Introduction | Spirit of The Champion


The Boston Philly Rivalry

By Curtis Harris



When the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers dethroned the Boston Celtics, it was a joyous victory nearly a decade in the making. From 1959 to 1966, the Boston Celtics won every single NBA title. Many great players came through the Celtics dynasty: Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Sam Jones, John Havlicek, and KC Jones to name a few. But the linchpins were Bill Russell at center and Red Auerbach as coach.

Boston’s grip on the NBA seemed to be loosening by 1965. The 76ers traded mid-season for Wilt Chamberlain placing him alongside such stellar players as Hal Greer, Red Kerr, Chet Walker, and Luke Jackson. Despite finishing with an even 40-40 record the Sixers were a force for Boston to reckon with as the club adjusted to its new MVP addition. After swiftly defeating Oscar Robertson’s Cincinnati Royals in the first round, the Sixers met up with the Celtics in the Eastern Division Finals.


The series was a seesaw contest with the team’s alternating home and victories every game. The series came down to a Game 7 in Boston Garden. And sure enough in that final game, the teams seesawed quarterly leads. Boston won the 1st quarter 35-26. Philly took the 2nd quarter 36-26. Boston snatched the 3rd quarter 29-20. Philly would outscore Boston in the final frame 27-20, but that left them one point short of victory. Philly had final possession, but their attempt to win the ballgame was stymied when John Havlicek intercepted the inbound pass, or as Celtics broadcaster Johnny Most described it: “Havlicek stole the ball! Over to Sam Jones!”



Then in 1966, the Sixers outpaced Boston for the best record in the East with a 55-25 record. It was the first time since 1956 that a team other than Boston had the most wins in the East. Boston, however, was far from through. They held a 54-26 regular season record and they dispatched Philly 4-games-to-1 in the Eastern Finals that season en route to their eighth straight NBA championship.

Despite the disappointments, 1967 proved to be a prime time for Philly to upend Boston.

For starters, Boston lost long-time coach Red Auerbach to retirement while Philly gained Alex Hannum to replace Dolph Schayes as their coach. Hannum was the only man to have coached a team to victory over the Boston Celtics during their Russell years. As coach of the St. Louis Hawks in 1958, Hannum defeated the Celtics 4-2 in the NBA Finals. A former Marine, Hannum’s dictates that the club play cohesive unselfish ball was headed by every player and extracted the most from every man on the roster, which by now also included super sixth man Billy Cunningham and Wali Jones.


The Sixers came into the 1967 season on a mission. They reeled off an impressive 46 wins in their first 50 games. Injury to guard Larry Costello slowed their roll as did their enormous lead over their division rivals. Boston was 10 games back in second place. The Sixers eased the pace and finished the year with a 68-13 record. After a quick series vs. the Royals, Philly once again met Boston in the Eastern Finals. With Auerbach out as coach, Bill Russell assumed the coaching duties as well as his customary playing role.

In Game 1 of the series, the Sixers won 127-113 behind a huge 39-point effort from Hal Greer. Meanwhile, Wilt poured in a monster game of 24 points, 32 rebounds and 13 assists. In Game 2, Chet Walker had the hot hand with 23 points and nine rebounds as the Sixers won in Boston 107-102. For Game 3, Wilt detonated an unbelievable effort of 41 rebounds, 20 points, and nine assists. Hal Greer chipped in 30 points, six rebounds, and six assists as the Sixers again won 115-104.

With Boston unfathomably down 3-0 versus Philly, the series shifted back to Massachusetts. Havlicek and Sam Jones combined for 63 points to stave off elimination despite Luke Jackson having his best game of the series for the Sixers. The burly forward pasted the Celtics for 29 points and 18 rebounds, but it was not enough as the Cs walked away with a 121-117 win.

Back in Philadelphia, the Sixers in Game 5 seemed on the verge of another let down performance. Boston led at halftime by a score of 70-65. In the second half, however, the roof caved in on the Celtics. The Sixers outscored their opponent 75-46. Wali Jones in particular caught fire swishing several jumpers in a row as he finished the game with 23 points and six assists. It was a bruising team effort though:

Chet Walker – 26 points, 12 rebounds
Hal Greer – 32 points
Billy Cunningham – 21 points, eight rebounds

And of course Wilt Chamberlain ran Boston out the building with a dominating 29 points, 36 rebounds, and 13 assists leading the Sixers to a 140-116 victory. For the series Wilt averaged a titanic 23.4 points, 32 rebounds and 10 assists per game against Bill Russell. For the Sixers organization beating the Celtics in the East felt like winning the NBA title.



The future looked bright for a Sixers dynasty to replace the Celtics as the NBA’s dynastic powerhouse. Indeed, the Sixers finished the 1967 playoffs by defeating San Francisco for the championship. The next season, Philly again finished with the NBA’s best record in 1968: 62 wins and 20 losses. Unfortunately, though, the budding Sixers dynasty was dashed in the first round vs. New York. Billy Cunningham injured his wrist in Game 3 of the series. Although the Sixers would beat the Knicks 4-games-to-2, Cunningham would miss the next series vs. Boston.


In the Eastern Division Finals, the Celtics and Philadelphia met for the fourth year in a row. With Bill Russell more acclimated to the role of player-coach, Boston would be a more dangerous foe than the previous year and got the jump on Philly, winning Game 1 127-118. However, the Sixers recovered and reeled off three straight wins.

The future looked bright for a Sixers dynasty to replace the Celtics as the NBA’s dynastic powerhouse. Indeed, the Sixers finished the 1967 playoffs by defeating San Francisco for the championship. The next season, Philly again finished with the NBA’s best record in 1968: 62 wins and 20 losses. Unfortunately, though, the budding Sixers dynasty was dashed in the first round vs. New York. Billy Cunningham injured his wrist in Game 3 of the series. Although the Sixers would beat the Knicks 4-games-to-2, Cunningham would miss the next series vs. Boston.

Then a strange thing happened.

Boston won the next three games to take the series 4-games-to-3. It was the first time in NBA history a team had come back from a 3-1 deficit. The Game 7 finale was a slugfest with the final score 100-96 in favor of Boston. That offseason, the Sixers traded Wilt to Los Angeles and it wouldn’t be until 1977 that Sixers, behind Julius Erving, George McGinnis, and a new crew of stars, again emerged as legitimate title threats in the NBA. And sure enough, the Sixers would routinely face Boston in this new era of success in the playoffs in 1977, 1980, 1981, 1982, and 1985.

But for the 1967 team, defeating Boston was an almost incomprehensible feeling. It wasn’t just besting a rival; it was upending a team that had put a stranglehold on the NBA for a decade. And they did the upending in epic fashion. After all, it’s not every day the defending NBA champion is blown out by 36 points to lose their crown. Like everything about the 1967 Sixers, they didn’t just set records, they busted down the doors and blew open the windows in the process.