In 1983, Philadelphia 76ers players and fans were desperate for victory. After suffering defeats in three of four NBA Finals (in 1977, 1980 and 1982) plus an agonizing conference finals defeat in 1981 that cost them a shot at the championship, 1983 finally brought them victory! I grew up in Indiana, but was a Sixer fan because of Doctor J, and I remember the frustration of getting close. 1977 the Sixers were more talented than the Portland Trail Blazers and had a 2-0 series lead and the Blazers won the next four straight to take the title. In 1980 Magic Johnson played center for an injured Kareem Abdul Jabbar and dropped 42 points playing center in a game six clinching victory. In 1981 the Sixers blew a 3-1 series lead to the Boston Celtics, losing game 7 at the buzzer. Was this ever going to happen? It seemed it would take an act of God for the Sixers to ever win an NBA Title. Instead of God they got Moses, and Moses would lead them to the promised land.
Philadelphia made a dramatic off-season move to shore up their frontcourt. They traded veteran center Caldwell Jones, an excellent performer and rebounder, to the Houston Rockets and, in exchange, received Moses Malone, two-time MVP at the center position (25 points/15 rebounds per game average, 1983 MVP award winner).
Malone was one of the premier rebounders and top-five scorers at that point, so when he joined forces with Julius Erving, he saw immediate success as an All-NBA first-teamer at age 32. Erving averaged 21 points/7 rebounds/4 assists per game during this stretch and was awarded 1st team All-NBA honors; Maurice Cheeks served as top ball distributor, while Andrew Toney provided deadly perimeter jump shots to make for an incredibly balanced backcourt unit.
Moses, Dr.J, Cheeks and Toney all made the All-Star game, with all averaging at least 30 minutes per game. Bobby Jones came off the bench and won Sixth Man of the Year; Cheeks was named an All-NBA defender; Clemon Johnson provided rebounding help off the bench.
Philadelphia was 21-5 by Christmas, yet some may point out their narrow loss on the road against the Boston Celtics as a turning point; from this game forward, the Sixers were dominant.
The Philadelphia 76ers were amid an impressive 30-2 run when they won at home against the Boston Celtics. The Celtics had beaten the Sixers three times in the regular season.
Not to pick at details here, but to highlight that contrary to popular historical perception, there were reasons for concern regarding the Sixers entering the playoffs and wondering whether this year would finally be their year.
At that time, NBA competition consisted of two divisions per conference with six playoff spots per conference – division winners would get byes. At the same time, four other teams battled it out best-of-three style for three spots per conference. Philadelphia took some days off before facing off against the New York Knicks, led by Bernard King and Bill Cartwright, as opponents for their championship run.
Moses set everyone abuzz with his promise of Four-Four-Four. This meant three straight series wins in succession in order to capture a championship, which almost came true.
Malone was responsible for 37 points and 17 rebounds in leading his team to a 112-102 win against New York in Game 1. Afterward, in Game 2, Malone delivered another 30/17 performance en route to leading Philadelphia back from being 18 points down at halftime with an exceptional defensive third-quarter performance, Cheeks scoring 26 and Dr. J contributing 20 more as Philadelphia held serve at home.
Madison Square Garden games were close, yet the 76ers found ways to emerge victorious. Moses and Dr J combined to score 48 points and get 25 rebounds as Philadelphia prevailed against Philadelphia’s interior play in a 107-105 nailbiter before closing out their sweep with another win by shooting 55 per cent and receiving 29/14 performances from Malone in Game 3.
Anticipations were high for a fourth straight meeting between the Boston Celtics and the Sixers to meet once again in the Eastern Conference Finals, but the Celtics were stunned by being swept by the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Bucks were perennial playoff teams and 50-win powerhouses, regularly challenging the Sixers for supremacy on both ends of the court. Led by Sidney Moncreif (23 points per game and Defensive Player of the Year) and Marques Johnson – two top offensive performers with no weak spots whatsoever – they proved they weren’t an easy opponent.
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals was an ugly affair, with both teams turning the ball over 25 times each. Malone was limited to 14 points by Milwaukee while overtime ensued before Philadelphia survived thanks to excellent shooting from Cheeks and Toney, who combined for 23-for-33 from the floor!
Moses returned to form with a 26/17 performance in Game 2, while Philadelphia displayed strong defense, holding Milwaukee to 41 per cent shooting in an 87-81 victory. Both Moses and tough defense were critical components in an impressive Game 3 road win that all but ended the series; Malone posted a 25/14 line while Milwaukee shot only 43 percent, while Erving’s 26 points helped Philadelphia turn one-point deficit after three quarters into 104-96 victory.
Fo-Fo-Fo predictions were right up until Milwaukee’s comeback win in Game 4 when Philadelphia trailed but came up short. Shooting only 41 per cent, Milwaukee rallied back for a 100-94 win that extended this series by one game. Game 5 back home proved decisive: Toney scored 30 points while Erving had 24/10 rebounds while Moses kept on rolling en route to a 25/14 stat line, and Philly eventually secured their victory by beating Milwaukee by 115-103.
One final obstacle stood between Philadelphia and victory – the Los Angeles Lakers led by Magic, Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were an insurmountable force, including outstanding scorer and passer Norm Nixon to pair with Magic. Jamaal Wilkes provided a significant offensive threat at small forward, while even with James Worthy hurt, Bob McAdoo was still coming off the bench to fill in when necessary.
Philadelphia trailed Game 1 by three at the half, but Malone made sure they controlled the boards to secure victory with a 27/18 stat line; Erving chipped in 20/10 points, and Toney hit 25 points for Philadelphia in a 113-107 win. Philadelphia again trailed at the half in Game 2, trailing by four when Malone’s 24/12 contributed significantly towards their eventual 103-93 triumph; their 32 free throw attempts also helped close out this contest.
The series then moved to the old Los Angeles Forum for the middle games, and Philadelphia trailed by three at the half before coming back out victorious 111-94, with Malone and Dr J combining for 31 boards between them.
One more time and again, the 76ers trailed the Lakers at halftime by 14 points. Even after three quarters had ended, Philadelphia still trailed by 11. But, during the final period, Philadelphia outscored Los Angeles 33-15; Malone continued his rebounding surge by collecting 23 boards to add 24 points while Erving and Cheeks scored 20+.
Game 4 finished 115-108, and over both games played in Los Angeles, the 76ers outscored the Lakers by an astonishing margin in the fourth quarter, outscoring them 72-37 – an overwhelming outscore that put Malone ahead in MVP voting, Moses who averaged 26/18 per game in the series – an outstanding performance when it counted! Moses grabbed a fantastic total of 206 rebounds over 13 playoff games.
“Fo-Fi-Fo”, as it was later known, became the hallmark of the Philadelphia 76ers history in 1983, and this aptly represents their legacy.
Noteworthy is also how difficult the road was on their journeys towards victory: second-half deficits in each Finals game and close games that included them. Not to take anything away from their efforts down the stretch, but acknowledge just how good they were down the stretch while appreciating all of the stress fans endured as their team finally won a title that took so long to achieve.
If you enjoy hearing from the legends of pro sports, then be sure to tune into “The Grueling Truth” sports shows, “Where the legends speak”
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