1983 NBA Finals: Philadelphia 4, L.A. Lakers 0
Moses Helps Dr. J, Sixers Reach Promised Land
During his basketball life, Julius Winfield Erving II came to enjoy a splendid array of nicknames. As a kid in the Long Island, N.Y., community of Roosevelt, he was known as "Jewel." Then, as he established his prowess on Roosevelt's playgrounds, the name shifted to "Little Hawk," because he had massive hands that allowed him to control the ball off the dribble in a manner reminiscent of Connie Hawkins, the original "Hawk."
Finally, of course, Erving came to be known as "Dr. J."
As "The Doctor," he set his own style, operating on the court as no one ever had before. His manner and ability had made him one of the highest-paid stars in the NBA. It had brought him fame and respect. It had even gotten him close to an NBA title.
But for Harold Katz, the new owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, close wasn't good enough. As the team struggled in the 1982 playoffs, Katz began implying that he wouldn't be shy about making big changes after the season ended. True to his word, Katz sent Darryl Dawkins to the New Jersey Nets and he acquired Moses Malone, the scoring-rebounding machine, from the Houston Rockets. For compensation, he sent Caldwell Jones to Houston.
The Sixers had added a perennial All-Star center to a star-studded lineup that included Erving, Andrew Toney, Maurice Cheeks and Bobby Jones. And from the very start of the schedule, Philadelphia's season had a championship feel to it.
"Everybody had a sense that this was our opportunity," recalled Bobby Jones, who won the league's first Sixth Man Award in 1983. "The motivation was there, and we were healthy, too. We got off to a good start, got some confidence and didn't get cocky -- we kept that good work ethic. I think Moses really established a lot of that. Julius had always had it. But then a big guy comes in and does that, and it helps."
Malone had always been underestimated. Raised an only child in the tough neighborhoods of Petersburg, Va., he found a familiar escape in the playgrounds. However, his efforts went far beyond the typical basketball hardwork stories. He would shoot alone long into the nights, by streetlight.
Dick Vitale, then a college coach, recalled seeing Malone as a high-school star at a summer camp. While the other campers were off at lunch, Malone stayed in the gym practicing his offensive rebounding. Time after time, he would tip the ball up and go after it. Fascinated, Vitale watched this effort and finally went over and asked Malone why he was doing it. "Coach," he said, "you got to get the ball before you can shoot it."
"When you get an offensive rebound, you're right there to shoot it back up," Malone once explained. He wasn't much of a leaper, but he had a technique of powering back from the baseline to create position for himself. Time after time, he would snatch the offensive rebound and draw the foul on the putback. Then he was deadly from the line.
Some observers wondered about Moses teaming with Erving. In many ways they were opposites. Malone was far from communicative, while Erving was perhaps the most urbane, articulate athlete in the game. And while Erving could leave earth at the foul line and float to the basket for a jam, the 6-foot-10, 265-pound Malone sat like a tank trap underneath. But they had one tremendous thing in common during the Sixers' 1982-83 season: Each wanted a championship ring in the worst kind of way.
"His intensity was very high," Jones said of the Doctor that season. Erving provided the team with highbrow leadership. On the other side was the blue-collar Malone, solid as a block of concrete.
"His was silent leadership," said Jones. "He always had confidence, and so you always had confidence because he was always so dominant at his position. Even if things weren't going right for you, you always knew, 'Well, we can depend on Moses. Because every night he's gonna get the rebounds. Every night he's gonna put it back in and get to the free throw line.' That was reassuring."
The Sixers ripped through the regular-season schedule with a 65-17 record. When writers asked Malone how the Sixers would fare in the playoffs, he uttered his famous "Fo, fo and fo" prediction, meaning that Philly would sweep to the title in 12 straight games. It was an audacious comment, yet Jones said it didn't stun or anger the rest of the team. "Again, it was that Malone confidence," Jones explained. "It was confidence that he had backed up before with his actions."
Sure enough, they swept the Knicks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals and then confronted the Milwaukee Bucks in the conference finals. The Sixers took the first three, then stumbled in a 100-94 loss in the fourth game. They quickly corrected themselves, 115-103, in the fifth game to move on to the NBA Finals for the third time in four years.
There they met a hobbling and wearied Lakers team that had finished the regular season at 58-24. Los Angeles had added forward James Worthy, the top pick in the previous NBA Draft. Having led North Carolina to the NCAA championship the previous spring, Worthy fit nicely into the "Showtime" revue. His quickness to the basket was almost startling. But all of that came to an abrupt halt a week before the playoffs opened when Worthy jumped for a tip-in and landed unevenly on his left foot, causing a fracture of his leg just below the knee that finished him for the season.
Even without Worthy, the Lakers were deep enough to overcome the Portland Trail Blazers and the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Playoffs. But their injury troubles continued into the Finals. Bob McAdoo and Norm Nixon would miss all or part of the series. Without help, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar found himself in a situation similar to the one that frustrated him so during the late 1970s. Malone dominated the boards, outrebounding Abdul-Jabbar 72-30 over the course of the series.
The Lakers fell in line with Philadelphia's other victims. Los Angeles would lead each game at the half, yet each time the Sixers would power ahead. Philadelphia took Game 1 at home, 113-107. Even worse, Nixon suffered a partially separated shoulder. He continued to play, but the injuries mounted.
The Sixers also took Game 2, 103-93. In the Forum, the Sixers sensed their opportunity.
Game 3 was a 111-94 blowout that left Nixon with a wrenched left knee and four stitches in his chin. He sat out Game 4.
Without Nixon the Lakers battled furiously, and even held a 106-104 lead late in the game. To sort things out, the 76ers called a timeout. Having been burned by comebacks in the past, coach Billy Cunningham and his players wanted to close out the series before anything got started.
"I'm taking over," the Doctor said in the huddle. He immediately stole the ball and dunked it to tie the score. Next he chalked up a three-point play, then followed it moments later with another score, a one-hander in Magic Johnson's face from the perimeter. The momentum from those seven late points pushed the Sixers beyond reach as they won 115-108.
Erving had finally nailed down an NBA title to go with the two ABA rings he had gotten with the Nets. His wait hadn't been nearly as protracted as that of Jerry West or Elgin Baylor. Still, it was substantial.
As a champion, he displayed the same grace in winning that he had in losing. "I've always tried to tell myself that the work itself is the thing, that win, lose, or draw, the work is really what counts," he said. "As hard as it was to make myself believe that sometimes, it was the only thing I had to cling to each year -- that every game, every night, I did the best I could."
He, more than anyone, knew that wasn't enough, that no one player's effort is enough to win an NBA title.
"Let's not make believe," Cunningham said. "The difference from last year was Moses. He gave us the consistency inside that the Lakers had always gotten from Abdul-Jabbar. We got that and more from Moses."
For the first time, the Sixers could put away their loser's talk and answer the winner's questions.
"Being behind at the half of every game and coming back and winning those games was very special," Bobby Jones said, "very much a team effort."
To remedy years of anguish and disappointment, it was just what the Doctor ordered.
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