Prologue:- In 1973, the once-great Philadelphia 76ers had slid to the deepest depths imaginable. Indestructible champs in 1967, the departure of the great Wilt Chamberlain a year later had started the fall. Year by year, Coach/Gm Dr Jack Ramsey would trade or let go of the champion players. By 1972, a 30-52 record caused Ramsey himself to depart, resuscitating himself with the Buffalo Braves. Now, destitute by basketball standards, the 76ers won a grand total of 9 games. Yes, 9 games. It had been one of the greatest downfalls ever, from a great champion to the worst record in the sport in 6 years. But, the bad record had its benefits; The Sixers would exchange coaches, getting the respected Baltimore Bullet Coach Eugene William Shue. Also, drafting first, they would get a culture changer in Illinois star Paul Douglas (Doug) Collins. With Shue and Collins, the 76ers would nearly quadruple their wins over the next two years. And then, the franchise benefitted from the Watergate scandal.
On August 9th, 1974, the hugely unpopular President Richard Milhous Nixon resigned. Anti-corruption/ big business was at an all-time high, as the U.S. Government had essentially voided their contract with the American people. Corporate greed was disliked, and the New York Knickerbockers decided to not care about this. So, they made a grab for the great George F. McGinnis of the American Basketball Association’s Indiana Pacers. There was some sense to this. At the time, the Knicks still had the best backcourt around(Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe). Having lost Dave DeBusschere and Willis Reed, the Knick plan had been to bring McGinnis into land the ultimate prize, Kareem Abdul Jabbar of the Milwaukee Bucks. There was one problem. McGinnis’ NBA rights belonged to the 76ers, and they sued to get their man. With the court system packed with Anti- Nixon Democrats, they ruled decisively in Philadelphia’s favor. So, not only did the Knicks not get McGinnis, the controversy turned away Abdul Jabbar as well.
With McGinnis, the 76ers immediately went from mediocrity to respectability. They won 46 games and returned to the playoffs for the first time in 5 years. In addition to grabbing McGinnis(and retaining Collins), the Sixers drafted a man-child by the name of Darryl Dawkins and a playground great named Lloyd (World) Bernard Free. But, with the ABA merger, they would land the “big fish”.
On October 20th, 1976, the Sixers paid the ransom to acquire Julius Winfield Erving of the New York Nets of the ABA. Immediately, the 76ers were now the most talented team around. They were known as “the best team that money can buy”. They were explosive. They were exciting. They had the best talent in the league by far. They had an experienced coach that brought them to the NBA elite. They had the best forward tandem in the league. And, in Erving, they had the single most important player around. A championship was not only expected, it was seen as inevitable. But there was one problem.
The 76ers were not a team. They were an All-Star motley crew of talent. Although Erving was the better player, there were at least 4 players capable of leading the team. So, the team made it to the NBA Finals, but they fell in 6 games to the cohesive Portland Trailblazers in the 1977 NBA Finals. Flabbergasted, Erving would tell the fans “we owe you one”.
But a promise could not begin to calm fan unrest or the fury of management. So, as is the norm, the recriminations would begin whenever a team does not perform as expected. 6 games into the following season, Shue would be dismissed. Then, replacement Billy Cunningham decided that McGinnis(who he didn’t care much for anyways), needed to be shipped out. Free, though a great volume scorer, was better suited on a team that allowed him to shoot without restriction(Free was a player said to have never met a shot he didn’t like). Cunningham’s idea was to build a team suited to Erving’s brilliance. McGinnis was shipped for the former ABA great Robert Clyde(Bobby) Jones. It was a great choice. Jones was a superb defender, and more importantly, he deeply admired Erving. Free had been shipped for a pick in 1984(Charles Barkley). The moves, though, caused the 76ers to take steps back before they took a gigantic step forward.
In 1978, the 76ers were eliminated from the East Finals. In 1979, they lost the 7th game against Erving’s rival George Gervin’s San Antonio Spurs. But, in despair, the 76ers had improved greatly. In 1979-80, they improved by 12 games. Dr J was the game’s most exciting player. And now, he had a crew ready to do battle with him.
1979-80 Philadelphia 76ers 59-23 Coach: Billy Cunningham
Point Guard: Maurice Cheeks 11.4 Pts/3.5 Reb/7.0 Ast
Shooting Guard: Clint Richardson 6.7 Pts/2.4 Reb/2.1 Ast
Small Forward: Julius Erving 26.9 Pts/7.4 Reb/4.6 Ast
Power Forward: Bobby Jones 13.0 Pts/5.6 Reb/1.8 Ast
Center : Caldwell Jones 7.4 Pts/11.9 Reb/2.1 Ast
Reserves: Darryl Dawkins, Lionel Hollins, Henry Bibby, Doug Collins, Steve Mix
Strengths: Speed, transition game, depth, coaching.
This was one exciting team. Unlike the 77 edition, this squad played and complemented around the creative talents of Dr. J. Cheeks, both Jones, and Erving were magnificent defenders. They played pressure D, and they led the league in field goal percentage on defense. They were also fast, as Cheeks, Richardson, and the late edition of Lionel Hollins(who burned Philly in 1977) made Philadelphia a transition nightmare. The combination of Dawkins and Caldwell Jones allowed the 76ers to average 21 points and 19 rebounds from the center position. Coach Cunningham was a perfectionist, pushing his team to ever greater heights. As a former player, he related to them well. He developed a fantastic relationship with Erving , with their mutual ABA background. Also, Cunningham had surrounded himself with some fine assistants. Jack McMahon was a former coach, and his tutelage of the team had been seminal. But the most underrated addition had been one Charles Jerome (Chuck) Daly; after laboring in the vineyards of the college circuit for over a decade, Daly was great with the team’s different personalities. But the most important Sixer was Erving himself. He was a magnificent one-on-one player, the best in the league. Also, he was quietly responsible for the shift(unacknowledged in 1979) away from the traditional center position to the wingman/guards like Magic, Bird, and Jordan. Also, he shot better from 18 feet now better than at any point since his arrival in the NBA.
Weaknesses: Mental lapses, outside shooting, inside scoring.
Erving was now the leagues unquestioned best individual player(at least not named Kareem). However, despite improvement, his shot was still suspect and not reliable in the last 5 minutes in a game.As a result, the Sixers were prone to late game lapses. Dawkins had become perhaps the strongest player in the NBA, but he was often also the most childish. He had developed a fetish with dunking and “shattering the glass”. On November 13th, 1979, he shattered one in Kansas City against Bill Robinzine. The play had gained him instant fame; It went almost unnoticed(this writer realized it while researching this) that the 76ers actually lost the game. But that was just the point; Dawkins was often more interested in self-promotion than actual production. Although it would be nearly a quarter century before it would enter basketball vocabulary, Dawkins cared most about his “brand”. Beside Erving, the backcourt had also suspect jumpshots. Since Jones essentially had no offensive game and Dawkins was self-absorbed, often the 76ers sole offense was easy baskets created by their defense.
First Round Washington Bullets 2-0( a best of 3 existed until 1984)
Going into this series, the Bullets had been the class of the Eastern Conference. In 1978, they had eliminated the star-studded 76ers on their way to the NBA title. In 79, they had returned. But now, in 1980, their great combination of Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes had suddenly looked old. The fast 76ers ran the Bullets off the court and advanced to round 2.
Eastern Conference SemiFinals Atlanta Hawks 4-1
This series would match Erving against Atlanta star forward Danny Thomas (Dr Rounds) Roundfield. Despite the best efforts of Dr. Rounds, the Hawks were eliminated in 5 easy games. Erving would average 23.6 as the Sixers had balanced scoring with 5 players averaging in double figures.
Eastern Conference Finals Boston Celtics 4-1
This was perhaps the first surprise in the playoffs. The Celtics had seen a 32 game improvement and posted the league’s best record at 61-21. With their hard driving coach Bill Fitch and sensation Rookie Larry Bird, the Celtics were favored to win this series. But, several factors had not been accounted for. First, the center combo of Dawkins and Caldwell Jones had given the Sixers a decisive size advantage. Second, the Sixers were much quicker and more seasoned than these young Celtics. Third, the opening game set the tone for the series. Dawkins scored 23 points with 10 rebounds, and the rejuvenated Boston Center Dave Cowens could not begin to match the muscle of Dawkins. The first three games had been close, but Philly power would put the favored Celtics in 5 games. The 76ers were returning to the Finals for the first time in 3 years. Would they be able to pay their debt?
NBA Finals Los Angeles Lakers 2-4
Game 1 May 4th, 1980 Lakers 109, 76ers 102: The Finals opened on May 4th, 1980. The first problem had been the 76ers had no answer for league MVP Kareem Abdul Jabbar. He and Dr. J had battled for the MVP all year. But a fatal flaw would be revealed early. Erving had never played particularly well against the Lakers. Los Angeles had a smooth forward named Jamaal Wilkes, and he played excellent defense on Erving. In fact, entering game 1, Julius had never had more than 26 in any game against LA. He would only get 20 in game 1, while Abdul Jabbar scored and outrebounded Jones and Dawkins combined. It was an ominous sign.
Game 2 May 7th, 1980 Philadelphia 107, LA Lakers 104 : Dawkins showed up to play in game 2. 2nd-year man Maurice Cheeks showed up with 23 points and 10 assists. A game like this from Cheeks meant the 76ers fast break was in full steam; 7 boards from Dawkins meant he was active and aggressive. Erving, playing a great all-around game, came within 3 assists of a triple-double as the 76ers took a 20 point lead. However, they would blow it as the Lakers came within a point before the 76ers tied the series.
Game 3 May 10th, 1980 LA Lakers 111 Philadelphia 101: Once again, the 76ers had the familiar mental lapse(it would get worse as the series progressed). Apparently content with the game two victory, the Sixers had allowed the Lakers to fast break their way to a 31-18 lead at the end of the first quarter. It was as if the 76ers could not stand success. Abdul Jabbar dominated again with 33 points, while Norm Nixon had 22. The Sixers would spoil a great duo performance from Dawkins and Caldwell Jones. One issue had been rebounding; In this game, the Lakers held a 56-37 advantage. This was a disaster, as the Lakers led by as many as 20 at the end of three. The 76ers were now in another must-win situation.
Game 4 May 11th 1980 Philadelphia 105, LA Lakers 102 The Move: This was a classic. This was a back and forth seesaw game. Dawkins had 26, and the unthinkable happened. He had outplayed(briefly) Abdul Jabbar, who had 23. The Lakers took a two-point lead into halftime. Meanwhile, the 76ers led by 7 after three. About to face another mental lapse, Erving took the game into his own hands. With 7 minutes and 35 seconds left, Erving made the most unbelievable move perhaps in the history of the NBA. Trapped by Abdul Jabbar and Mark Landsberger, he went under the basket to the other side for a layup. Rookie Magic Johnson, who had known the Doctor since high school, was so mesmerized he wanted to ask the Dr. to do it again. The 76er defense played well enough to allow Philly to tie the series at 2. The momentum was now back in the 76er’s favor. Could they capitalize?
Game 5 May 14th, 1980 LA Lakers 108, Philadelphia 103 The ankle: This was one terrific game. Finally, Erving broke past the 26 point barrier for the 76ers. He would score an awesome 36 points.Aided by 23 and 7 rebounds from Dawkins, the 76ers raced into the locker room with a meager 53-50 halftime lead. Then, a seemingly unexpected gift fell into their lap. With about 7 minutes in the third quarter, Abdul Jabbar came up hurt. He had to leave the court; It looked like the 76ers had the chance to take advantage. In so many ways, this game foreshadowed the rest of the decade. The ankle would befall many a star, with one (Isiah Thomas) showing heroics on this very court. But in his absence, the Lakers actually increased their lead. In the 4th, Abdul Jabbar would get 14 points for 40. The Lakers pushed back the Philly charge, and now had a 3-2 series lead. But Abdul Jabbar’s ankle hurt so bad, no one for sure knew if he could travel back East for the sixth game. The 76ers, though, thought it was cheap gamesmanship. They fully expected to see the Laker center for game 6.
Game 6 May 16th 1980 LA Lakers 123 Philadelphia 107 “ Never Fear, #32 is Here”: Was he here? Was he not? Would he play? Kareem’s participation was on everyone’s mind. In Philadelphia, everyone from cabbies to little old ladies had Kareem sightings. Coach Cunningham announced that the Sixers were preparing for Kareem to take the court. Meanwhile, a 20-year-old rookie would take the game, series, and basketball universe by storm. Earvin “Magic” Johnson, would say” hey, I’ll be Kareem for today”. He jumped center, but the most important player may have been Jamaal Wilkes. He would get 37 points and 10 rebounds, as he completely outplayed Erving. The Lakers opened with a 7-0 lead. The game was close early, but the enthusiastic Lakers began to pull away in the 2nd half. Forward Jim Chones had a double-double(11 points and 10 rebounds), while guard Norm Nixon had a team-high 9 assists. The Lakers outrebounded the Sixers 52-36, but the man had been Magic. Playing the game of his life, Magic would get 42 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists. His legend(and popularity) was permanent. Meanwhile, this game featured legendary assistants. By the end of the 80s, 76er assistant Chuck Daly would coach the Detroit Pistons to the NBA Finals in 1988. His opposing coach was then Laker assistant Pat Riley. Daly’s fellow 76er assistant had been Jack McMahon, who was Riley’s first NBA coach. Meanwhile, Cunningham would move on to television announcing with CBS; He was the play-by-play man for the 88 Finals. The whole decade started with this very game.
Epilogue: The Sixers habit of mental lapses followed them into the 1981 playoffs. Up 3 games to 1 in the rematch with Boston, the 76ers would lose 3 straight as Boston captured the 1981 title.
Meanwhile, the Lakers would return to camp in the opening salvo of pure 80s dysfunction. Jim Chones, a “lunch pail” champ, decided it was time for a permanent replacement of Kareem at center. Sensing the mood, Abdul Jabbar intimidated the daylights out of all challengers. Then on November 18th, Magic would tear the cartilage in his knee. He would miss 45 games, and the team struggled to revamp upon his return. Trying to duplicate Game 6, the season would end in the first round against the mediocre Houston Rockets. Magic would throw a bad shot into the waiting arms of Moses Malone, and the Lakers were dethroned.
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