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Fran Blinebury

Moses Malone Billy Cunningham celebrate 1983 Philadelphia 76ers NBA title
Moses Malone and coach Billy Cunningham (to Malone's left) celebrate the 76ers' title.

In '83, everything finally fell into place in long-suffering Philly


Posted Jun 7, 2013 1:25 PM

Fo, fo, fo.

Moses Malone always was one to toss around words like they were manhole covers. Why waste time or syllables?

Malone had come to Philadelphia to do a job. There was no reason to procrastinate. So on the eve of the 1983 playoffs, when somebody asked the MVP center to provide an analysis of what might lie ahead for his 76ers team, he was brief.

"Fo, fo, fo," Malone replied, meaning back-to-back-to-back 4-0 sweeps in the playoffs and a championship for his 76ers.

Short and sweet. But a long time coming.

While the memories of that season 30 years ago rush back with the unstoppable force of a tornado, the truth is, for the Sixers franchise and especially the legendary Julius "Dr. J" Erving, this was a story that was long in the making. The Sixers had reached the NBA Finals in Erving's first season in Philadelphia, but lost the title to Bill Walton and the Trail Blazers. They had returned in 1980, but were eliminated on an incandescent night by the Lakers and a rookie named Magic Johnson. They were beaten again by the Lakers in 1982.

If any team ever knew the frustrations and the perils of the climb, it was the Sixers.

"I felt we were at the beginning of a window closing," said Erving. "After losing in The Finals in '82, I didn't think the window was shut. But I knew at 32, I was probably going to have to take it a year at a time. Remember, I came into professional basketball at 21 and had already played 10-11 years. What is the career expectation? Now, after 11 years, I'm asking myself, 'How much longer do you have? How far can you chase this?'

"There was a sense that it was a transition time in life for some guys on our team. They just wanted to stay in the league somehow and maybe move on. So there was a real sense of the window closing and maybe it wasn't gonna happen.

"I'll admit that I did allow myself to think about becoming one of those guys that didn't win an NBA championship. Of course, today I would have a lot of company, those great guys in Utah -- Karl Malone and John Stockton -- they never won. Look at those Denver teams with Dan Issel and Alex English and David Thompson.

"You don't want to be a part of a trivia question. I told myself that Ernie Banks' turned out all right and is in the [baseball] Hall of Fame. But honestly, I didn't want to be Ernie Banks and we needed a way to pull ourselves up."

So Malone became their long, sturdy rope.

Fo, fi, fo.

It is the inscription on their rings after they took out the Knicks 4-0, Bucks 4-1 and Lakers 4-0 to complete one of the most succinct and successful seasons in NBA history, one that is often given short shrift when the lists of the all-time greatest teams are compiled. They did not win multiple championships in the glamorous '80s like the Lakers and Celtics. But for one season they were as unstoppable as the wind.

"The closest thing to perfection that I have ever seen in the league," said then-general manager Pat Williams, now a vice president with the Magic.

"We were a puzzle where every piece fit perfectly," said point guard Maurice Cheeks.

"You would love every coach in the business to have an opportunity to coach a team like that," said coach Billy Cunningham. "They were men. They were teammates. They were a joy."

The final piece

They were already a lineup that had the spectacular slam-dunking, skywalking talents of Erving entering his twilight, perhaps one of the most underrated quarterbacks ever in Cheeks, a defensive vise and fastbreak finisher in Bobby Jones and a fearless, dead-eye shooter in Andrew Toney.

Then they added the tireless, relentless Malone, who was as subtle as a sledgehammer and had previously won two MVP awards during his six years in Houston, once dragging the 40-42 Rockets all the way to The Finals in 1981.

"Not one day. Not one day did I think it wouldn't work," Erving said. "When he first came out of high school and joined the ABA, Utah was playing the Nets and I was asked to welcome Moses to the league. I got a microphone and said to Moses, 'You played against high school competition and now you're a pro. You went from being a big fish in a little pond to possibly a big fish in the biggest pond. Do the right thing and don't let yourself be denied.'

"Moses thanked me, we shook hands and hugged and played against each other for the first time that night. We never really met and spent time with each other after that. But what I knew watching from afar was that, night in and night out, probably nine out of 10 times, Moses was going to be the hardest working guy on the court."

For Malone, it was a case of getting a team around him that was up to his own sizable talent. For the rest of the Sixers, he could have been viewed as a savior and their new star.

The key to making it all work was Malone's demeanor, his willingness to fit in. Moses did not come to lead them to the promised land, but to carry his load on the trek.

"I sat down with Moses before he signed his contract," said Cunningham, "and I asked him, 'Are you going to be happy here? You know our team. Our first priority is to run and that means you're going to rebound and throw outlet passes.'

"He didn't blink, just said: 'Doc's team. It's Doc's team.' "

Cheeks remembered the first day of training camp, when the Sixers holdover veterans first walked tentatively onto the court.

"A lot of guys weren't sure," he said. "The team had traded away a lot of our friends to get Moses. We were a tight group before. How would this affect us?

"By the second day, all that was gone. Moses was the most humble star that I've ever seen. He allowed Doc to stay in his realm and Moses was just who he was, a scorer and a rebounder. Moses didn't come in and try to play the individual game that everybody knew he was capable of playing. He never once tried to steal the thunder."

Instead he rumbled in the lane and on the backboards and was a defensive presence right from the start. He averaged 24.5 points, 15.3 rebounds and 2.0 steals a game. From the very start of the season, he was the drummer that kept the band in line, delivering the back beat, playing with a controlled fury that allowed the Sixers 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 '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."

A team that worked

The Sixers were a team that appeared to have been assembled by a Swiss watchmaker.

"You look at all of the teams in the league today and all of the players are hybirds," said Cheeks, now an assistant to Scott Brooks with the Thunder. "Players are playing one, two, three different positions.

"We had defined roles. Everybody knew them. We had no weak spots. We had all of the positions covered in the starting lineup and we came off the bench with the same kind of guys that filled in those exact positions. And everybody was very, very good at his position."

Cheeks was a perfect quarterback for the offense, and unassuming yet ferocious on defense with the ability of Hall of Famer Walt Frazier to strip his man at midcourt.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers once flatly said, "I didn't like playing against him, I really didn't."

Former teammate Lionel Hollins described Cheeks as, "John Stockton before there was John Stockton."

The Sixers' Andrew Toney was one of the most unflinching shooters and unstoppable offensive forces ever to play in the NBA. He had a reputation as "The Boston Strangler" for all the times he went into Boston Garden and shot down the rival Celtics.

"Danny Ainge once told me that only three people in the NBA kept him awake the night before games," said Williams. "Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Andrew Toney."

Toney often seemed to be the bane of Cunningham's existence as the coach stood on the side stomping his feet and shouting: "Andreewwwwwww!" as his guard's shot selection. But Toney would simply grin and fire up another one.

"It's such a shame that the foot injuries cut Andrew's career short," Cunningham said. "A lot of people today don't know him, but he was one of the best ever."

"Give him a healthy 10-year career and he's in Hall of Fame and one of the 50 greatest ever," said Cheeks. "That's how good Andrew was. No doubt."

Erving was still among basketball royalty, the singular figure who drew crowds and kept the NBA in the headlines during the post-merger years before Magic and Larry Bird fanned the flames.

"It was a privilege to be around him, a joy to coach him and, for all the great things he showed as a player in the NBA, they were nothing compared to what I saw him do when I played against him in the ABA," Cunningham said of Erving. "I know there are a lot of great players who can do amazing things on the court today. But Julius paved the way and in that season he was still our leader and he kept it up until we finally won it."

The fifth starter became Marc Iavaroni, a 26-year-old rookie when he arrived at training camp.

"I didn't know what to do or how to act," said Iavaroni, now an assistant coach with the Clippers. "There are guys like Doc and Moses and the first day there I wasn't even sure how to do a pretty basic drill.

"I went up to Doc and asked him, 'How do you want me to do this?' He just said, 'You know. Just play.'

"That was the kind of environment we had. Guys like Doc and Moses were such amazing and accepting superstars. They made everyone important. They got everyone invested in what we were doing. The talent made us good. The way we worked together was what made us great."

The gaunt, angular Jones had been diagnosed with epilepsy several years earlier, so he never took a season or a game or a possession for granted. He defended with the snapping jaws of a bear trap and filled the lanes and finished on the fastbreak like the crack of a whip.

After his first season with the Sixers, Cunningham decided that he would like Jones to come off the bench. He fretted and worried all summer on how he would sell Jones on the change.

"I put the conversation off for months," Cunningham said. "Then I finally talked to Bobby about two days before camp. I was nervous. I told him what I wanted to do. He said, 'OK.' And that was that. I've never been around a player as selfless as Bobby."

Clint Richardson and Franklin Edwards came off the bench in the backcourt. Earl Cureton and, later in the season, Clemon Johnson backed up on the front line.

The Sixers were 10-1 to start the season, then 34-5 and 50-7 before Cunningham eased off the gas pedal down the stretch. The Sixers went 8-8 over their final 16 games of the season season and still finished 65-17.

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

Cunningham was as anguished and tortured a soul as ever sat on an NBA bench as a coach. He was a perfectionist, driven to win, but more haunted by losses.

"Billy wasn't somebody you wanted to be around during the season," Williams said. "Every game tore him up."

That's why each year that he guided the Sixers to success, but couldn't quite get over the top, seemed to age him two.

"It never entered my mine that we wouldn't one day win it," Cunningham said. "I couldn't let myself go there. I would just come away from every season and ask, 'What did I learn?What can I take away and move forward?' "

His optimism wasn't universally shared in the locker room.

"We were beat by the Magic game in 1980," said Cheeks. "Then we had the 3-1 lead [in the 1981 Eastern Conference finals] on Boston and should have won it that year, but didn't. Then we lost to the Lakers in '82. It seemed like we were always going to get our chances. But what was it going to take to win it?"

Malone was the blacksmith's hammer, the unyielding force that forged them into steel.

The final step

There were questions about Malone's health and effectiveness when it was revealed on the eve of the playoffs that he had a case of tendinitis in his right knee. He answered those doubts with 38 points and 17 rebounds in the opener against the Knicks and sent the Sixers on the way to their first sweep.

They quickly built a 3-0 lead on Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference finals, but lost their perfect record when the Bucks took Game 4, which seemed to shock the usually serene Erving. He came back to pour in 25 points in Game 5 as Team Unstoppable moved on.

If Achilles had his heel and Superman had Kryptonite, the NBA Finals had been the 800-pound gorilla that lived on the Sixers' back. But this time was different. This time, the Sixers had Malone in the middle. He averaged 25.8 points and 18 rebounds and took home the Finals MVP honors.

"They had one of those years when everything fits," said Rockets coach Kevin McHale, back then a member of the rival Celtics. "Moses just came in there and they had one of those years where they did some stuff, made some trades and by the last 20 games of the year made you say, 'Man, they were really on a roll and a kind of team of destiny,' which led Moses to say 'fo, fo, fo.' "

Before it could happen, the Sixers had to come from 11 points down after three quarters in Game 4 at the Forum against the Lakers. It was a seven-point burst by Erving that allowed the Sixers to take the lead. Then, finally, with the clock running down, Magic missed a 3-pointer, Cheeks grabbed the rebound and the usually demure one began high-stepping down the court with Erving on his left.

Everyone in the building thought Cheeks, the career passer, would make one final dish to his left, give up the ball and let Dr. J finish it with a triumphant flourish. But Cheeks, who rarely dunked, just kept motoring in and slammed it home himself.

"The first thing that comes to mind about '83 is the dunk," Cheeks says now with a sheepish smile. "Somebody asked me again the other day and like I told them, I swear I never saw Doc. All those years, all those games, all those times losing in The Finals, I guess it just came out of me. Finally."

They were a one-year wonder. But what a year it was.

"I have all due respect for the Heat and the team they've got today," said Erving. "But is Chris Bosh really going to guard Moses Malone? Are you kidding me?

"I think you have to judge teams based on playoff records, winning percentage, because that's when the level of play rises and that's what counts. So I think you've got us at 12-1 and the Chicago team [1997] at 15-1. These are teams that were nearly perfect at the time of year when the premium is on winning. Even when [Bill] Russell had a dynasty in Boston, the year the Lakers had their 33-game winning streak, they were getting knocked off multiple times. The Bulls and Sixers only lost one. So I think that's the only place any discussion can be."

Thirty years later, the quiet quarterback who finished it off with his uncharacteristic dunking exclamation point insists there is little to discuss.

"Give me that team against any team you want to bring from any time in the history of the NBA and I'll play you," Mo Cheeks said. "And I'll beat you."

Fo, fi, fo.

A long time coming. But short, sweet and deadly.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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