucker Park in an old-school adidas shirt, with shots of kids perched on the roof of a nearby school to watch, like something out of “The Birds”), great interviews (Magic gushes about Doc like a 10-year-old who just saw “The Dark Knight” for the first time, Sixers teammate Darryl Dawkins basically steals the show) and awesome footage of the Doc in action (even doing it on the defensive end — seriously, he looked like Serge Ibaka getting up for blocks back in the day). That’s the good stuff, and it makes Doc’s doc a must-watch, or at least a really-should-watch, for NBA fans of all eras.