A Rivalry With Deep Roots
For a three-season era, the 76ers were seeing red under the domination of Billy Cunningham.
After being an indispensable sixth man on the 1967 title team, the super sub became a superstar in the summer of 1968 when Wilt Chamberlain was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The change in superstars coincided with a notable jersey alteration for the 1968-69 season as well, as the road ‘PHILA’ uniforms became crimson red for the first time. The color change persisted through the 1970-71 season.
The firebrand Cunningham took to the red quite nicely, as his scoring average rose from 18.9 to 24.8 points per game, and his rebounding lept from 7.6 to 12.8 boards per game.
Former Laker Archie Clark – acquired in the Wilt trade – responded well in his first season on the Sixers (13.5 PPG), but he would assume a larger role as time went on. The venerable vets Chet Walker (18 PPG, 7.8 RPG) and Hal Greer (23.0 PPG, 5.0 APG, 5.3 RPG) were of their usual All-Star vintage.
Put it all together, and the Sixers stunned the NBA by going 55-27 in their post-Wilt season. In fact, Chamberlain’s Lakers finished with the exact same record despite boasting Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
Cunningham finished third in MVP voting behind Baltimore’s Wes Unseld and New York’s Willis Reed.
The surprising Sixers, unfortunately, proved only to be the second-most shocking hoops development of 1969.
The aging Bill Russell in his final season gave the NBA one more unexpected title run, as his Celtics upset the favored the Sixers in the playoffs… and then upset the favored Knicks… and then upset the favored Lakers en route to the championship.
Then, in the summer of 1969, Walker was traded to the Chicago Bulls for Jim Washington. Washington was a fine player and superior rebounder, but he couldn’t replace the totality of Walker’s production. Chet the Jet would end his career a seven-time All-Star and was still on automatic averaging about 20.0 points per game till the day he retired in 1975.
Precipitating that trade was a devastating Achilles injury to center Luke Jackson during the 1969 season. His injury represented the loss of 14.0 points and 11.0 rebounds a game, plus some bruising interior defense. Although Big Luke would return and play through the 1972 season, he was understandably not the same force post-injury.
A core of Cunningham, Greer, and Clark, plus Walker and a healthy Jackson would have been a beastly challenge for anyone in the East.
But the trade and injury happened, so it was Cunningham soldiering on with guards Greer and Clark as the leaders of the plucky Sixers. The trio averaged nearly 68.0 points per game for the 1969-70 season, as the team racked up a 42-40 record. Its reward was a matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks, a franchise surging on the power of rookie sensation Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Cunningham did what he could, averaging 29.0 points for the series. In Game 4, he even exploded for a franchise playoff record of 50 points, since surpassed only by Allen Iverson. But in Game 5, Kareem took full advantage of the Sixers’ lack of interior muscle and produced an eviscerating 46 points and 25 rebounds to end the series in Milwaukee’s favor.
The 1970-71 campaign was the last hurrah for the red threads, and the Cunningham-Greer-Clark core found its sweetest rapport yet.
Despite being 34 years old, Greer managed to score 18.6 points to go along with 4.6 assists and 4.5 rebounds. At that point in NBA history, no player of his size and age had been able to produce so well.
Playing on the borrowed time of Greer’s age-defying skills, this iteration of the Sixers had one final shot of reaching the Finals in that year’s relatively open Eastern Conference
Unfortunately, the NBA’s playoff seeding rules were less than reasonable that season. Each conference’s division winners received home court advantage. No matter their record or their opponent’s record.
You can see where this is going.
The Sixers finished with 47 wins – placing them second in BOTH the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic Division behind the Knicks. However, the Baltimore Bullets, by virtue of winning the Central Division, “earned” home court over the Sixers, despite having fewer victories.
The wondrous Greer gave his final heroic playoff performance in Game 1 of the opening round with 30 points and six assists in a Sixers’ victory. Cunningham was magnificent throughout, including a Game 5 effort of 32 points and 20 rebounds to pull out a 104-103 win.
But the series came down to a Game 7 on Baltimore’s court by virtue of the seeding rules.
In Game 7, the Kangaroo Kid again played possessed with 30 points and 19 rebounds, while the shaking-and-baking Clark notched 37 points.
The brawn and homecourt of Baltimore were decisive, though.
Their frontcourt of Wes Unseld, Gus Johnson, and Jack Marin was awesome, combining for 68 points, 55 rebounds, and 16 assists as Baltimore pulled out a 128-120 win.
That marked the end of the franchise’s first red jersey era, and the undersized but valiant Cunningham-Greer-Clark trio.
With entirely new uniforms for the 1971-72 season, Father Time finally caught Hal Greer, who averaged just 12.0 points. Meanwhile, Archie Clark was traded to the rival Bullets, and Billy Cunningham was left to shoulder an even larger burden. Despite Billy C’s 23.0 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 6.0 assists, the Sixers managed just 30 wins and missed the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
But what’s old eventually becomes new once more.
For the 1978-79 season, the Sixers were again running up and down the court in fiery road jerseys. The ‘PHILA’ lettering was replaced with ‘SIXERS,’ but other than that the jerseys bore a strong resemblance to their crimson ancestors.
Doing Greer and Clark proud, the team would eventually win an NBA championship in the revamped red. Fittingly, it was Cunningham there on the sideline as head coach seeing that those crimson threads would finally reach elusive title glory.