They stood together in the cramped room, laughing, shaking hands, slapping backs. Twenty years had melted away in a burst of warm smiles and friendly hugs. The hockey visitors’ locker room at the spacious First Union Center had been recast as the tiny Spectrum den of the ’82-83 Philadelphia 76ers.
There, just inside the door, was Moses Malone, dispensing wit and wisdom rapid-fire, often speaking directly toward the carpet so that those at the back of the media horde had no chance of hearing what he said. Across the way sat Julius Erving (pictured above, in ’83), resplendent as usual in a spring suit and crisp, white shirt. As always, he was answering every last question, graciously. Maurice Cheeks, in town as coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, didn’t care that he was now the enemy. He couldn’t stop laughing and offering conspiratorial whispers to Malone and Franklin Edwards, a reserve guard on the ’82-83 team. Someone had even left a bag of Chips Ahoy cookies in Mo’s locker, and the former point guard and eternal chocolate-chip cookie hound was more than happy to accept—and probably devour—them before his Blazers tipped off against the Sixers. In an alcove off to one side sat Billy Cunningham, the coach whose ability to get this collection of standouts to defend first and foremost was vital to the championship effort.
At some point, ’02-03 76ers rookie John Salmons slipped quietly into the room. He was three years old when the ’83 team won its banner. But he knows about Doc and Moses and Mo, about The Boston Strangler and B.J. And he wants to meet them.
Nobody could blame him. Here on display are genuine heroes, men who made an entire city’s dreams come true. Men who ended years of a franchise’s frustration and, yes, shame. By defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1983 NBA Finals, these Sixers did more than just hang Philadelphia’s first basketball banner in 16 years. They also helped a town step out of the giant shadows cast by the Lakers and the Boston Celtics. And by doing it in four games, they left no doubt about their supremacy. All of those previous playoff disappointments became distant memories—the NBA Finals losses to L.A. in ’80 and ’82, the myriad defeats to the Celtics. Gone. Salmons was right to enter this temporary shrine, looking for some history. There was plenty to be found.
It starts with Malone, whose pre-playoff “Fo’-Fo’-Fo’” prediction of three series sweeps sounded like the crazy bellowing of a jolly hoops giant but turned out to be just about right. The Sixers swept New York in the Eastern Conference semis, having received a first-round bye due to their Atlantic Division title and NBA-best 65 wins. Milwaukee was next, thanks to the Bucks’ surprising four-game dispatching of the Celtics. The Bucks didn’t go out in four, preventing a sweep with a homecourt victory after falling behind 3-0, but eventually lost in five.
So, Malone amended his prediction to “Fo’-Fi’-Fo’”—still a surprising declaration, considering that Philadelphia had lost NBA Finals series to the Lakers in ’80 and ’82.
“The only thing I got mad at was Moses saying, ‘Fo’-Fo’-Fo’,’” says former Lakers guard Michael Cooper, now coach of the two-time defending WNBA champion Los Angeles Sparks. “You’re not supposed to do that.”
Malone’s confident prediction showed the NBA world just how different these 76ers were. No longer were they championship hopefuls. After adding Malone in a preseason trade with Houston (for 7-1 defensive specialist Caldwell Jones and a first-round draft pick), the Sixers finally possessed the consistent inside offensive presence they had lacked, not to mention the League’s leading rebounder. The Lakers had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Celtics had Robert Parish. Now, Philadelphia had Moses. “We got to training camp, and the feeling was that the title was ours,” Erving says.
That confidence was quite a contrast from the despair Erving and the other Sixers felt after losing the 1982 NBA Finals to Los Angeles in six games. Ever since Philadelphia had blown a 2-0 lead to Portland in the ’77 championship series, the team had been trying—futilely—to earn a ring. After the loss to the Lakers, Erving wasn’t quite sure what would happen next.
“That ’82 loss was very disturbing,” Erving says. “When we lost to Portland in ’77, we thought we still had some shots at the title. In ’82, I thought we really had enough to win, but we didn’t get the job done. I wasn’t sure where we were going to turn.”
The addition of Malone sparked predictions of 70 wins and the long sought-after title. Admittedly, the Lakers had something to say about that. As the defending champ, L.A. had every reason to believe in a repeat, even though no team had done so since the Celtics in ’68 and ’69. The dynamic tandem of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar returned at full capacity, with complements Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, Cooper and Kurt Rambis. The team was further fortified by the arrivals of smooth scorer Bob McAdoo and talented rookie James Worthy. The media dubbed L.A.’s rotation “The Great Eight” and watched it roll to 58 wins and the Pacific Division title.
But disaster struck near the end of the regular season, when Worthy broke his leg. Though not yet Big Game James, Worthy was already a major cog. While the 76ers were gearing up for the playoffs—“Once we saw we couldn’t win 70 games, we had the luxury of resting up,” Erving says—the Lakers had to re-tool their rotation. When they reached the NBA Finals, courtesy of playoff wins over Portland (five games) and San Antonio (six), more trouble loomed. Worthy was out. McAdoo was hobbled and Los Angeles was undermanned against a healthy and highly motivated Sixers team.
“We weren’t going to be denied,” Jones says. “I don’t care who was on the court for them. They weren’t going to stop Julius and Moses.”
Cooper agrees. “It would have been hard to beat them, even if we were healthy,” he says. “They were like us in ’85, after we had lost to Boston in ’84. They were on a mission.”
One of the main reasons Philadelphia had lost two previous series to L.A. was the continued penetration of Johnson, who set up his teammates for easy baskets. So, Cunningham instructed his guards to pick up Magic closer to midcourt, hoping he could get the guard to relinquish the ball sooner—and further from the hoop. “We didn’t want to give him a lot of free looks,” Jones says. The Sixers also overplayed the wings, making it harder for the Lakers to get comfortable at the beginning of the shot clock.
Even Magic and Kareem couldn't keep Moses from making good on his prediction in 1983.
(Jim Cummins/NBAE/Getty Images)
At the other end, the Sixers tried to expose the Lakers’ trapping defense as a glorified zone. (This was when zones were illegal in the NBA.) They gave the ball to Erving and had him work to one side of the court to show the referees that Los Angeles wasn’t playing man-to-man defense. Because Erving was such a good passer, Philadelphia used him to initiate the offense at times and worked the ball around the court quickly and accurately.
The perimeter games were important, but the series was won inside, where Malone ruled the day. “He forced us to double-team,” Cooper says. “We could play them pretty much man-to-man when he wasn’t there.” Malone has said over the years that he didn’t think Abdul-Jabbar was comfortable playing a physical game, and it showed in the 1983 NBA Finals, when Malone averaged 25.8 ppg and 18.0 rpg, en route to MVP honors.
“A little banging and a little shoving—he didn’t like that,” Malone says. “That’s the way the game should be played. I liked the pounding and the hard work. That made me more aggressive.”
The Sixers seemed to have everything going for them heading into the NBA Finals, but they still had to win four games against the Lakers, their tormentors. In the first game, played at the Spectrum, L.A. took a 57-54 halftime lead with Nixon (who would finish with 26 points) leading the way. But Malone (27 points, 18 rebounds) and Erving (20 points, 10 boards, nine assists) led a second-half comeback that resulted in a 103-93 Philadelphia win. The Sixers didn’t care about a halftime deficit; in fact, they trailed at the half in all four games against the Lakers.
“At halftime, we just understood what was necessary and then would go out and do it—particularly at the defensive end of the court,” Cunningham says.
The second game was notable for two things. First, the Sixers made 23-of-32 free throws, while the Lakers shot just five times from the stripe. Then, with Malone benched with foul trouble, little-used 6-9 pivot Earl Cureton played dogged defense on Abdul-Jabbar and even thrilled the fans by sinking a hook shot of his own. “Earl was very active out there,” Malone says. Philadelphia 103, Los Angeles 93.
The series returned to Los Angeles for the third game, and the script remained the same. The Lakers held a 52-49 halftime lead, but Philadelphia charged back after intermission and used a 39-22 fourth-quarter burst to earn a 114-94 win. Malone had 28 points and 19 boards, and it was clear that the Lakers were just about through. They trailed 3-0 in games and had lost the services of Nixon, who, after playing so well in the first game, was struggling mightily with an injured shoulder and didn’t even play in the final contest.
The Sixers’ clinching win was a testament to the team’s determination. They trailed by 16 early and by 14 at the half. “We made up our minds that we did not want to go back to Philly and play another game,” Malone says. “We had to play defense together.” So, the Sixers went to work. Still, L.A. led, 93-82, after three periods, and it appeared as if the series would head back East. Then came the deluge. Philadelphia clamped down on the Laker offense, limiting Los Angeles to 15 fourth-quarter points, and the Sixer offense heated up. An Erving three-point play with 0:59 left gave Philadelphia the lead, and Cheeks punctuated a 115-108 victory and the championship with a last-second dunk. “It was our time,” Erving says.