When the 76ers came home to Philadelphia last week with the city's first NBA championship in 16 years, the place went bananas. An estimated 1.7 million watched the Sixers parade down Broad Street to Veterans Stadium, where 55,000 awaited them. Up to the mikes on a podium placed over the 50-yard line stepped Julius Erving, delivered at last from an Everest of frustration. The Doctor intoned, "Four wins, five wins, four wins," and then gave full credit to the author of the "Fo, fo, fo" prediction, Moses Malone.
"We had most of the parts," Erving told the throng, "and then we went out and for cold cash we got a hard hat." All week long it was Erving, a marvel of eloquence as well as athleticism, who put the Sixer odyssey in sharpest perspective.
Two nights earlier, he had removed himself from the chaotic scene in the 76ers' locker room and, with the championship trophy under one arm, he retreated to the relative calm of the visitors' lavatory in the Los Angeles Forum and posed for pictures holding up a raised index finger, signifying No.1. No one familiar with the 76ers' three failures in the NBA finals over the previous six years could help but notice the similarity between this triumphant pose of Erving's and the one he'd struck six years earlier in the Sixers' ill-fated We Owe You One ad campaign.
Erving had taken matters into his own enormous hands last week in L.A. by scoring seven points in 98 seconds late in the fourth game to clinch a 115-108 Philadelphia victory. With that win, the Sixers swept the defending champion Lakers in the first 4-0 finals wipeout since Golden State blindsided Washington in 1975. Philly, which had won 65 games during the regular season, thundered through the playoffs losing just once, to Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference finals. Philadelphia's 12-1 playoff record was the best in NBA history. "We toyed with people, just toyed with them," said Billy Cunningham, the 76ers' coach. "It was really something."
June 12, 1983
It was that, all right. The NBA finals had been a kind of recurrent nightmare for the 76ers, and a personal hurdle for Erving. He'd never gotten over his first trip to the championship series, in 1977, when the Sixers won the first two games before the Portland Trail Blazers ran off four straight victories. The 76ers had George McGinnis, Lloyd Free, Darryl Dawkins and Doug Collins as well as Erving that year, and they were considered a dazzling carnival act with too many marquee names and not enough discipline. "Winning a championship is the only thing that will erase that first year, when we were the guys on the black horses, wearing black hats and bandannas," said Erving, the only character left from that cast, earlier this season. "What happened then could be part of the reason we're driven now."
It's difficult to picture the Doctor as a villain, because rarely in the history of team sports has there been a player of such transcendent popularity as Erving. Most of the Lakers admitted during the finals that if they were unable to repeat as champions, there was some small consolation: At least the Doc would finally get his ring. Erving bathed in the wave of affection that he felt from the fans this season. "You can feel the vibes," he said, "feel the people pulling for you."
If there seemed to be a degree of inevitability in all this, there was also a certain amount of concern that this might be the last season Erving could be an important contributor on a championship team. He's 33, and while he can still soar over everyone, he can't do it all the time. Moreover, with the acquisition of Malone, the 6'11", 255-pound center, and the emergence of Andrew Toney as a star, Erving even consulted Bobby Jones, Philadelphia's talented sixth man, about the adjustments he would need to make to become a role player. "When you become the second or third option on a play," Erving says, "it requires some adjustments. Moses has to be the top priority for a defense, then Andrew, then me. Sometimes this year I wasn't able to make that adjustment. I'd get lost, out of my rhythm. That's when you have to step back and regroup. It's a matter of sometimes being center stage, sometimes sharing center stage, sometimes being stage left or stage right."
And sometimes it was a matter of being upstaged by Malone, the big man without whom the 76ers could never have won their championship. "I can do all the things I used to do," Erving said, "but with our team, we don't need a forward to dominate the game." After years of being the preeminent player on every team he played for—in 1980-81 he became the only noncenter since 1963-64 (Oscar Robertson) to win the league's MVP award—Erving reasoned, "If some people say it's Moses' team, that's O.K. A lot of people say it's my team, too." Malone, of course, has been the MVP two of the last four seasons and is a shoo-in for the 1982-83 award.
Whomever the 76ers belonged to last week, they were no longer the exciting—if unpredictable—high-wire act they had once been. "We used to be a pretty team that looked good winning games," Erving said. "Now we win games without looking that good. If we put together a perfect game we probably still wouldn't look good, because we have an imperfect approach to playing. Bodies are flying all over the place out there." Malone has changed the Sixers' emphasis from finesse to the physical with his sledgehammer work under the boards. "When we got Moses, he put a little more aggressiveness in everybody's game," says Point Guard Maurice Cheeks.
Malone, who was the unanimous choice for MVP in the finals, was a consistently slow starter throughout the series, but as the games wore on and the other players wore out, Malone just kept getting stronger. "Let's not play make-believe," Cunningham said. "When you talk about defending against Moses Malone, you have to give something up." First the Lakers gave up the outside shot to the Sixers, trying to double-team Malone. Then they gave up the pretense that they could match him with their 7'2" center, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, choosing instead to alternate forwards Kurt Rambis and Mark Landsberger against him. "There are a lot of forces in nature you don't stop," Rambis said. "And he's one of them."
Malone was shooting turnaround three-point jumpers as he warmed up for Game 4, laughing hysterically every time he fired one up. In the first quarter he shot 2 for 8 and stopped laughing as the Lakers pulled ahead by as many as 16 points during the second period. Los Angeles did some of its damage with backups like Landsberger, Dwight Jones and Mike McGee on the floor at the same time. Those three had logged only 21 minutes of playing time in the Lakers' previous series against San Antonio, but against Philadelphia they were called on often because of injuries to Guard Norm Nixon, Forward Bob McAdoo and rookie Swingman James Worthy.
Worthy had broken his leg two weeks before the playoffs began, and McAdoo had pulled a thigh muscle in the final game of the San Antonio series while attempting to come back from a three-month layoff after toe surgery. Nixon suffered what turned out to be a separated left shoulder—he said at the time it was a bruise—in Game 1 when he collided with Toney, and he was never a factor after scoring 26 points in the first game. In the third he strained a tendon in his left knee and McAdoo reinjured his thigh, and both of them sat out Game 4.
Given their depleted roster, it was remarkable that the Lakers entered the fourth quarter with an 11-point advantage, but Philadelphia outscored them 10-2 in the first three minutes of the period. "We gave them life," said Erving, sounding faintly apocalyptic, "then we took it away." Malone, who got 10 of his 23 rebounds in the final quarter, knew that the defending champs were about to fold. "I could see them tightening up," he said. "They saw us comin' again, comin' again. The train was comin' again."
The Sixers still trailed 106-104 when, with a little more than two minutes to play, Erving singlehandedly turned the game around with three stunning plays. First, as Abdul-Jabbar attempted to pass the ball to Michael Cooper, the Doctor deflected it upcourt. He beat Cooper to the ball and had the basket dead ahead of him. It was on almost precisely the same type of play in the sixth and final game a year ago that Erving had a breakaway layup blocked from behind by McAdoo. That was the decisive play of that game. This time Erving threw down what he later described as a "no doubt about it" dunk. "It was a struggle the whole time," Jones said. "It wasn't until that steal Julius made that we really had a chance. He took over the game and put it in his back pocket."
A minute later Cheeks hit Erving on another fastbreak drive, and the Doc's resultant three-point play gave the 76ers a 109-107 edge. But after an Abdul-Jabbar foul shot cut the lead to one, with 42 seconds left and the Sixers' offense stalled temporarily, Erving looked over the Lakers' defense from the top of the free-throw circle and saw no openings. The shot clock was down to :06. "There wasn't time to drive, there wasn't time to swing the ball, so I let it fly," Erving said later. "I didn't find that shot. It found me."
The ball cut through the net and the Lakers like a knife. Erving is unaccustomed to taking 18-foot jumpers, much less making them, but now he knew something special was happening to him. "While I was scoring those seven points," he said, "I lost my concentration for a while, thinking about what was going on."
In the 76ers' locker room afterward, Malone mugged playfully for the TV cameras, posturing and roaring in the manner of Muhammad Ali. For a man as reserved as Malone has always been in public, it was a rare and touching display of animation. "This was for the Doc," Malone said. "I wanted to be able to say that I played on a world championship team with Dr. J." Then Malone sagged visibly. "This is the first time I feel tired," he said. "As soon as a series is over, I get tired." Backup Center Earl Cureton wandered by with a friend who wanted to meet Malone. "I want you to meet Al Capone Malone," Cureton said. "He steals basketball games."
Moses' mouth curled into a wide smile. "That's me," he agreed, "the gangster of basketball."
Later that night Malone tried to make Cunningham an offer he couldn't refuse. The coach's contract with the Sixers has expired, and he has intimated that he may quit so he can spend more time with his family. In his six seasons as coach he has gone from being a mere figurehead who jumped up and down and screamed a lot to being the architect of one of the finest teams in the 37-year history of the league. Philadelphia won this year because it played great defense, and Cunningham was the one responsible for that. In the jubilant aftermath of Game 4, Malone threw an ursine arm around Cunningham's head and said gruffly, "You're stayin' and we're repeatin'." If anything can make Cunningham sign again with owner Harold Katz, it's probably a command like that.
Whether or not Philadelphia next season becomes the first NBA team in 15 years to successfully defend its championship, the 76ers have already stood a very unusual test of time. "All too often, teams that get to the finals and don't win are broken up," says Erving. "In Philadelphia that didn't happen. It was a team that took six years to build. We did it the hard way, we did it the long way, but we did it better than anybody else."
Yo, Doc. Better than anybody else ever.