The 76ers are powering up. I think that’s great.
They’ve now got Tobias Harris and they are the first team since the 2004-05 Phoenix Suns to feature a starting five in which each man is averaging 15-plus points per game. In their case, it’s a whopping 17 per. Rookie general manager Elton Brand has made significant additions to his core by adding Jimmy Butler and Harris. He doesn’t seem to be worried about the fact that Messrs. Butler and Harris are each prospective unrestricted free agents and thus could be nothing more than rentals. He is going for it right now. He means business.
You know what this means, don’t you? It means we could be going Back To The Future in the spring. We could have a renewal of an ancient NBA rivalry. We could have a knock-down, drag-out series between the Celtics and 76ers. Yes, there are formidable potential foes in Toronto and Milwaukee. But around here, Philly is the one we want to see.
Oh, sure, we had one last year. But the Sixers were not ready for prime time. The Celtics dismissed them with ease. Don’t think the contemptuous ease with which the Celtics eliminated the Sixers didn’t sting down there in the Delaware Valley.
I come from the other side of this battle. I grew upon Trenton, N.J., which is about 40 miles from William Penn’s statue in downtown Philly. Being a student at Boston College did not mean I was going to root for the Boston (ugh) Celtics. Far from it. I was a Wilt man and a Hal Greer man and a Chet “The Jet” Walker man. As a longtime Villanova fan I was a big-time Wali Jones man. So it was that when Havlicek Stole The Ball, I was not especially pleased. I know exactly where I was, all right! I was at my friend Billy Gronikowski’s house at 722 Trumbull Avenue. Good sports fans don’t forget things like that.
Ah, but I was immensely pleased on the night of April 11, 1967. That’s the night when my 76ers ended the Celtics’ run of eight consecutive NBA championships. How excited was I that night? Well, the 76ers had gone up, 3-1, in the series and in anticipation of a clinching I got out my reel-to-reel tape recorder and placed it alongside the radio. I wanted to hear Johnny Most describing the demise of his beloved Celtics at the hands of the mighty Sixers, who had just established a record with 68 regular-season wins.
It was close for a half. Then My Man Wali went off. He shot 8 for 9 in the third quarter with that memorable spread-leg jumper, once described as “looking like a man scrambling to get out of a manhole.” And then there was the symbolic burial, a play in which hulking Lucious Jackson did not so much block as obliterate a Bailey Howell jumper and then take it all the way for a thundering dunk. Take that, Red Auerbach! Take that, Johnny Most! Take that, Boston fans. (Don’t ask me where that tape ever went.) Final score, Philadelphia 140, Boston 116. I’ve still got the Bob Sales Globe game story in my files.
I never would have dreamed that two years and five months later I would be succeeding Sales as the Globe’s Celtics beat man and would be covering opening night against the Royals. But that’s a story for another day.
There was one more major chapter in that phase of the Boston-Philly rivalry. A year later, the Celtics extricated themselves from a 3-1 series deficit against the Sixers, winning Games 5 and 7 on the road. Game 7 lives in Philly infamy as the game in which Wilt Chamberlain curiously only took two shots from the floor during the second half of a 100-96 defeat.
That game was in the newly constructed Spectrum. All previous Celtics-Sixers playoff confrontations in Philadelphia had been in Convention Hall. Talk about cozy. It held about 10,000 people and they were right on top of the court, even the elevated seats. The balcony was so low I swear you could jump. It had atmosphere.
Take John Havlicek’s word for it. We did a book together and this is Havlicek on Convention Hall: “Our rivalry with the Philadelphia teams — both the Warriors before they moved to San Francisco, and the 76ers — was probably the best I was ever involved in, and it was especially exciting when the games were in Convention Hall. It seemed to lose a little something when the 76ers moved to the Spectrum for the 1967-68 season.”
The respective rivalry torches were passed from Bill Russell and Havlicek and Chamberlain and Greer to Dave Cowens and Doug Collins, and then to Larry Bird and Julius Erving. The rivalry had died down in the ’70s, when the teams were never good at the same time, but it was resumed in a big way when Bird showed up in 1979. At that point the 76ers were two years removed from a berth in the Finals and on the verge of another trip there in 1980.
But there was one constant throughout, one subplot rivalry-within-a-rivalry. This was Johnny Most vs. Dave Zinkoff.
Most was the radio voice of the Celtics for 40 years. He was sui generis, both in voice and manner. There will never be anything like him again. To this day, those of us of a certain age love doing our Most imitations.
Zinkoff was the public address announcer in both Convention Hall and the Spectrum. If I’m not mistaken, he had begun on the job shortly after the Spanish-American War. In an era when the standard PA announcer was closer in style to something you might hear on the BBC, The Zink’s distinctive shrieks and descriptive phraseology (“Gola goal!” “Howell foul,” “Basket by Grrrrrrrrreeeeeeeer!”) set him apart. He was the forerunner of today’s gang of screamers and yellers, all of whom lack his pizzazz and creativity. And Most despised him. If the Celtics were losing, and The Zink would launch into one of his bits, Most would start fuming. “Hysterical Harry is at again!” he would moan. Ah, those were the days. And talk about the proverbial pot calling the kettle black.
The basketball produced by the Celtics and 76ers from 1979-1980 through 1985-1986 was as good as the NBA has ever seen. The Celtics won championships in 1981, 1984, and 1986. The 76ers won a championship 1983, and went to the Finals in 1980 and 1982. The teams matched up in the playoffs in 1980, 1981, 1982, and 1985. The Celtics won 60-plus games six times in those seasons and 56 in another. The 76ers matched the Celtics with a 62-20 record in 1980-81 and blew everyone away with 65 wins in 1982-83.
Highlights? Where do we start? If you’re Boston, you brag about 1981, when the Celtics were down, 3-1, and were trailing the Sixers by 6 without the ball and 1:40 left in Game 5. But they pulled it out, won Game 6 in Philly (with Kevin McHale sealing it on a block of Andrew Toney, a.k.a. the “Boston Strangler”), and then won Game 7, holding the Sixers to 1 point in their final 10 possessions while trailing by 9 and getting the deciding basket on the only 18-foot banker anyone can ever remember Bird attempting. The Celtics won the final three games by 2, 2, and 1. Whew!
Then there was 1982, when the Celtics again fell down, 3-1, before winning Games 5 and 6. Winning Game 7 at home was a local forgone conclusion, but Dr. J and friends had another idea, finishing strong to win by a 120-106 score and prompting a Boston fan to start a “Beat LA” chant that gave birth to a Darryl Dawkins comment I cannot repeat here in a family publication.
No, I’m not going to bury the lead. Of course, we all remember the 1984 Larry-Dr. J. scuffle. That was also the night referee Jack Madden tore up his knee. We only had two refs in those days and thus a young Dick Bavetta, not yet pegged as a future Hall of Famer, had to work the last 2½ periods alone. In the morning Globe, Dan Shaughnessy likened this development to leaving Barney Fife in charge of Hill Street Precinct.
By the way, Larry long ago went on record as saying the Philly rivalry was even more memorable than the one with Magic and the Lakers.
We’ve got a whole new generation of fans, and they deserve to have their own Philly-Boston memories. So, welcome Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, and Tobias Harris. We’ll see you in the spring.