PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — On a Tuesday in 1983, in the bowels of The Forum in Inglewood, California, a reflection of Sixers red and white was beaming off the NBA’s golden championship trophy. Commissioner Larry O’Brien stood with Julius “Dr. J.” Erving, who smiled as his team was declared “champions of the world.”
May 31, 1983 — nearly 40 years ago.
Over 14,500 days.
Only two Eastern Conference Finals appearances since.
One NBA Finals appearance.
That day in 1983 was the last time the Philadelphia 76ers were able to call themselves the best, bar none.
“They just destroyed everybody,” said longtime WIP host Howard Eskin. “Destroyed everybody.”
‘We Owe You One’
The backstory of the 1982-83 Sixers is one of a team long overdue. They had been there, done that, but fell short time after time.
On Monday night, the Sixers will honor the 40th Anniversary of the team, a ceremony they’re hoping foretells the fortune of the current team – another that’s long overdue.
Erving, a titan of professional basketball from the long gone American Basketball Association (ABA), arrived in Philadelphia in 1976, joining a franchise that only four seasons prior had the worst 82-game record in the NBA’s history.
Dr. J.’s first season in Philadelphia was outstanding. George McGinnis and Doug Collins helped contribute to a 50-32 regular season, good for first in the East. They won a playoff series for the first time since 1968 and made it to the 1977 NBA Finals, where they faced Bill Walton’s Portland Trail Blazers, coached by Upper Darby native Jack Ramsay.
Dr. J. and the Sixers took a 2-0 series lead against Portland with victories at The Spectrum. But a fight between Daryl Dawkins and the Blazers Maurice Lucas in Game 2 changed the nature of the series, as remembered by longtime Sixers television play-by-play announcer Marc Zumoff — at the time in his early-20’s and a handful of years before he started covering the team.
“In the opinion of many, that was a wake up call for the Blazers,” said Zumoff.
Portland won the next four games.
According to Zumoff, who was not yet covering the team, the Sixers started an ad campaign that summer that featured Dr. J. slamming a locker and looking into a camera saying, “We Owe You One.”
But, the Sixers didn’t make good without more hardships along the way.
The 1979-80 Sixers lost the NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games, with the Lakers clinching the series at The Spectrum without an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The 1980-81 Sixers were up 3-1 over the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, but flushed that lead to lose the series to the eventual NBA Champs that season.
The 1981-82 Sixers lost the NBA Finals again to the Lakers in six games.
The Sixers, a perennial Eastern Conference contender — now with a core that included Erving, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones and Andrew Toney — needed a missing piece to take them to the promised land.
Who better than a guy named Moses?
A team with four Hall of Famers, and coached by another
Moses Malone – a rebounding machine nicknamed the “Chairman of the Boards” was a 26-year-old reigning Most Valuable Player of the Houston Rockets averaging 31.1 points per game in 1981-82. Despite that, the Rockets decided not to pay Malone about $2 million a season as a restricted free agent and the Sixers pounced.
“It created a buzz that I’m not sure this town ever had as far as pro basketball was concerned,” said Zumoff, who was entering his rookie season covering the Sixers on PRISM television.
The Sixers got off to a dominating start, going 57-9 through 66 of their 82 regular season games. Malone was making a profound impact.
“I call him the James Brown of basketball,” said Philadelphia basketball legend Sonny Hill. “The hardest working man in the game.”
“How many teams other than probably the old Celtics had four Hall of Famers that played on the same team, at the same time,” Eskin pointed out. “It was just incredible.”
Erving, Malone, Cheeks and Jones are in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame — and Jones was the Sixers sixth man that season. Then, in addition to the Hall of Fame players, the team was coached by Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham, who came off the bench for the 1966-67 championship Sixers. They were 8-8 over their final 16 regular season games, but nonetheless had the best record in basketball that season at 65-17.
“There was a lot of confidence going certainly through that regular season and into the playoffs with that club,” Zumoff explained.
But, of course, the only thing that mattered was the unfinished business.
Fo’ Fo’ Fo’
Malone’s play spoke for itself. Off the court, he wasn’t one to give long quotes to the media.
“Moses had a great sense of humor,” Zumoff said. “And he had a way of speaking … He was pithy in that he could come up with a very brief comment or a brief remark of some sort that would sum up the whole situation.”
Malone was asked to make a prediction for the upcoming postseason. He said, “Fo’ Fo’ Fo’.”
Malone thought the Sixers would sweep the playoffs and not lose a game.
Back then, only six teams from each conference made the playoffs, with the top two seeds receiving first round byes. The Sixers swept the New York Knicks before easily dispatching the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, 4-1.
The Sixers for the third time in four seasons were going to the NBA Finals, where – fittingly – they would face Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers – who didn’t have rookie and future Hall of Famer James Worthy because of a season-ending injury.
Nonetheless, that did not take away from the drama of the series.
The Sixers trailed at halftime in every game.
Game 1 at The Spectrum, Toney and Lakers guard Norm Nixon collided. Subbing in for Toney was backup guard Clint Richardson, a 26-year-old who averaged 22 minutes a game in 1982-83. Richardson provided a great spark, making several shots and finishing with 15 points in 31 minutes off the bench. Sixers took the opener 113-107.
In Game 2, Malone picked up his fifth personal foul early in the fourth quarter. Backup Earl Cureton stepped in and made sure Malone’s absence wouldn’t be costly for the Sixers. Cureton forced steals and even gave Abdul-Jabbar a taste of his own medicine with a sky hook — his only bucket in 17 minutes of action.
“It was by far the loudest that building has ever been [when Cureton made that shot,]” said Zumoff. “It was just an amazing moment.”
Sixers, just like in 1977, led the series 2-0 heading on the road. There would be no collapse this time around.
The star of Game 3 at The Forum was Malone. He led the game in points and rebounds. Sixers blew out the Lakers 111-94 thanks to a 39-22 fourth quarter.
The Lakers took a huge lead in Game 4, but the Sixers fought back with a big fourth quarter. Trailing with less than two minutes to go, “The Doctor” had three big buckets down the stretch, including the go-ahead three-point layup with 59 seconds left and the dagger foul line jump shot with 24 seconds to go. Jab step, swish. Sixers up three.
On the ensuing possession, Cheeks stripped Abdul-Jabbar. Jones picked up the loose ball and flipped it to a running Cheeks. Cheeks took advantage of the two-on-one and passed it to Malone, who finished with a two-hand jam with 13 seconds remaining. Sixers up five, Malone pumps his first in the air with the Sixers bench jumping up and down, giving one another hugs. Johnson then heaved up an errant long three. Cheeks grabbed the rebound, dribbled with enthusiasm down the floor – pumping his left fist in the air and slamming the ball into the basket with his right hand, an iconic sequence in Sixers history.
Malone might’ve predicted “Fo’ Fo’ Fo’,” but “Fo’ Fi’ Fo’” more than did the job.
“That team is one of the all great individual teams ever in the history of the NBA,” said Hill, who is an executive adviser to the 76ers.
“Three trips to the finals in six years, you come to realize coming in second isn’t good enough,” Erving said Monday morning at the Sixers Training Facility in Camden, just hours before Monday night’s celebration. “When we finally won the championship and got over the hump, the cry was we were paid in full.”
An overlooked star
In the wake of the ‘83 season, the four hall of famers on the team have endured as lasting heroes in Sixers history.
Andrew Toney, aka “The Boston Strangler” for his legendary performances against the Celtics, is less remembered.
Toney had a first step that was very difficult to guard. He could shoot. Zumoff said, “he was one of the best two guards that I’ve ever seen in the NBA.”
Charles Barkley referred to Toney as the best player he ever played with.
Toney’s career was cut short after only eight seasons because of foot problems.
“And he was having an issue with a stress fracture,” Zumoff remembered. “And as I recall, the state of the art in terms of medical diagnostics [in the late 80’s] was not what it is today. So because of that, the stress fracture went basically undiagnosed and he was proclaimed to be a healthy player.”
Toney was saying he was still in pain and couldn't play.
“And so that led to some friction, which I think eventually led to him leaving the Sixers, leaving the Sixers, leaving the NBA and it was a shame to see his career disintegrate the way he did.”
According to a 2019 article in The Athletic, Toney and former Sixers owner Harold Katz are now on good terms after the ugly way things ended.
NBC Sports Philadelphia reported in 2012 that Toney was quietly at a Sixers game that season and was recognized during the game, much to the crowd’s liking.
But aside from that, all indications are Toney has not been seen at Broad and Pattison by Sixers fans like other legends as the years have gone on. He is not expected to be at Monday night’s ceremony. The Sixers say they have been in contact with Toney about the reunion, but he is unable to attend.
“The last time that he did come here, he got a standing ovation and the fan base still identifies with him,” Hill said.
If Toney did return Monday night, Wells Fargo Center would erupt.
“They would go crazy,” said Zumoff, who got to speak with Toney within the last handful of years. “I am happy to say that Andrew Toney is alive and well. He is in a very good place …. The only thing is, I said, ‘Andrew, why don’t you come back to Philadelphia so they can honor you,’ and he just didn’t seem to have an interest in that. But other than that, he’s in a very good place.”
If Toney didn’t get injured, he would’ve arguably been a Hall of Famer and his No. 22 hanging in the rafters.
“And even though history has moved on, his name has been a part of it and people who may not have even seen him play know the name 'Andrew Toney'," Hill said.
A sobering disgrace … when will the drought end?
For Zumoff, forty years since the Sixers last championship has been “sobering.”
For Eskin, “it’s a disgrace. Not a surprise. It’s a disgrace. It’s unconscionable that they have not won a championship since … It's unconscionable that an organization with the assets in terms of money and the ability to do things and in a major market that they have not won a championship since that point.”
The Sixers returned to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1985 – Barkley’s rookie season – but lost to the Celtics in five games. That was Cunningham’s last season coaching the team. Malone was traded in 1986. Erving retired in 1987. Toney got injured. Barkley had some great years but nothing close to a championship team.
Most of the 90’s, the team was terrible. That led to drafting Allen Iverson in 1996 who took them to the NBA Finals in 2001. That season was lightning in a bottle.
Then, they were no better than average – sometimes really bad in the early years of “The Process.” As Joel Embiid has matured into an MVP-caliber player, the team has threatened to make deep playoff runs, but so far hasn’t broken through the second round. Can the core led by Embiid and James Harden end the drought this summer?
“With the ownership that we now have, the Harris-Blitzer organization," said Hill. "They are driven toward getting another championship, playing at the highest level and whatever resources that are needed, they are willing to provide based on their track record.”
“I think [the current Sixers] have a good chance [of ending the drought],” Jones said Monday morning ahead of the 40th-anniversary celebration at Wells Fargo Center. “A very good chance. I do think that when we played, we had fewer really good teams to compete against than they do right now. … But I’ve really been encouraged the last several weeks on how their focus has been, so I think they can wear teams down.”
Forty years since the last win, this franchise once again owes its loyal fans a now elusive championship.
It’s been far too long.