The 76ers: Bridesmaid Revisited

Once again Philadelphia has terrific players and a superb record, but probably not enough muscle to win an NBA title
April 12, 1982

It's getting to be that time of year again in Philadelphia. You know, that time, when strong men stay a little longer in the pubs at night trying to forget; when mothers rise early to hide the sports pages from their children; when along the Main Line bankers and lawyers in three-piece suits wait for the Paoli Local and the inevitable. It's that time of year again, all right: The 76ers are getting ready for the NBA playoffs and their annual rite of spring—coming close to the title, only to find some new and cruel way to lose it.

Five years ago, the Sixers took the first two games of the NBA finals from Portland and then blew four straight. In 1980, the Lakers beat the 76ers in a six-game final round. But last year was even more excruciating. The Sixers beat the Milwaukee Bucks 99-98 in the thrilling seventh game of their Eastern Conference semifinal series and advanced to the conference finals, in which they ran up a 3-1 advantage over the Boston Celtics. But it was just a matter of time, as it always seems to be with the 76ers, before the Celtics came back to win the series in seven games and turn Philadelphia into the City of Brotherly Loathe. "We got a little Spanish peasants' proverb," Jimmy Stewart said to Main Liner Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story: "with the rich and mighty, always a little patience." And with the 76ers, too.

The Sixers won three of their four games last week, losing in overtime on the road to Milwaukee 116-114 and then knocking off Chicago 99-98, Cleveland 135-115, and New York 127-106 at home to run their record to 52-22. The loss at Milwaukee did more damage to the 76ers' psyches than to their position in the Atlantic Division standings, where they started the week 5½ games behind Boston and finished it six games out. The Bucks outscored Philadelphia 11-2 over the final 3:15 of regulation play to send the game into overtime, and demolished the Sixers 52-34 on the boards. With only eight games left in the regular season, the Bucks thus trailed the Sixers by only a half game in their battle for the home-court advantage in the playoffs, where they will surely meet again. And when they do, the Bucks can take solace in their 4-1 advantage in the teams' regular-season series and in having beaten Philadelphia last week without mainstays Quinn Buckner or Junior Bridgeman, who are injured and out for the year.

The memory of the playoff series they kicked away to the Celtics last spring—not to mention the title that probably went with it—is an especially painful one for the 76ers. "It's always on your mind," says Guard Maurice Cheeks. No doubt the Sixers will be thinking about it this Sunday when they try to knot this year's series with Boston at three games apiece when they play in Philadelphia.

The 76ers and Celtics have been chasing each other for so long that the rivalry has come to involve a mind game as well as the one played on the floor. "It's as if we're playing Philadelphia every night," Boston Coach Bill Fitch says. "Because we know the Sixers are going to win, we've got to win, too."

And the 76ers have won. Over the seven weeks from the All-Star break until March 21, Philadelphia went 17-4, won 10 games in a row in one span and maintained the second-best record in the NBA. The Sixers did all that without starting Center Darryl Dawkins, who broke his right leg on Jan. 17 and missed 28 games. And yet, during those seven weeks Philly fell from 2½ games behind Boston to 3½. Then, in Philadelphia on March 21, the Celtics built a 30-point lead in the third quarter before easing off for a 123-111 victory. That embarrassment sent the Sixers into a three-game tailspin that opened a 6½-game gap between them and the Celtics.

The plunge might very well have continued had it not been for a team meeting that was called on March 27, the day before the 76ers were to play in Boston. Julius Erving, the Sixers' captain, summoned the players to his Sheraton-Boston hotel room and insisted that each of them say something about the way the team was playing. "Iron fist, that's me," says the Doctor. "A lot of teams call meetings that don't really accomplish anything. This one was called because we had things to talk about."

Whatever was said seemed to help a day later as the 76ers whipped the Celtics 116-98, to end a team-record Boston winning streak at 18 games. "We were in a psychological recession," Erving said. Winning that game didn't balance the books, but it helped. "I've never experienced anything like the intensity of the rivalry between these two teams," says 76er Guard Lionel Hollins. "The only thing people talk about all year long is Boston. They say, 'If you can just beat the Celtics, then everything will be O.K.' "

Before the season began, Coach Billy Cunningham was concerned that the Sixers' veterans would cruise until the playoffs. "In the past five years these guys have been to the finals—last spring's Boston series was the finals as far as I'm concerned—three times," Cunningham says, "so getting up for the regular season could have been a problem." But it never was, and though the race with Boston for the league's best record probably had something to do with that, there were other reasons as well. The 76ers have won more games than any other NBA team over the past five seasons, a clear indication of their ability to keep their minds on the matter at hand, and when they weren't testing themselves against Boston, Milwaukee and Los Angeles, they still played at a high level. "People look at us and say we've won so much, where's the challenge?" says Hollins. "But we expect to win, so that's secondary. We play hard every night; not a lot of teams do that. We very rarely play down to the other team's level. This year we're not even worrying about the other teams so much. We just tell ourselves what we have to do, and then we go out and do it."

If Hollins makes it sound easy, it's Erving who makes it look easy. In his 11th professional season and sixth in Philadelphia, Dr. J is still the game's most electrifying player, an abstract sculptor carving wondrous figures in the air. "It's just the nature of his personality," Hollins says, "that he wants to show everybody—even the bad teams—what he can do." Erving, who is averaging 24.1 points a game, is the league's fifth-leading scorer, and though in recent years there have been few of the prodigious solo efforts for which he once was known, he has become a great ensemble performer.

"I think he's playing the best he's ever played," Kansas City Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons said after Erving trod upon the Kings a month ago for 30 points (12 of 15 from the field), 13 rebounds, seven assists and five steals in only 36 minutes. "Doc plays hard every minute he's out there. I can't say he's the best, because Larry Bird does the great things, too, but when it comes to being sensational he's in a class by himself. He and Bird are the Batman and Robin of the NBA."

Batman (or is he Robin?) recently turned 32. Reserve forwards Steve Mix and Mike Bantom are 34 and 30, respectively. Along with Caldwell Jones, who will be 32 this summer, and 30-year-old Bobby Jones, they constitute what must be the oldest front line in the NBA, one in which Dawkins, at 25, and third-string Center Earl Cureton, 24, provide the only youth.

"It's true that our front line is getting older," Erving says, "but I don't think it's our last chance. We're very fortunate that we haven't burned ourselves out chasing the championship. This team has been tested; fate simply hasn't been in our favor." The question then is, how long will Sixers Owner Harold Katz be willing to keep tempting fate with the same players? "If the team isn't together next year," says Hollins, "it won't be because of age. This team has been successful, but maybe next year they'll decide what's needed is another combination."

Katz, who bought the franchise last summer, made his fortune with a string of diet centers around the U.S., and already he is considering ways of eliminating dead weight on the team. "We've had basically the same group here for the past five years," Katz says. "How far do you go with the same team? If we don't win it all, I would have to give that question some thought. I think we would have to go a different route."

The easiest way to trim about 260 pounds would be to trade Dawkins, a thought that has occurred to Katz, who last week told Peter Vecsey of the New York Post, "For the first time Darryl's finally met somebody who's not going to take his double-talk and triple-talk. I'm not going for that Lovetron stuff and I don't care about one-handed rebounds. I just want him to play like a man." Before the season, Katz insisted he wouldn't resign Dawkins, who was due to become a free agent after this season, unless Zandokan The Mad Dunker improved his rebounding. Last year the 6'11½" Dawkins was only the third-best rebounder on the team, behind Caldwell Jones and Erving, and when he was injured this season he was averaging 7.5 rebounds a game, slightly more than his 1980-81 average. So why did Katz sign Dawkins to a multiyear contract at a reported $700,000 a season last month? "I'm not saying we would trade Darryl," Katz has said, "but at least teams know his price now."

Whatever Dawkins' shortcomings, the Sixers are happy to have him getting back in shape for the playoffs. They were 21-7 without him, but that is not to suggest that the 76ers are a better team without him. "When you get into the gladiator circle of the NBA playoffs, where it's strength against strength," says Fitzsimmons, never a Chocolate Thunder clapper, "I like Philly's chances a lot better with Dawkins." The 76ers start their best defensive lineup with Caldwell Jones in the middle, but neither Caldwell nor Bobby Jones is muscular enough to carry the rebounding without considerable relief. Following his return March 24, Dawkins struggled until last Friday's 15-point, 11-rebound performance against Cleveland. "My jump shot's in Jamaica. Got to send it a plane ticket to get it back by Friday," Dawkins had said. Air express delivered just in time.

For a while it looked as if 45-year-old Wilt Chamberlain might be the Sixers' savior. Katz wooed Wilt for two weeks in January before Chamberlain cited remarks by Erving and Cunningham to the effect that Wilt would disrupt the team. "It was a real tribute to be asked back," Chamberlain said. "Most of the guys in the Hall of Fame are already dead."

Having Chamberlain aboard would have solved one of the 76ers' perennial headaches: poor home attendance. A crowd of merely 6,704 showed up for that seventh game against Milwaukee last season. This year the Sixers sold just 3,000 season tickets (compared to the Celtics' 12,965), and have had only four full houses (in contrast, the Celts have sold out the Boston Garden 63 straight games). Last week at halftime of the Chicago game, a man was suspended over the Spectrum floor in a straitjacket with a 16-foot python wrapped around him—and only 10,887 fans were on hand.

Although this year's average attendance is up from 11,448 to 12,193, Katz feels something may be missing in the makeup of his team. "I think controversy does draw fans in Philadelphia," he says, "and we're not controversial. I'm not saying that I'm for controversy or that I want Billy starting fights with guys, but on the other hand...."

"This team is definitely an extension of the personality of the players," says Erving, himself the mildest of personalities. "We don't try to overpower teams, although we could do that. Ours is a rather conservative approach, but that's the way Billy wants it."

Physically aggressive teams like Boston, Seattle, Milwaukee and even Los Angeles give the finesse-is-best 76ers fits. "Our guys are too nice," Katz complains. "Check it out. Our team leads the league in picking up guys off the floor." This lack of a killer instinct wasn't one of the problems discussed in the team meeting. "It's a team of a lot of older veterans," Guard Clint Richardson says, "and we have kind of a laid-back attitude. Everybody on this team's such a gentleman. We don't have any dirty, nasty guys like Boston does. When those guys get ahead, they just keep thumping. We don't do that."

Occasionally, the 76ers' lack of strong personality hurts the team. Cheeks, for instance, is so painfully shy that he sometimes finds it difficult to assert any leadership when Erving is on the floor. And yet Cheeks is certainly one of the NBA's most gifted playmaking guards; at week's end he was second in the league in steals (2.61) and third in assists (8.5). And Caldwell Jones is so selfless at times that occasionally he isn't a factor in games. Jones has a nice outside shot for a man 7'1", but Cunningham often has to remind him to take it, especially when Andrew Toney is on the floor.

Toney, a 6'3" guard, who first drew attention to himself by scoring 35 points in a playoff game last year against (who else?) Boston, has become one of the most effective reserves in the league. He scores 16.8 points a game, more than any other non-starter in the NBA and second only to Erving on the 76ers. "He's one of the chosen ones," Erving says. "He has the ability that will one day make him one of the top 10 players in the league. You see overnight sensations and flashes in the pan, but here's someone who can do it all the time."

Toney scored 46 points against the Lakers on national television to help Philadelphia to a badly needed 119-113 victory on March 7. He made 21 of 29 shots and scored 20 points in the fourth period when the 76ers were rallying from a 12-point deficit. "What Andrew did in the fourth quarter," said the Grammy Award-winning saxophonist and 76er fanatic Grover Washington Jr., who had performed the national anthem before the game, "was no different than what any performer tries to do in the late stages of a concert.... You just take it to the audience."

And all over Philadelphia, from Fishtown to Bryn Mawr, the audience is waiting. It's that time of year again, and the concert is about to begin.

TWO PHOTOSUPPERS The 76ers' high-wire act is most effective when Erving (below) is skying and Toney is flying for the easy baskets. TWO PHOTOSDOWNERS Fighting for rebounds, Dawkins isn't too mean and Bobby Jones is too lean. PHOTOMore scoring by Cheeks would make all Philly smile. PHOTODawkins is back in view, if perhaps not in shape.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)