This could be the year the Philadelphia 76ers meet a challenge and do not cross the street to get out of its way. In the past there were always excuses: mismatched talents, high-rise egos, Los Angeles Magic—all the reasons why, when it counted, the 76ers were a team that almost did but always died.
The players believe that is all behind them now, and maybe it is. Last week the new 76ers, the defensive, mind-your-manners, pragmatic 76ers, stared down the onrushing Boston Celtics, stopping a green whirlwind, reducing it to a zephyr. The Sixers stood up instead of backing off, and their 107-104 victory finally put some space between them and the Celtics in an Atlantic Division race that for the last six weeks has been the talk of the NBA.
After a week in which the 76ers took four games in six days, a week in which they won at Atlanta and then came home to beat, in succession, Boston, San Diego and Los Angeles, Philadelphia had a 48-10 record, the best in the league, and was converting doubters into believers. To hear them, all of a sudden the oft-maligned Billy Cunningham is a good coach, Darryl Dawkins has grown up and Julius Erving doesn't have to worry about everyone else's game as well as his own. Indeed, the club is so strong that its sixth man, Bobby Jones, made the Eastern Division All-Star team. Says Jones, "Every guy on this team can play. It seems like all 11 guys are having their best year."
So it seemed last Wednesday night: 76ers vs. Celtics, first sellout of the year in The Spectrum, Dawkins and Bobby Jones mired in foul trouble and the team ready to be had. So Caldwell Jones stepped out of obscurity to play 48 minutes, grab 20 rebounds and hound a gimpy Larry Bird into a flat performance. It was the 21st time the unobtrusive CJ had led the club in rebounding. Asked if he had a special contractual clause to reward such diligence, Jones answered, "The only clause I got is that I have to show up every night."
Two nights later against San Diego, Dawkins, no longer the master blaster, put on a dazzling display of the marksmanship that characterizes his newly toned-down game. Currently second in the league in field-goal percentage at .611, Dawkins made eight of nine shots, including a pardon-me, over-the-shoulder, falling-down, backward flip off-the-glass number that wasn't as much showboating as it was pure accident. His only miss came when, perhaps bored, he eschewed a dunk shot, his former specialty, and hit the underside of the rim from a distance of about four inches. "I wanted to see if I could go an entire game without dunking," explained Chocolate No More Thunder.
Dawkins' return to the planet Earth is part of the reason why this Philadelphia team has been remarkably consistent. Only four times have the Sixers lost by more than four points, and the players have begun to talk about defense rather than the number of "in your face disgraces" inflicted upon the opposition. At week's end the 76ers led the league in three defensive categories—opponents' field-goal percentage, blocked shots and defensive rebounds—and they were fourth in steals. By holding opponents to 102.7 points they have achieved the best defensive average by a Philadelphia team since the old Warriors limited the opposition to 101.5 back in 1956-57, when the two-handed set shot was still in vogue. Against Boston, swarming pressure helped make the Celtics miss their first seven shots; after eight minutes Boston had only three field goals, all of them answered prayers. "We're not spectacular anymore, but we're workmanlike," says Erving, sounding like a union man.
All this is being accomplished by a team that features a starting rookie no one ever heard of and a veteran sub a lot of people tried to forget. Andrew Toney is the rookie, and unless you followed the fortunes of Southwestern Louisiana last year, you couldn't have known that he would become a guard fast enough to outrun his first-year mistakes. The 6'3" Toney gained a starting role in November when Doug Collins suffered a stress fracture in his right foot, and although Cunningham tries to keep him on a leash, the rookie has led the team in scoring four times and has a high game of 32. The rest of the Sixers consider the naive Toney a practical joke ready to happen, and while they are rolling in laughter on the locker-room floor, Toney is likely to protest, "You know you can't put nothin' over on me. Don't you know I be comin' from college?" That's when the bucket of water drops on his head.
The team's newest veteran is 31-year-old Ollie Johnson, rescued from the land of playground refugees to shoot jump shots from the corner, along the way embarrassing every NBA general manager who threw away his phone number. When reserve Forward Steve Mix sprained his right foot last month, the 6'6" Johnson stepped in as if he were walking into a game at his favorite playground down at 10th and Lombard, the one with the chain nets. Against Boston last Wednesday, Johnson scored 16 points in 25 minutes. In his last 12 games he has averaged 9.8 points and 16.6 minutes, not bad for a guy who played for five teams in the previous eight years and who couldn't even get invited to an NBA training camp at the start of this season. Says Johnson, "In the past people said I couldn't shoot or play defense. Here, it's like Heaven and I'm an angel."
With cogs like Toney and Johnson meshing so well, and with the team getting a spate of games in The Spectrum, where they have won 21 straight, while their Eastern Conference rivals, Boston and Milwaukee, both undertake long road trips, the 76ers have begun to ponder their chances of matching, or perhaps even bettering, the club record of 68-13 set in 1966-67. This might seem a rather preposterous goal, but Philly is almost right on stride with the pace of the 1966-67 club.
That the 76ers are winning is no surprise, of course. No other team in the last five years, or since Julius Erving set up residency, has matched its record. Philly has won and won and won, enough to make Cunningham the alltime coaching leader in winning percentage with a .694 mark. That's better than Red Auerbach could do with those legendary Celtic powerhouses.
But in the playoffs Philadelphia has found more thorns than roses. Last year's sorry ending was typically embarrassing. After trampling Boston four games to one in the Eastern Conference finals, Philly stubbed its toe against Los Angeles, the final night of ignominy coming when Magic Johnson, a rookie starting at center in place of the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, scored 42 points in The Spectrum as the Lakers won the title and sent the 76ers slinking away like whipped dogs yet again.
And so this season, during December and January and on into February, while Boston stacked Ws as if they were firewood, everybody held his breath and waited for the Sixer collapse. And waited. While Boston was winning an amazing 25 of 26 games, Philadelphia took 20 of 25 and held on to first place until Jan. 28, when Boston beat the 76ers by three points in Boston Garden.
That enabled the Celtics to move into first, but they may have used up too much of themselves getting there. The next night they lost to Chicago and dropped out of the lead. After the All-Star Game break and Wednesday's defeat in Philadelphia, they traveled to Milwaukee on Thursday and lost again, 113-103. That marked the first time since Bill Fitch took over as Celtic coach and Bird joined the team at the start of the 1979-80 season that Boston had dropped three in a row.
The Celtics' problem now is poor health. Bird suffered a badly bruised thigh in the first Philly game. M.L. Carr, switched to the backcourt this season, missed 41 games with a broken foot and is still trying to regain his form. To make matters worse, the team has just begun a grueling schedule of road games. Boston's 111-98 win over Indiana Friday and 123-107 defeat of San Diego Sunday were two of just three games the Celtics will play in Boston this month.
Last week in Philly, Fitch considered the schedule and the injuries, and didn't sound at all like a man whose team had recently won 13 straight. "We can't get greedy," he said. "We're going to be a good ball club when the playoffs start. We don't have to be better than Philly until the end of the year. We want to do unto them as they did unto us last year."
The next night in Milwaukee, a cautious Fitch didn't play Bird in the fourth quarter as Boston lost again. But back in Beantown Friday night against the Pacers, Bird played 38 minutes and scored 31 points, and the Celts won easily. On Sunday against San Diego, still playing hurt, Bird got 19 points in 29 minutes.
Despite the Celtics' injuries and the ominous road schedule, it's far too early to write them off. After all, they still have the second-best record (45-12) in basketball. This is a team which, a week before the end of training camp, was shocked when Center Dave Cowens retired. Guard Nate Archibald, the floor leader, was a holdout until just before the season started. The Celts dropped three of their first seven games while they got comfortable with Robert Parish in the middle and rookie Kevin McHale coming off the bench to block shots. They were down before they were up, and they'll be up again. Says Parish, "It's like the Yankees. There's a lot of pride that goes with being a Yankee and with being a Celtic. We'll be back on the right track. We're not going to give up."
Last week's developments surely must have been comforting to Cunningham, who has had a tough time convincing the demanding Philadelphia fans and a skeptical press that he knows what he's doing. When Cunningham signed on in 1977, he was regarded as merely a caretaker for perhaps the most talented team in history. Cunningham convinced the front office, however, that in order for the trees to grow he needed to prune some unwanted talent. The club dealt away George McGinnis, Lloyd Free, Joe Bryant and Harvey Catchings.
Then Cunningham demonstrated an ability to take young talent and age it. He brought along Dawkins and Point Guard Mo Cheeks, and last season when Collins again was hurt, Cunningham had a rookie, Clint Richardson, step in. This year his nursery project is Toney, and whenever the rookie makes a mistake, he gets ready to shake the hand of his replacement, veteran Lionel Hollins. The result of all this maneuvering is that no one in history has won 200 games faster than Cunningham, whose career record at the end of last week stood at 207-91. And in a league prone to the distant and vacant stare, his players listen when he talks. "He's learned as a coach," says Caldwell Jones. "The first two years he was like a rookie. Now he's calmed down and gotten into the coaching."
Cunningham's method was illustrated by two minor incidents in Wednesday's game. In the first, the Celtics' Parish was whistled for his fifth foul. Cunningham immediately jumped to his feet and was at the sideline calling a play and yelling for his team to inbound the ball, even before the referee could signal Parish's number to the scorer's table. He wanted play to begin before Boston could substitute for the vulnerable Parish. The Sixer players could see their coach was not asleep at the switches.
The second incident concerned Erving. The Doctor tried a 20-foot jumper that Cunningham deemed injudicious. He was up quickly, yelling his displeasure. Now superstars don't enjoy being dressed down, although Erving probably is more tolerant than any. Still the message from Cunningham was clear. One bad jump shot can make everyone as trigger-happy as hunters on the first day of deer season. Erving understands. "By letting him say things like that, I'm giving him assurances that he's the boss and I'm an employee," says the Doctor.
But what an employee! Erving will be 31 on George Washington's birthday, and he's starting to get a few gray hairs, but his 16 points against the Lakers Sunday gave him a 26 average for his last six games. He still can put on a clinic, and after almost every game opposing players trek to the 76ers locker room to pay tribute. Following last week's San Diego game, for instance, Michael Brooks, Henry Bibby and Joe Bryant all had an appointment with the Doctor.
"It was a pleasure playing against you," said Brooks, a rookie from nearby La Salle.
"You're still strong," said Bibby.
"I got a formula that's keeping me young," said Erving.
Someone asked him if he had made any concessions because of age. Julius switched pronouns and sounded as if he were diagnosing a patient. "You're a lot slower," he admitted, "but you're a lot smarter. You're getting the same result because you're getting by the guy guarding you, but you're not kissin' him good-by when you go by."
Meanwhile, as the team wins and Erving continues to provide enough thrills to wear out the $85,000 VPR2 replay device used in 76ers cable-TV broadcasts, there's a lot of head-scratching over a drop in home attendance. The team is off about 1,500 fans a night, the third straight year of decline. "Maybe our people are bored with excellence," says Lou Scheinfeld, the club president.
Scheinfeld was recruited from the Philadelphia Flyers to hype attendance, taking over that function from general manager Pat Williams, who had built a reputation as a promotional genius during the '70s with halftime stunts such as dancing bears and Little Arlene, a 105-pound professional glutton who during one doubleheader consumed 77 hot dogs, 19 pizzas and 21 soft drinks. This year Sheinfeld twice tried more modern gimmickry: laser light shows. Unfortunately, on both occasions the lasers didn't work. Then there was the Halloween-night costume contest when one fellow showed up wearing an obscene mask. Says Scheinfeld, "My feeling is, why not try anything? What have you got to lose?"
Attempting to find reasons for the lack of fan interest, Scheinfeld cites too many local telecasts, higher ticket prices and the fact that the rampantly parochial fans have been annoyed because the 76ers have passed over local players in the draft. (The team's racial composition—nine blacks, two whites—has also been cited by some observers.) Walking outside his office last week, Scheinfeld was confronted by a stranger who leaned out of a passing automobile and yelled, "Why didn't you draft Michael Brooks?"
"Must be from La Salle," thought Scheinfeld.
In truth the Sixers didn't draft Brooks because they had no place to play him, not with a front line of CJ, Dawkins and Erving evoking memories of the great Philly team that had Luke Jackson, Wilt Chamberlain and Chet Walker. A kid named Billy Cunningham came off the bench that season. That was the 1966-67 season, the last in which the 76ers won a championship.
Since then there have been a lot of excuses and sidestepped confrontations. Now the 76ers have stopped running—both away and off at the mouth.