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Fran Blinebury

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Moses Malone anchored the Sixers' remarkable rise to a title in 1983.
Scott Cunningham/ NBAE/ Getty Images

In short-but-sweet fashion, '83 Sixers create lasting legacy


Posted Aug 31 2011 9:58AM

At first blush, it seemed to be the most embarrassing bit of hyperactivity by a computer since Hal, the Big Brain of "2001: A Space Odyssey," tried to scuttle the mission to Jupiter.

A New York-based computer outfit fed the career statistics of Moses Eugene Malone into a computer, which then whirred and blipped and made video game noises, one supposes, and then spat out a stunning projection:

With Malone in the middle of their lineup, the star-crossed Philadelphia 76ers, who had lost in the NBA Finals three times in the previous six seasons, would win 67 regular season games and finally claim their long-sought championship in 1983.

Considering that 67 wins would, at that time, have been the fourth-best total in league history, it was believed that the computer had blown a gasket or two.

Then a few months later, somebody asked Malone to study the data and provide an analytical projection of what might transpire in the playoffs.

"Fo, Fo, Fo," Malone replied, meaning back-to-back-to-back 4-0 sweeps of the playoffs and a title.

Malone and the Sixers, as it turns out, were nearly as successful as he was succinct as Philly beat New York 4-0, Milwaukee 4-1 and the L.A. Lakers 4-0 to claim the championship in one of the most singularly dominating seasons in NBA history.

"Fo, Fi, Fo."

It is the inscription on their rings. Short and sweet, just like the reign of the Sixers, the primary reason they are often given short shrift when lists of the all-time greatest teams are compiled. They didn't win multiple championships in the glamorous '80s like the Lakers and Celtics, but for a season they were uncontestable.

A lineup that could put the incomparable Julius Erving, the defensive stopper and fast break finisher Bobby Jones and the quietly lethal backcourt of Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney around Malone, meant the Sixers were as sudden and as devastating as a tsunami washing over a beach.

With the tireless workhorse Malone in the middle, the Sixers from the very start were a thing of beauty. That is, if your idea of exquisite splendor is a blacksmith's hammer coming down on an anvil. He had played the previous six seasons in Houston, twice winning the MVP award on mediocre teams and once dragging a 40-42 Rockets team all the way to The Finals (1981).

When he at long last joined a roster that was equal to his talents, it was a case of Moses arriving in the Promised Land to end all of Philadelphia's prior frustrations.

Erving was still nothing less than the flamboyant skywalker who took the game above the rim and turned it into an art form. Jones was the ultimate team player, who willingly came off the bench, and unfailingly made the critical gritty plays that made a difference. Toney had already carved out a reputation as the "Boston Strangler" for the fearless way he knocked down late shots to beat the rival Celtics, not to mention everyone else. And ex-teammate Lionel Hollins once described Cheeks as "John Stockton before there was John Stockton."

The Sixers were also a blue-collar rookie named Marc Iavaroni who started at power forward and a bench full of weapons in Clint Richardson, Clemon Johnson and Franklin Edward. And they were pushed and driven and coached by Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham, as anguished and tortured a soul as has ever occupied an NBA bench.

But there is no denying that it was Malone who made the difference in these Sixers. He played with a controlled fury that always had their backs and allowed them to mesh selflessly as a unit like few teams before or since.

The late Joe Axelson, who spent decades as both a team and league executive, had no doubts about the Sixers.

"I started out in the mid-'40s paying fifty cents to sit in the third deck of the old Chicago Stadium ... and I have seen them all," Axelson once said. "They were the best team in the history of the NBA."

The first hint at what was to come occurred in the third quarter one night at the Providence (R.I.) Civic Center when the Sixers and Celtics were treating a routine preseason affair as if it were Game 7 in the playoffs.

After tipping away a lob pass from Gerald Henderson to Robert Parish, Malone grabbed the ball, dribbled the length of the floor and threw a dunk of such thunderous ferocity, then-Sixers GM Pat Williams could not believe his eyes. "The way the ball bounced after hitting the floor, I was sure that it had to have missed," Williams said.

Little that Malone did all season missed. He averaged 24.5 points, 15.3 rebounds and copped another MVP, becoming the only player in history to win it in consecutive seasons on two different teams.

"There is no doubt in my mind that Moses is the best player in the league," Erving said then. "He pitches the ball out on the break, he rebounds, he handles the ball running, he finds the open man when he's double-teamed."

An overpoweringly splendid 65-17 regular season ended strangely enough with the Sixers going just 8-8 over the final month of the schedule.

"That was the best thing that happened to us," Cunningham would say later. "We didn't care about winning 70 games or setting records. We had only one goal and that was to win a title."

Fo, fo, fo.

Despite his confident forecast, there was concern about Malone. On the eve of the playoffs, a case of tendinitis in his right knee flared up and there were questions about whether he would be able to play in the opener against the Knicks. He answered with 38 points, 17 rebounds and put the Sixers on their way to their first sweep.

Philly took a 3-0 lead on Milwaukee in the East finals, but lost their perfect record when the Bucks took Game 4, which seemed to shock the usually serene Erving. So he returned to pour in 25 in Game 5 as Team Relentless moved on.

For half a decade, the Sixers had been basketball's version of a bad check, a debt that could never seem to be paid. If the Ancient Mariner had his albatross and Achilles his vulnerable heel, the NBA Finals had been the monkey that lived on Philly's back. Three times they had been unable to cross the threshold of the championship, twice falling to the Lakers.

But this time was different, because this time the Sixers had Malone. He ripped through L.A., averaging 25.8 points and 18 rebounds per game in the series and took home Finals MVP honors.

The Game 4 clincher capped off a year that was like an avalanche roaring down the side of a mountain and completed a 12-1 playoff blitz that was the best ever until the 2001 Lakers went 15-1.

"This year really was a case of you take it all or you don't take anything," Erving said.

Fo, Fi, Fo.

Short, sweet and splendid.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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