All it took was a simple dinner conversation to lay the groundwork – or should we say airspace – for an NBA Hall of Famer to play a unique role in the history of Coca-Cola.

By 1977, Julius Erving was well into his legendary career, and after stints with the American Basketball Association’s Virginia Squires and New York Nets, the high-flying “Dr. J” was a standout in the NBA for the Philadelphia 76ers, thrilling fans with his arsenal of breathtaking dunks.

That year, his agent put him into contact with another trailblazer, New York businessman J. Bruce Llewellyn, and the two men had a casual dinner.

“After having a conversation with him, I thought he was a very impressive guy,” Erving recalled. “He built a business (of supermarkets) and turned it into a $100 million enterprise. I was pretty impressed. He said he was going to do something else at some point in time, so he said, ‘Save your money, kid.’ So, I commenced to saving part of my income for the investment with Mr. Llewelyn when and if it happened.”

Indeed, Llewellyn, who died in 2010 at age 82, had something bigger in mind. In 1983, he partnered with Erving and several other investors to purchase a stake in the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. in New York. Two years later, the group gained majority ownership of Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Co., at the time one of the nation’s largest bottling plants.

“This was my first significant investment,” Erving said. “With Bruce there was no real hesitation. In the seven years between the dinner conversation and the acquisition, we had become very friendly. I had really seen how he operated in his businesses and I was impressed with him. He was a mentor and a role model.”

The Llewellyn-Erving group’s acquisition of Philadelphia Coca-Cola made them the first black-owned soft drink bottling franchise and gave them control at the time of the fourth-largest black-owned business in America.

The purchase marked a seismic shift in the perception of black-owned businesses in the so-called “general” marketplace. Under the group’s stewardship, Philadelphia Coca-Cola would eventually grow to one of Coke’s biggest and most successful bottling operations in the U.S.

“You’ve got to be competitive, and I just think that’s really important in life,” the rarely interviewed Llewellyn told Black Enterprise in 1986. “If you’re not willing to be competitive, you’re not going to make it.”

Erving, the only player named MVP of both the ABA and NBA, certainly knew about competition when he joined the Coca-Cola system. He would lend his name to various marketing and advertising plans, but also sat on Philadelphia Coca-Cola’s board – making him an entrepreneurial pioneer as athletes began to look beyond the field of play for career opportunities.

“It was very meaningful in terms of my position amongst my peers,” Erving said. “It led to various calls over the years from players who where interested in doing things with bottling companies. They wanted to know, ‘How do you get in?’ There were probably a dozen people, not only in basketball, but other sports, who sought my counsel and my opinion. I’ve always been honest with them about the strength of partnerships and collaboration.”

Erving’s relationship with Coke set the stage for a varied post-basketball career. “For me, it was imperative that I took a diverse approach to my business life. I learned a lot,” he said. Erving has been involved in numerous business ventures, is a coach for Tri-State in the Big 3 basketball league, and now, at 68, he has entered the podcasting arena with House Call with Dr. J, a series that focuses on the passions that drive Erving, from youth and education, to music and business, and of course, basketball.

“I’ve been on the interview side of a number of podcasts and obviously done thousands of other interviews over the years,” said Dr. J, who was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993. “To be in the seat of the interviewer, that’s a little different.”

Erving’s involvement with Philadelphia Coca-Cola ended in 2005, and Llewellyn’s ownership group sold his shares back to Coca-Cola a year later, but not before the group had raised sales to more than $500 million and left an indelible and important mark in Coke’s history books while opening the doors for other African-American investors.