Mitchell Leff/BIG3/Getty Images Julius Erving

Before their respective teams faced off during Week 4 of the BIG3 season, Julius Erving and Allen Iverson hugged as they were introduced to the Wells Fargo Center crowd in Philadelphia.

"It was great to see those two legends embrace each other on the court," said Ice Cube, co-founder of the BIG3. "The fans really felt that moment between two guys who had Philadelphia on their shoulders for so long."

Ice Cube, Julius Erving

It was a heartfelt affair for the "City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection," as Dr. J dubbed the city, whose 76ers he led to the 1983 NBA championship. With his retired No. 6 jersey hanging in the rafters, Erving addressed the crowd of 12,435.

"You don't know how wonderful it makes me feel to see all of you here," he said. "I love you Philadelphia, I love you. I'm so happy to be back here."

The floor featured an artist rendering of Dr. J (complete with a stethoscope and white lab coat), and on the sideline, Hall of Famer and 3 Headed Monsters coach Gary Payton wore a T-shirt with Dr. J shirt emblazoned on it, calling it an homage.

Iverson grew up idolizing Ice Cube. The player/coach for 3's Company called the hip-hop star his big brother, but he gave a similar description of the 76ers star who preceded him.

"He's been very supportive all throughout my career and he still is. He's a great man and he's a great mentor," Iverson said. "Those were some big shoes that I had to fill. I basically had to put two feet in those shoes."

As the fledging 3-on-3 league finds its footing, the game in Philadelphia, celebrating its two most famous basketball stars, was the signature stop of the summer for the BIG3, which plays its games at 10 different cities from Brooklyn to Los Angeles.

Julius Erving Floor LogoPlayer/coach Iverson may be the biggest name in the BIG3, but his participation has been erratic. He coached but did not play in the game in Philadelphia and did not show up at all two weeks later after allegedly being out all night at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, Illinois.

That leaves Dr. J -- the only player to win MVP awards in the ABA and NBA and the man who added a cool factor to basketball with his '70s Afro and above-the-rim play -- as perhaps the most high-profile and most dependable figure in the new BIG3 league.

"It was very important to get him," Ice Cube said. "In the first year of the league, you're fighting for credibility. That's the first thing you have to establish to be able to call yourself a viable sport."

***

One could compare the upstart league of the BIG3 to the ABA, the bold and different league where Erving started his career with the Virginia Squires and then won two titles with the New York Nets.

Erving and fellow coach George Gervin, the prolific scorer who played with Dr. J on the Squires before continuing with San Antonio Spurs in the ABA from 1974 to 1976, don't necessarily agree with that analogy.

Julius Erving, 1976 ABA Dunk Contest"Not really," Gervin said. "BIG3 is really 3-on-3, which we grew up playing."

Erving said he hadn't thought about the parallels, pointing out that the ABA already had been running for five years when he joined the Squires. And he and his ABA teammates were just out of college while the BIG3 rosters have veterans.

"Everybody has pro experience already," Erving said.

Both leagues, though, have implemented creative ideas.

The ABA introduced the three-point shot and the slam dunk contest, and the NBA later adopted both. The dunk contest took place during halftime of the ABA All-Star Game. During the 1976 version, Erving memorably took off from the free-throw line (more than a decade before Michael Jordan did so) to defeat the other contestants, including Gervin.

On a shooting foul, BIG3 players attempt just one free throw (worth two, three or four points depending where the player was shooting from). And it introduced the four-point shot for attempts made from three different circles on the floor, which are 30 feet from the basket.

Mike Bibby's four-pointer changed the momentum in the Week 5 contest, helping Gervin's Ghost Ballers overcome a 10-point halftime deficit.

"It's an exciting shot," Gervin said.

Unlike Gervin and Erving's ABA -- or most other professional leagues for that matter -- the BIG3 is unique in that each team lacks a general manager or owner.

Transactions are made via a cumulative effort involving the coach and his two captains. Since Erving and his captain (Jermaine O'Neal) and co-captain (Bonzi Wells) live in different cities, they communicated via conference call before Tri-State traded Xavier Silas to the Ball Hogs for Dominic McGuire in mid-July.

Bobby Jones, Julius Erving: 1976 ABA FinalsDuring the game Erving, who typically sports a dark blazer and a Tri-State hat, calls out plays and handles player substitutions.

"I'm just trying to make the other team match up against us," he said.

3 Headed Monsters captain Rashard Lewis further explained the coach/captain dynamic while playing for Payton.

"He's running the show," Lewis said. "He's drawing up the plays, and we go out there and just play the game."

Added Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, the 48-year-old guard for the 3 Headed Monsters: "(Payton) listens to us, though. If it's a good idea, he'll take it."

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Erving was not one of the first to agree to participate in the BIG3.

"You can't come half ass when you go talk to the man," Ice Cube said. "We as a league wanted to have a lot of things in place before we went to somebody as important to basketball as Dr. J and presented him with anything."

Ice Cube and Erving went back and forth over the phone for a month. The entertainer explained what they were doing, and Erving wanted to make sure the NBA approved of the new league, the financial situation was stable and that they had rosters in place.

After discussing it with Ice Cube, Erving talked to Gervin and Clyde Drexler, and the two Hall of Famers further convinced him that the BIG3 was not a risky venture and that it had great upside.

"He didn't say 'yeah' off the bat," Ice Cube said. "It took a lot of phone calls and letting him know how much we love basketball and how serious we were about taking care of those guys. Then he signed on, and thank God he did."

Erving is glad as well.

"Very much so," he said. "I'm enjoying it."

Erving, who hosts the annual Julius Erving Golf Classic at The ACE Club in Lafayette Hill, took Tri-State players Wells and Mike James golfing when the BIG3 visited Philadelphia. He has relished the camaraderie with both his players and his fellow coaching luminaries.

Julius Erving"One of the highlights," Erving said, "is spending time with George Gervin and his family and Clyde Drexler and his family."

With just one game a week during the 10-week season, it allows the 67-year-old Erving to still have plenty of time to hang out with his own family and engage in philanthropic endeavors and other pursuits.

"It's not so rigid that it takes up all of your time," Erving said. "It's a finite situation, so I can maintain a high level of enthusiasm for it."

Erving's responsibilities are typically limited to a Saturday night practice (a kind of glorified shoot-around) and the following day's game. After the Week 5 game, for instance, he had time to travel to Greece and return to Dallas on Saturday night for about a 30-minute practice in preparation for the Week 6 game.

When Tri-State plays each Sunday, Erving is the last one announced by the public address announcer, and the coach typically receives a standing ovation from the crowd. 

"The fan appreciation has never really waned, and this is 30 years being out of basketball," Erving said. "The fact that it's still there is a blessing."

-- Follow Jeff Fedotin on Twitter @JFedotin.

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