Only in the details is the passage of time exposed. Dr. J's afro has become Allen Iverson's braids. Those oh-so-short shorts now fall nearly below the knees. Road trips by bus are extinct, in favor of a private team plane. But as the retro look of knee-high socks and sweatbands returns to fashion, so go the Sixers in a march eerily reminiscent of 1983.
Erving's fourth trip to the NBA Finals netted his first NBA title.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE Photos
If the paths continue to run parallel, Sixers promotions coordinator Jeff Millman will soon have another ring and another photograph of a parade down Broad Street celebrating another NBA title. In 1983, Millman was in his 11th year as Philadelphia's equipment manager. Now back with the Sixers after 12 years away, Millman finds constant triggers for championship flashbacks. Similarities continue to take shape between the two Sixer teams as NBA Playoffs 2001 progresses.
"That year was just ... I don't know if magical is the right word ... from the get-go we knew we were the best," Millman remembers. "From day one it was like a family. It was a great team."
But to introduce the 1983 squad is to start with one of the bigger departures from the present group. The '83 Sixers, through the regular season, didn't exactly take the league by surprise in the manner of Iverson and company this year. In fact, the former had just acquired the reigning league MVP, Moses Malone, in a sign-and-trade free agency deal with Houston. Now, of course, this move also had the potential to upset team chemistry with perennial superstar Julius Erving, but Millman says Malone's personality eliminated that danger.
"That's because of his makeup -- his professionalism, his determination. Moses is funny; he's terrific to hang with and be around. There wasn't a problem from day one."
Behind the leadership of Malone and Erving, the Sixers stormed through the regular season with a 65-17 record. This earned them a few days of rest, which the Sixers desperately needed because their playoff prospects had hit a snag, again involving Malone.
Jeff Millman shakes hands with President Reagan during the Sixers' trip to the White House after the championship. Sixers Photo
"In those days the first place team got a bye (in the first round) and Moses was hurt," Millman says. "I remember taking him from Lancaster, where we went to training camp for three or four days, down to the doctor's. He was hobbling with a bad knee, but they did something to get him ready to play. Then it seemed like nothing could stop us. We expected to win because we had professionals -- consistent, terrific players at every position."
While the Sixers swept New York in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, they were also busy sweeping up the NBA awards. Forward Bobby Jones took the league's inaugural Sixth Man Award and Malone got to keep his MVP title for another year. Philadelphia then ripped into its Eastern Conference Finals matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks, winning the first three games. But in Game 4, the Sixers let a 10-point third-quarter lead get away from them and lost, 100-94. This shot Malone's pre-playoff prediction of "Fo', Fo', Fo'" or a four-game sweep of each series. In retaliation, Philadelphia thumped the Bucks in Game 5 to advance to the NBA Finals.
The Sixers had to wait two days to learn that they'd have a rematch of the 1982 Finals against the Lakers, which had gone to six games before Los Angeles won its second title in three years (the first also coming at the expense of Philadelphia). This time, the Sixers jumped out to a 3-0 series lead and looked to wrap up the title at Game 4 in Los Angeles.
"After the third quarter, we're down 11, I believe, and I have to try to decide whether to ice the champagne or not," Millman recalls. "If we ice the champagne and lose, then we can't just take it out and store it (for the next game). The champagne would go bad. I said, 'eh, we'll probably come back and win.' Just a guess."
Moses Malone was the final piece of the puzzle to propel the Sixers to the '83 title.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE Photos
In the fourth quarter, with the Lakers leading 106-104, Erving stole the ball and dunked it to tie the game. He then hit a three and tossed in a one-handed shot over Magic Johnson. The momentum from those seven late points pushed the Sixers to the 115-108 victory. And thanks to Millman's guess, the champagne was chilled and ready for the celebration.
"We left (to go back to Philadelphia) really early the next morning. So we had a little party at the hotel, and I don't think anybody went to bed," Millman says. "I remember John Gabriel, who is the general manager of Orlando now, was our video man then and we had this big trunk full of his equipment. We took it to the airport at about 4:30 in the morning and just grabbed some coffee, waiting for the plane. We never even got back to the hotel.
"Then when we took the trophy to the plane, it was in this giant crate and they wouldn't let us take it on board. So we had to get someone from maintenance to come up and bust the crate because I didn't have the key. And we kind of just carried the trophy on the plane with us. We carried it on our laps and passed it around. It was funny."
Once back in Philadelphia, it seemed like the party would never end for a team that had finally accomplished its goal.
"It was crazy. The parade was wild. Not only going down the length of Broad Street, but going to the stadium and seeing it packed with people. I have a great picture of myself on one of the floats. I just happened to be right in the middle," Millman says.
Millman's victory parade photo -- he's highlighted in the center. Sixers Photo
The parade photo hangs in Millman's office, in the here and now, where Allen Iverson is the league MVP and Aaron McKie holds the Sixth Man Award. Where the Sixers are facing the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, just two steps away from completing the deja vu.
Millman cites the '83 team's consistency, versus the up-and-down performances of the current group as the biggest differences between the two. He continually mentions the bond between the '83 Sixers off the court that translated into the games. But Millman believes this is less a product of the players than it is changes in the working environment.
"One of the reasons I think it was more of a team (in 1983) and a family was the way travel was. You'd have a 4:30 a.m. wakeup call because you couldn't get out of a city the night before. We also went to New York, New Jersey and Washington -- nine games -- by bus. And we didn't lose those games for like three or four years it seems. So after a win everyone's happy and we'd be passing out the food and having a good time. That team just laughed and cried together. Now you meet at the plane and you go.
"I only remember good things from that time; I don't remember any controversies or anything bad. I know when I talk to the players now, they all ask how this guy's doing and how that guy's doing. I know they still care about each other."
As does the team care about Millman.
"The first thing that happens to me when you say Jeff is that he's the
best guy that there is," Erving says. "I mean a guy who, no matter what the
circumstance, you knew he would always be there for you. He's as nice
as an individual can be, a dedicated individual for us and for our
team. We loved him like he was one of the players. We gave him full
playoff shares many years."
A championship ring is certainly the glue that will cement any team and the current Sixers have their eyes on the prize as firmly as did their predecessors. Similarly, so are the role players stepping up to help Iverson carry the team to the next level.
There's room on Millman's office wall for another parade photo, room in his heart for another title team. And the current Sixers can only hope that by learning their history, they are blessed to repeat it.