Friday, May 31, 2013

Remembering the 1983 Sixers

The Battle in the Middle: The Sixers' Moses Malone and the Lakers' Aging Warrior, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Today marks the 30th Anniversary of the happiest night I have ever experienced as a sports fan. That was the night my hometown Sixers exorcised the demons of six years of frustration that had tormented the franchise ever since they scored a major coup in buying the contract of Julius Erving from the New York Nets prior to the 1976-77 season. They did it by defeating the Los Angeles Lakers, 115-108, in game 4 of the NBA Championship Series to complete an improbable sweep of the defending champs.

I had experienced Philly championships before, of course: the 1966-67 Sixers, the 1973-74 and 1974-75 Flyers, and the 1980 Phillies. But this wasn't the San Francisco Warriors or Kansas City Royals the Sixers were facing. This was the hated Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the vaunted dynasty who had defeated the Sixers in two of the previous three championship series and would go on to defeat the Boston Celtics to win the championship in both 1985 and 1987. And, most importantly, the Sixers did it in an utterly dominating fashion that no other team in the city's history has ever duplicated.

The Sixers' road to glory began in 1975 when, just 3 years removed from amassing the worst 82-game record in NBA history (9-73 in 1972-73; the 2012 Charlotte Bobcats, who went 7-59, were even worse in that shortened season), they lured ABA superstar forward George McGinnis away from the Indiana Pacers. Big George teamed with guards Doug Collins and Fred Carter to lead the team to 46 victories and the franchise's first playoff appearance in 5 years. When Erving was purchased the following fall, the Sixers immediately catapulted into the league's upper echelon. Led by Erving, McGinnis, and Collins, the Sixers led the Eastern Conference with 50 wins and defeated the Houston Rockets to earn a spot in the 1976 Championship Series with Bill Walton's Portland Trailblazers. Despite winning the first two games at home (in both of which I was in attendance), the team faltered, losing 4 straight with McGinnis mired in a dreadful slump and Maurice Lucas distracting the youthful Darryl Dawkins with a fight in game 2. The team, it was felt by the entire city, had a lot of unfinished business to attend to. The team seemed to agree, starting an ad campaign in the fall of 1977 with Erving looking directly into the camera and saying, "We owe you one. We owe you ... one." (Never mind that the Doctor later was candid enough to admit he never thought they owed anybody anything.)

But, as anyone familiar with the vicissitudes of Philadelphia sports could have predicted, the one turned into two as the Sixers, despite coasting to 55 victories in the regular season, lost to the Washington Bullets in the Eastern finals, due in part once again to the subpar performance of McGinnis. As a result, the Sixers dealt the offensive-minded McGinnis to Denver in exchange for defensive specialist Bobby Jones, a sound move that would reap dividends in just a few seasons.

After a disappointing 1978-79 season, the team rebounded with a vengeance in 1979-80, winning 59 games, bettered by only the Boston Celtics' 61 and the Lakers' 60. But they whipped the Celtics in 5 games in the Eastern Conference finals, only to succumb to the Lakers when rookie Magic Johnson scored 40 points in the absence of MVP Abdul-Jabbar in the deciding 6th game. The following season the team was even better, winning 62 games (tied with Boston for most in the league) with Erving named the league's MVP. Nevertheless, in shades of 1968, disaster struck in the Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics. Up 3 games to 1, the Sixers promptly lost three straight by a total of 5 points, allowing the Celtics to proceed to the finals to demolish the overachieving Houston Rockets. The following year was more of the same: 58 wins (second only to the Celtics' 63) and an Eastern finals duel with the Celtics. Once again, the Sixers jumped to a 3-1 advantage, only to lose badly in games 5 and 6. The Dallas Times Herald's Skip Bayless dubbed them "Chokeadelphia" and confidently predicted a Celtic victory in game 7. Second-year guard Andrew Toney had other ideas, however, earning the nickname "The Boston Strangler" with an electric 34-point performance to lead to Sixers to victory. Once again, it was the Lakers, not the Rockets, who awaited the Sixers in the finals. And, once again, the Lakers prevailed in 6 games. The Sixers, it seemed, were at an impasse. They needed to do something to push them over the top. And so, like the team did so often in the 1970s and early 1980s, they did something.

The Doctor in Action

What they did was trade solid center Caldwell Jones for the man who was quickly becoming the league's most dominant big man, Houston's relentless Moses Malone. The results were dramatic. After 57 games, the Sixers had blown away their competition with a 50-7 record. Four of their starting five were selected to play in the All-Star Game: Malone, Erving, Toney, and point guard Maurice Cheeks, the paragon of selflessness and reliability. All told, the Sixers ended with a 65-17 record, second best in franchise history behind the 1967 team's 68-13 mark. Malone averaged 24.5 points and 15.3 rebounds per game to run away with the league's MVP award. The gracefully aging Erving chipped in by averaging 21.4, while the assassin-like Toney used his arsenal of drives and jumpers to average 19.7.

But they were just getting started. Malone set the stage by predicting a clean sweep of the playoffs, a feat never before accomplished: the Sixers would win in "fo', fo', fo'." Well, the feat still has never been accomplished, but the Sixers came close. In the Eastern Conference Semifinals, they defeated the New York Knicks, 4 games to 0. In the Eastern finals, they defeated the formidable Milwaukee Bucks in 5 games. They only faltered in game 4, when the Bucks used a 4th quarter rally to avoid the sweep. This inexorably brought on yet another finals date with the hated Lakers, who had vanquished George Gervin's San Antonio Spurs in 6 games.

The Boston Strangler
The Sixers won two hard-fought games at home before whipping the Lakers, 111-94, in Los Angeles in game 3. In game 4, the "Showtime" Lakers jumped to a 65-51 halftime lead, and were still leading by 11 going into the 4th quarter. But it was that 4th quarter which demonstrated to me how great that 1983 Sixers really were. Throughout the quarter they chipped away at the lead until, with just over 2 minutes to play, Erving stole a pass and took it all the way to put the Sixers up for good. As a fitting coda, tiny Mo Cheeks punctuated the victory with a breakaway dunk (the only one I ever saw the Hall-of-Fame worthy player make in his long career) as time was expiring. The Sixers were simply too good in every phase of the game. They were, above all, too explosive to be stopped by anyone but themselves. Malone ended the game with 24 points and 23 rebounds. Toney added 23 points and 9 assists. Erving added 21 and Cheeks 20.

And they made no 3-point shots the entire game (indeed, they only attempted one, a Toney miss). Indeed, watching that game again after 30 years impresses one as to how much the game of professional basketball has changed—and not for the better—in the past thirty years. Players moving without the ball, few isolation plays with 8 players standing around, mid-range shots, a lack of "physical," Detroit Piston "bad boy" defense (i.e., how the game was designed to be played), centers who actually play the post like centers, and dominate as a result. These are all elements of the game I love which are all too rarely found in today's edition of it. And waning popularity with large segments of the population is the result.

It is difficult to assess the lasting legacy of this team. Each of the next three seasons they won more than 50 games, but never again reached the finals. Drafting Charles Barkley in 1984 somewhat offset the decline of Erving due to age and Toney due to a chronic foot injury. But the final straw came when the Sixers traded Malone, their best player, after the '85-'86 season for Jeff Ruland, whose name has become proverbial in Philadelphia for "damaged goods." Thus the '83 Sixers, as great as they were, never were a dynasty, and it is for this reason that they are, in my view, chronically underrated when lists of the NBA's greatest teams are drawn up. But that is a shame. In my 50 years of watching the game, I can think of only two—Wilt Chamberlain's '67 Sixers and '72 Lakers—that I would rate as clearly better. The two teams they most resemble in terms of dominance are their peers, the '85-'86 Celtics of Larry Bird and the '86-'87 Lakers of Magic Johnson. Michael Jordan's 1995-96 Bulls that won 72 games? Sorry, as great as Michael was, the rest of his cast couldn't hold a candle to the "supporting players" who played with Wilt, Moses, Larry, and Magic.

In the 30 years since that long ago May evening, Philadelphia's four major sports franchised have won a grand total of one championship (the 2008 Phillies). This is a drought of major proportions. By comparison, New York (including New Jersey) has won 14, Los Angeles 13, Chicago 9, Boston 9, Detroit (!) 8, San Francisco/Oakland 6, Dallas 5, and even tiny Pittsburgh 5. The magnitude of the drought has caused this hot-headed, pessimistic Irishman no small consternation. Upon reflection, however, I settle down in recognition that this is how it's always been in Philly (I first started following pro sports in earnest with the 1964 Phillies, after all!). And the prolonged dry periods only serve to make the rare championships all the sweeter. And for that the names of Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, Mo Cheeks, and Bobby Jones will always bring a smile to my face.


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