In the storied history of the 76ers franchise, players like Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Moses Malone, and Allen Iverson are just a few of the superstars who registered some of their finest National Basketball Association (NBA) seasons in Philadelphia . Other Hall of Famers, like Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham and Maurice Cheeks, have earned, too, their reputations -- and retired jersey numbers -- with this celebrated franchise. Philadelphia, one of the country's great basketball cities, and its 76ers are an important part of both the league's history and of its future.
In the beginning, though, the Philadelphia 76ers were neither in Philadelphia, nor were they called the 76ers. The team did originate, however, in a northeastern city and they also had a patriotic name: the Syracuse Nationals.
1950s: The Syracuse Nationals Join the NBA
The original Philadelphia 76ers were neither in Philadelphia nor called the 76ers. But the team did begin in a northeastern city and did have a patriotic name, the Syracuse Nationals. The Nats had been in the NBA since the league's first year of existence and came to the City of Brotherly Love in 1963, just after the Warriors had abandoned Philadelphia for San Francisco. Thus began the Philadelphia 76ers, an organization that has featured one of the best NBA teams ever to swagger onto the court (68-13 in 1966-67) and one of the worst to be blown off it (9-73 in 1972-73).
Along the way such figures as Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Moses Malone, and Charles Barkley have registered some of their finest seasons in a Philadelphia uniform. Other notables, such as Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham and Maurice Cheeks, have earned their reputations -- and retired jersey numbers -- with the team as well. Philadelphia, one of the country's great basketball cities, and its 76ers are an important part of the league's history and of its future.
1960s: Basketball Returns to Philadelphia
In the 1959-60 season, Philadelphia native Wilt Chamberlain arrived in the NBA after time at the University of Kansas and a stint with the Harlem Globetrotters as the centerpiece of the Philadelphia Warriors. Chamberlain brought a new surge of offense to a league suddenly overflowing with scorers, leading the league that season with 37.6 points per game led the NBA, followed by gunners Elgin Baylor (29.6) and Bob Pettit (26.1), among others. Schayes, a fundamentally minded set-shooter held his own with 22.5 points per game, which ranked seventh in the league that year.
Philadelphia has long been a basketball town. Professional teams have been in and around the city since before World War I, the Philadelphia SPHAs were one of the top barnstorming clubs between the wars, while the Philadelphia Warriors were an original BAA and NBA team, and several colleges in the city have traditionally fielded strong programs; but in the 1962-63 season, there was no professional basketball in Philadelphia. Warriors owner Eddie Gottlieb had sold his club to a San Francisco group, which took the team west.
The void was to be filled within a year. In the spring of 1963, Irv Kosloff and Ike Richman teamed to buy the Syracuse Nationals and moved the team to Philadelphia and rebrand it as the 76ers.
With professional basketball back in Philadelphia, it wasn't long before the city's greatest individual talent returned. Chamberlain, despite his continued scoring bursts, wasn’t helping the Warriors win games or attract fans by 1965, and. the team wanted to unload "the Big Dipper" and his salary for new players. The 76ers welcomed the proposition.
Halfway through the 1964-65 season the Warriors traded Chamberlain for guard Paul Neumann, center Connie Dierking, forward Lee Shaffer (who never signed with the Warriors or played again in the NBA), and cash. The trade was the start of something special for the second iteration of Philadelphia's NBA team.
Prior to the 1965-66 campaign, with Chamberlain entering his first full season with the Sixers and getting on-court help from Hal Greer and exciting rookie Billy Cunningham, many fans felt it was finally time to dethrone the Boston Celtics, who had claimed seven straight division titles. It wasn’t until 1966-67, however, when the team would see glory. With franchise legend Dolph Schayes ousted as head coach, Alex Hannum took control of what eventually became one of the finest teams of all time. Chamberlain missed out on the scoring title for the first time in eight years, but ranked first in field goal percentage (.683) and rebounding (24.2 rpg), and third in assists (7.8 apg).
The team was simply awesome; Cunningham (18.5 ppg) was deadly from the corners, and Greer was a master playmaker, finishing with averages of 22.1 points and 3.8 assists per game. The team won 45 of its first 49 games, flattening most of the opposition en route to a 68-13 regular-season record, and an Eastern Division Finals victory over the Bill Russell and the Celtics.
Philadelphia's championship, Chamberlain's first, came against his former club, the San Francisco Warriors in six games. That Sixers team has since been recognized as one of the greatest ever. As part of the NBA's 35th-anniversary celebration in 1980, the 1966-67 Sixers were voted the best team in NBA history.
The 76ers' dynasty was short-lived, and by 1968, Chamberlain was traded to Los Angeles for guard Archie Clark, forward Jerry Chambers, center Darrall Imhoff, and cash. This 76ers group, led by Cunningham and Greer, never advanced past the conference semifinals.
Cunningham would sign a three-year contract on August 5, 1969 to begin a career in the American Basketball Association (ABA) with the Carolina Cougars in the 1972-73 season.
1970s: The Arrival of Julius Erving
Victories were hard to come by for the Philadelphia 76ers in the early 1970s, despite promising new additions, like Bob Rule, Fred Carter, Bill Bridges, and Kevin Loughery. After curating a 9-73 record in the 1972-73 season, it seemed as though things could only improve, and they did when the club drafted Illinois State University standout Doug Collins first overall, and a year later when former American Basketball Association (ABA) stud George McGinnis was brought in to bolster scoring.
By 1974-75, the 76ers had improved their record to 34-48, but still ended their season 26 games behind the division-winning Celtics. Cunningham had returned from his tour in the ABA the season prior, and the team was on the verge of something big.
Fitz Eugene Dixon bought the club in May 1976 and soon gave it the reputation of a team ready to spend money. He opened the vault straightaway, paying $6 million for the rights to megastar Julius "Dr. J" Erving from the New Jersey Nets of the ABA ($3 million in the sale from the Nets and $3 million to directly to Erving) prior to the 1976-77 season.
Erving's contributions to the Sixers were instantaneous, and his contributions to professional basketball were incomparable. By expanding on the high-flying, creative game originally made popular by Connie Hawkins (and later taken to new heights by Michael Jordan), he helped evolve the sport from one dominated by centers into one favoring acrobatics. Erving's on-court elegance was matched by his off-court eloquence and the game was growing on the national stage in a way that it hadn’t ever before.
In 1976-77 Erving and McGinnis combined for more than 40 points per game, leading the Sixers to a 50-32 record and an NBA Finals birth. Despite being heavily favored over Bill Walton and the Portland Trail Blazers, their head coach, Dr. Jack Ramsay, preached the values of chemistry and the team rallied from an 0-2 deficit to win four straight and claim the title.
After tearing the cartilage in his knee in the 1975-76 season, effectively ending his playing career, Billy Cunningham took over as coach in 1977-78, and the Sixers captured the Atlantic Division title with a 55-27 record.
With Erving, Philadelphia remained a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference throughout the decade. By the late 1970s, the club would add Lloyd B. Free, a guard who later changed his name to World because of his 44-inch vertical leap. Known for shooting rainbows – or jump shots with an extreme arch -- he was admired across the league for his fearlessness and flamboyant play. Another key addition was Darryl Dawkins, selected fifth overall in the 1975 NBA Draft after declaring as a high school senior. Dawkins was averaging double-digit points by the time he turned 20 years old and was the named the team’s starting center prior to the 1978-79 season.
In 1978-79, the 76ers finished second in the Atlantic Division behind the Bullets, who had a bolstered front line featuring Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, and Mitch Kupchak. In the playoffs, the Sixers eliminated New Jersey in the first round, but eventually fell to the San Antonio Spurs in seven games in the conference semifinals.
The 1980s: Sixers Take Title; Philly Goes Wild
In 1979-80 Philadelphia made yet another NBA Finals appearance, this time with Maurice Cheeks as starting point guard and Bobby Jones, recently acquired from the Denver Nuggets, bringing his signature defensive tenacity to the court. While the Sixers would go on to fall to the Lakers in 6 games thanks in part to the 42-point performance of rookie Magic Johnson, the two teams would go on to meet in the championship round in two of the next three seasons.
During the 1980-81 season, the Celtics would prevail as Eastern Conference champions, despite a Most Valuable Player campaign from Erving in the regular season. That summer, the 76ers were acquired by “sports fanatic” Harold Katz, and with Erving, Jones, Cheeks, Dawkins, Lionel Hollins, and shooter supreme Andrew Toney, the team was talented, experienced, and deep.
In the 1982 NBA Finals, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar proved to be too much for the 76ers to handle, and the Lakers won the championship, 4-2. It was evident that the Sixers needed a center, it was time to acquire a great one. Moses Malone, who was at the peak of his powers with the Rockets, came to the Sixers through a trade that sent Caldwell Jones and a 1983 first round draft pick back to Houston.
Malone's arrival gave the 1982-83 team a starting five for the ages: Erving (21.4 ppg), Bobby Jones (9.0 ppg), Malone (24.5 ppg, 15.3 rpg), Toney (19.7 ppg), and Cheeks (6.9 apg, 2 spg). Malone was named regular season MVP as the Sixers dominated the Eastern Conference, finishing with a 65-17 record. They swept the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs; topped the Milwaukee Bucks in five games; and then overwhelmed the Lakers in the NBA Finals in four straight, avenging their previous Finals losses.
It was a playoff run with only one loss, a record held until 2001 when the Lakers, led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, did the same. Malone, who was by then often referred to as “Big Mo” or “The Chairman of the Boards”, was named Finals MVP. His legend continues to live on in Philadelphia for that postseason -- Having been asked how he thought his 76ers would go in the playoffs, Malone said: “Fo, Fo, Fo”, meaning his team would win the each of the three best-of-seven series necessary to claim the championship 4-0, 4-0, 4-0. Because the Eastern Conference against the Bucks took an extra game, the saying has since been altered to “Fo, Fi, Fo”, which was engraved on the team’s championship rings.
The beginning of the 1983-84 season brought with it a steady decline for the Sixers that would last into the 1990s. Then again, most anything would be a decline from Philadelphia's dominant championship run in 1983. Charles Barkley was the only significant addition to the team after the 1983 title, selected in the 1984 NBA Draft alongside Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, and John Stockton. Barkley, who would become one of the game's most prolific players, was a raw 6-6, 260-pound rebounding machine. Dubbed “Sir Charles”, his enthusiasm sparked the Sixers to a 58-24 record in his rookie season, a three-games-to-one series win over Washington in the first round of the playoffs, and a sweep of Milwaukee in the conference semifinals. But Boston had another date with Los Angeles in the NBA Finals and dismissed the 76ers, four games to one, in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Injuries to Andrew Toney and Moses Malone would curb the Sixers’ title hopes the following year, and Erving retired after the 1986-87 season, having scored 30,026 points over the course of his combined ABA and NBA career. He played 11 marvelous NBA seasons with the 76ers, totaling 18,364 points-and left in third place on the team's all-time scoring list behind only Hal Greer (21,586) and Dolph Schayes (19,249). Erving was elected into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.
Barkley's time with the 76ers peaked in 1989-90. Rick Mahorn was enlisted to give the Sixers even more size and power in the frontcourt, while and Hersey Hawkins and former Duke standout Johnny Dawkins formed the league's best-rhyming backcourt. Hawkins dropped 18.5 points per game that season, while Dawkins chimed in with 14.3 points per contest. The Sixers finished at 53-29 and edged Boston by one game for the Atlantic Division title. They then slipped past Cleveland in a tightly-contested five-game playoff series, but ran into a Chicago Bulls team on the rise in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were too much for Philadelphia, as the Bulls won the best-of-seven series in five games a season prior to Chicago beginning its three-year title reign.
The 1990s: Philadelphia Turns into Allen-Town
In 1990-91, Philadelphia charted a similar course through the playoffs, winning a first-round series before losing to the Bulls again in the conference semifinals. Dawkins was lost to a knee injury four games into the season, knocking a hole in the team's chances for a long postseason run. Barkley was as brilliant as ever, though, averaging 27.6 points (fourth-best in the NBA), shooting .570 from the field (also fourth), hauling in 10.1 rebounds per game, and capturing the NBA All-Star Game Most Valuable Player Award. Hawkins was a model of consistency at off guard, contributing 22.1 points per contest.
In the 1991-92 season, Sixers dipped below .500 and at season's end, Barkley, their only All-Star, was traded to the Phoenix Suns for guard Jeff Hornacek, forward Tim Perry, and center Andrew Lang.
Top 10 draft picks in the coming years were used on Southern Mississippi's Clarence Weatherspoon (ninth overall, 1992), an explosive forward who reminded many of Barkley; Shawn Bradley (second overall, 1993), a 7’6” center who had played only one year of college basketball; Sharone Wright (sixth overall, 1994), whose best season came as a rookie when he averaged 11.4 ppg; and Jerry Stackhouse (third overall, 1995).
The addition of Stackhouse gave the Sixers one of the brightest young stars in the NBA, and his pairing with Weatherspoon provided a nice young nucleus from which the team could build. The former led all NBA rookies that season with 19.2 ppg, and was the Rookie of the Month in March, while the latter added 16.7 points and led the team with 9.7 rebounds.
The team was sold that summer by Harold Katz to Pat Croce, a former 76ers strength and conditioning coach, and the Comcast Corporation. The coaching reins were handed from John Lucas to Johnny Davis. The team moved from the Spectrum, their longtime home, into the new CoreStates Center. Having been awarded the first overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft Lottery, Georgetown University megastar Allen Iverson was selected to be the new face of the franchise.
Dubbed "The Answer," Iverson arrived on the NBA scene and immediately became one of the league's most exciting players. With unmatched quickness, he wowed crowds at team’s new home arena with a spectacular crossover dribble and a seeming ability to score at will. Iverson proved his worth under the national spotlight on All-Star Saturday, winning Most Valuable Player honors at the Schick Rookie Game. But the telltale sign of his explosiveness came in April, when he set an NBA rookie record by scoring 40 or more points in five consecutive games, highlighted by a 50-point outburst against the Cleveland Cavaliers on April 12.
He was named the NBA's Rookie of the Year, scoring 23.5 points per game, and alongside Stackhouse (20.7 ppg), the 76ers had one of the highest scoring duos in the NBA.
Larry Brown, who was named the team's head coach at season's end, replaced Johnny Davis and began to shape his team after the 1997 NBA Draft by acquiring veterans Eric Montross and Jimmy Jackson and draftees Tim Thomas and Anthony Parker in exchange for second overall pick Keith Van Horn.
Iverson followed his Rookie of the Year performance with a strong sophomore season under Brown, leading the team in scoring (22.0 ppg, 8th in the NBA), assists (6.2 apg, 16th) and steals (2.20 spg, 5th). The 22-year-old continued to develop his game and improved his shooting percentage from last season's .416 to a respectable .461.
On Dec. 18, the nucleus of players around Coleman, Thomas and Iverson began to take on a new look. The Sixers traded Jerry Stackhouse and Eric Montross to Detroit for forward-center Theo Ratliff, guard Aaron McKie and a conditional first-round draft pick. The new-look Sixers had started to have success against teams it had not beaten for some time. The Sixers, who beat defending NBA champion Chicago twice, snapped losing streaks against the Bulls (16 games), the Cavaliers (12 games) and the Rockets (11 games), and notched their first win over the Suns at America West Arena. In addition, the Sixers swept the season series against the Lakers for the first time since the 1982-83 season and won all their home games against the Atlantic Division rival New York Knicks for the first time since 1989-90.
The 1998-1999 NBA season began post-lockout in January and ended in May with the Sixers first post-season playoff berth in eight years. The Sixers finished the shortened regular season with a 28-22 record and returned to the NBA Playoffs ending their longest postseason drought in franchise history by upsetting Penny Hardaway and the Orlando Magic in the first round before getting swept by the more mature Indiana Pacers in the Conference Semifinals.
The 76ers ended the decade with Iverson becoming the first 76er to be voted as a starter for the Eastern Conference All-Star team since Charles Barkley in 1992; and unprecedented fan support, including rally towels and “Iverson for MVP” signs filling the arena at home games.
Allen Iverson, Aaron McKie, Tyrone Hill, Larry Hughes, George Lynch, Eric Snow, Theo Ratliff, and Toni Kukoc represented this new era of 76ers basketball, and they were on the verge of something big.
The 2000s: Iverson, 76ers Claim Eastern Conference Title
The Sixers came out of the gate full throttle in the beginning of the decade and never slowed down. They began the 2000-01 season with a franchise record 10-straight wins, including a 13-game road win streak that started in December and stretched through January.
Larry Brown, Iverson and Ratliff represented the Sixers in the All-Star Game in Washington, DC., with Iverson earning MVP honors for the game in the East's come-from-behind victory. A few days after the All-Star break, General Manager Billy King pulled the trigger on six-player trade that sent Ratliff, Kukoc, Nazr Mohammed, and Pepe Sanchez to Atlanta for multi-time Defensive Player of the Year Dikembe Mutombo and Roshown McLeod.
The Sixers clinched their first Atlantic Division crown since 1989-90, and claimed the top seed in the Eastern Conference, ending the regular season with a 56-26 record.
The playoffs proved to be just as exciting as the regular season for the Sixers. They knocked off their longtime antagonist, the Indiana Pacers in the first round before facing up-and-coming superstar Vince Carter and the Toronto Raptors in the second round. This series was extended to seven games with Iverson and Carter trading 40+ point performances and came down to the last shot. Carter missed a corner 3 at the buzzer, resulting in the Sixers making their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since the days of Dr. J. They finally rid themselves of the Bucks after another grueling seven game series, and Iverson was on his way to his first NBA Finals to face the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.
The underdog Sixers went into the Finals against the heavily favored Lakers and pulled out a Game 1 overtime victory after a gutsy 48-point performance from The Answer. Eventually, they fell to the Lakers in 5 games.
Aside from the trip to the NBA Finals, that season will be remembered for the individual achievements. The Sixers became the first team in NBA History to win four major awards: MVP (Allen Iverson), Coach of the Year (Larry Brown), Defensive Player of the Year (Dikembe Mutombo) and Sixth Man of the Year (Aaron McKie).
Trades and individual accolades were the most memorable points throughout the rest of the decade. At different times, the 76ers had acquired well-known names such as Keith Van Horn, Todd MacCulloch, Glenn Robinson, and Chris Webber. All the while Iverson became the first player in franchise history since Julius Erving to start five consecutive All-Star Games, and won his second ASG MVP (2005). Kyle Korver participated in two three-point shootouts, becoming the first rookie to do so. Andre Iguodala made waves in both the Rookie Challenge and the Slam Dunk Contest.
The team returned to the playoffs in 2005 after the acquisition of Webber, who made his home debut against his former team, the Sacramento Kings, on Feb. 26 before a crowd of 21,068, the fifth largest crowd in the arena's history. The 76ers returned to the playoffs that season, earning the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference and thus a reunion with Larry Brown, who was now guiding the sidelines for the Detroit Pistons. Iverson recorded 37 points and 15 assists in Game 3 of the series, becoming the fourth player in NBA Playoff history to have at least 35 points and 15 assists in a game, but the Pistons clinched the series in Game 5.
On December 19, 2006, the Philadelphia 76ers traded Allen Iverson to the Denver Nuggets alongside Ivan McFarlin in exchange for Andre Miller, Joe Smith, and two first-round draft picks, effectively ending what many 76ers fans know as “The Iverson Era”. For the rest of the decade, the team would feature a litany of players who have gone on to have prosperous, lengthy NBA careers, like Iguodala, Korver, Lou Williams, Thaddeus Young, and Jrue Holiday. Under head coach Maurice Cheeks, the 76ers returned to the playoffs in both the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, losing in the opening round both times.
The 2010s started with the return of a familiar face, as Doug Collins accepted the 76ers’ Head Coaching position prior to the start of the 2010-11 season. Led by veteran presence Elton Brand (15.0 ppg, 8.3 rpg) Iguodala, Williams, and Holiday, the 76ers earned their first of back-to-back playoff appearances. In the lockout shortened 2011-12 season, the 76ers finished above .500 for the first time since 2004-05 and knocked off the top-seeded Chicago Bulls in the first round before bowing out at the hands of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Though the 76ers would fail to produce playoff appearances in any of the next five seasons, promise and potential was on the way. Fans were encouraged to “trust the process”, and the feeling of hope among the Philly faithful was palpable. In the 2013-14 season, the team’s first round draft pick Michael Carter-Williams was crowned Rookie of the Year, the first since 1987 (Mark Jackson) to be selected with the 10th pick or later and win the award. That summer, current franchise cornerstone Joel Embiid was selected out of Kansas University with the third overall pick, and Carter-Williams was traded to the Orlando Magic. With the departure of MCW, a void was created at the point guard position, leading to the 76ers choosing Ben Simmons out of Louisiana State University after drawing the first overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.
With Brett Brown leading the charge as head coach, the team’s rise was forthcoming. Playoff appearances came with regularity once again, and in the midst of the 2018-19 season, it was time to shake up the Eastern Conference with a pair of big moves. On November 12, 2018, the 76ers traded Jerryd Bayless, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and a future second-round draft pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Jimmy Butler. Less than three months later, Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet and several future draft picks were shipped to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, and Mike Scott.
The pair of Butler and Harris, in conjunction with Embiid and Simmons, would help revitalize basketball in the city of Philadelphia, despite losing to the eventual champion Raptors in a seven-game second round series.
The decade ended with a short stint in the “NBA Bubble” in Walt Disney World to conclude the 2019-20 basketball season as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The core of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Tobias Harris has remained intact into the 2020s as the 76ers pursue their first NBA Championship since 1983.