The Sixers will begin the 2017-18 season this fall, marking the 35th anniversary of the franchise’s last title winning season. Their 1982-83 season concluded with superstars Julius Erving and Moses Malone, alongside a tremendous supporting cast of Andrew Toney, Maurice Cheeks, and Bobby Jones receiving their first championship rings. Since then, the Sixers have suffered a prolonged championship drought, appearing in the Finals only once in 2001.
This championship journey was not easy for the Sixers. It began with the acquisition of “The Doctor” Julius Erving from the New York Nets in 1976. Dr. J made an immediate impact on the team, leading them past the Celtics and Rockets to the 1977 finals against the Portland Trail Blazers. The Sixers won the first two games of the series at the Spectrum, but center Bill Walton proved to be too much for the Philadelphia frontcourt, and the Blazers won the next four games to take the title. This stunning turnaround compelled the team’s motto “We owe you one.” They would nevertheless lose in the ’78 Eastern Conference Finals to Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld of the Washington Bullets
Erving’s quest for a ring continued in 1980 as the Sixers battled the Los Angeles Lakers. Rookie Magic Johnson shined in his first Finals series. In one of the greatest games of his career, game 6, he played center in place of an injured Jabbar and scored 42 points, grabbed 15 rebounds, and dished out 7 assists. The Lakers won the series 4 games to 2. In 1981, the Sixers would blow a 3-1 series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals against Larry Bird, Cedric Maxwell, and the Boston Celtics. The ’80 and ’81 playoffs proved that Philadelphia’s road to the title would have to go through Boston and Los Angeles. This would be a theme for the rest of the ’80s, as Bird and Magic dominated the league and TV Ratings.
Just like the previous year, in 1982 the Sixers finished second in the Atlantic division and took a 3-1 series lead against the Celtics. The Celtics won games 5 and 6, forcing a game 7 in the Boston Garden with all the momentum in their favor. The Sixers weren’t given a fighting chance, but prevailed on the road thanks to a brilliant shooting performance by the “Boston Strangler,” Andrew Toney. At the end of the fourth quarter, Boston fans chanted “Beat LA! Beat LA!” to the Sixers, wishing their Eastern Conference counterparts good luck against their hated Western Conference rivals. However, the Sixers would lose in 6 games yet again to Magic, Kareem, and the Showtime Lakers. So far during the Erving era (’77-’82), the Sixers had lost twice in the conference finals and three times in the Finals. Down but far from out, the Sixers needed one final piece to get over the BOS/LA hump.
That piece came in the form of a 6’10 260lb center from Virginia, Moses Malone. The Sixers fleeced Big Mo from the Houston Rockets, giving up only a draft pick and an aging role player for the perennial all star. Malone was the league rebounding champion, a powerful force which enabled the Sixers to compete with the Lakers and Celtics in the low post. As the season began, Malone and Erving ended all rumors about team chemistry by winning 10 out of their first 11 games. The Sixers would stay hot throughout the regular season, going on multiple double digit winning streaks. Four Sixers (Malone, Erving, Cheeks, & Toney) represented the team at the 1983 All Star Game at the LA Forum, with Dr. J winning the game’s MVP award. Three Sixers (Malone, Jones, & Cheeks) would be named to the all-defensive first team, with Jones also winning the 6th man of the year award thanks to his excellent energy and length off the bench. Philadelphia would finish the season with a record of 65-17, their best regular season record since Coach Cunningham and Wilt Chamberlain’s 1966-67 championship season. Fan support was at a high, as the city united around their beloved Sixers.
As they approached the playoffs, a reporter prompted Malone about Philadelphia’s chances – to which he replied “Fo, Fo, Fo” – declaring that the Sixers would win 4 games in each of the 3 rounds to win the title. The Chairman of the Board’s prediction came true in the first round, as the Sixers swiftly eliminated the Knicks in 4 games. In the next series against the Bucks, the Sixers took a 3-0 series lead, but the Bucks would not be swept, taking game 4 in Milwaukee. This would prove to be the Sixers only loss in the 1983 postseason. Returning to the Spectrum for game 5, the Sixers were victorious and celebrated their 3rd Finals appearance in the past 4 years.
In the Finals, the Sixers once again faced Jabbar, Johnson, and the Los Angeles Lakers. However, the Lakers had bad fortune in terms of injuries, with Bob McAdoo, rookie James Worthy, and Norm Nixon all hurting. The Lakers held a halftime lead in each game, but were outscored down the stretch in each second half. Role players Clint Richardson and Earl Cureton also made useful contributions in the Finals, proving that even the best teams need solid bench support to win. In game 4, Moses Malone delivered an all-time performance, scoring 24 points and pulling down 23 boards as Julius Erving made multiple clutch plays in the 4th quarter to clinch the title for the 76ers. Erving’s quest for an NBA ring was complete, and the 1982-83 Sixers were cemented as one of the greatest basketball teams of all time. Laker coach Pat Riley and owner Jerry Buss showed tremendous respect postgame, joining the Sixers locker room to congratulate them. Riley stated that Dr. J deserved this one, and that Moses Malone was the key difference in making the Sixers so dominant.
On June 2, the Sixers paraded down Broad Street with the Championship trophy before a crowd of over 1.2 million fans. Once they reached Veterans Stadium, owner Harold Katz, coach Billy Cunningham, and the stars of the team addressed a sell-out crowd. The Doctor basked in the championship glory, iterating that the team had been trying for 7 years to get to this point. He and Coach Cunningham thanked the fans for their support, including them as a major reason for their success. This was the city’s 4th parade in the past 9 years, with the Flyers winning the Stanley Cup in 1974, and 1975, and the Phillies winning the World Series in 1980. However, Philadelphia would not celebrate another championship parade for another quarter-century, when the Phillies won in 2008.
The legacy of the 1983 Sixers will never be erased. They were the first NBA team to lose only 1 game in the postseason – a feat that has been done only twice since, by the 2001 Lakers and the 2017 Warriors. The big four of Erving, Malone, Cheeks, and Jones, along with Coach Cunningham, have all since had their jersey numbers retired by the 76ers. Although they would not win the Finals again, the Dr. J era Sixers can be considered an Eastern Conference dynasty of the late ’70s and early ’80s. The team holds a special place in the hearts of Philly fans, who long for the Sixers to one day return to their former glory as the best team in the association.
The Golden State Warriors are currently one of the best teams in the NBA, and are the pride of the otherwise dreary San Francisco Bay Area sports scene. That’s just fantastic for the denizens of the nine counties by ‘the Bay’, and I applaud them on their success. It should be noted however, that the Warriors franchise was STOLEN from Philadelphia in 1962. When people talk about the ‘theft’ of professional sport teams, people regurgitate the same tired examples; the Baltimore Colts, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and if you’re British, Wimbledon F.C, but never the Philadelphia Warriors. Let’s change that.
The Philadelphia Warriors were founded in 1946 as a franchise in the upstart Basketball Association of America (BAA). They played their games at the Philadelphia Arena (1946-1952) and at the Philadelphia Civic Center (1952-1962), with the occasional game at Hershey Arena. In the beginning, the Warriors were owned, operated, and coached by the legendary basketball promoter and future NBA commissioner/scheduling king, Eddie Gottlieb. Prior to owning the Warriors, Gottlieb was owner/player/coach of the barnstorming SPHAs basketball team, widely considered one of the best teams of their era. In the Warriors (and the league’s) inaugural season, the team would would post a 35-25 record (field goal percentages are particularly cringe-inducing from this era). Led by the league’s premier scorer, Hall of Famer “Jumpin” Joe Fulks, the Warriors would defeat the Chicago Stags four games to one to win the first BBA championship (the BAA eventually became the NBA in 1949, and this is often considered the first NBA championship). The following season, the Warriors would lose in the BAA finals to the Baltimore Bullets, four games to two.
The Warriors snuck into the playoffs the next few years, but eventually missed the playoffs in three consecutive seasons. In 1955, an outraged Gottlieb had seen enough, and fired himself. He turned the Warriors over to former team point guard, George Senesky. In Senesky’s first season, the Warriors vastly improved. Led by a trio of Hall of Famers ”Pitchin’” Paul Arizin, Tom “Mr. All-Around” Gola, and Neil “Gabby” Johnston, the Warriors posted the best record in the NBA, and earned a trip to the 1956 NBA playoffs. Their first test was a semi-finals matchup against the reigning NBA champs, the Syracuse Nationals (the future 76ers), led by Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes. The Warriors won the hard-fought series three game to two, and advanced to the finals. In the finals, the Warriors took on a Fort Wayne (Now Detroit) Pistons team that had their own Hall of Fame trio (George “Bird” Yardley, Bobby Houbregs, and Andy Phillip). The Warriors won the best-of-seven series in five games (4-1), led by the transcendent scoring abilities of Paul Arizin. It was an extremely close fought series, with the average margin of victory of just four points (inflated by Warriors 11-point game five victory). This was to be the last triumph tasted by the Warriors in Philadelphia.
The offseason following the Warriors championship run would change the course of the NBA forever. In 1956, a certain vile team that wears green (The Boston Celtics), led by a certain cigar chomping coach/general manager (Arnold “Red” Auerbach), acquired a certain talented center through suspicious methods (Bill Russell), sparking a dynasty that won 11 of the next 13 NBA championships. The Warriors were stuck behind that dominant Boston squad with little hope of passing them. After three long seasons trapped in the looming shadow of the Celtics, a huge ray of sunlight peeked through the darkness in 1959.
That light was Wilton Norman “Wilt” Chamberlain, the 7-foot 1-inch behemoth from Overbrook High School, by way of the University of Kansas. In the early days of the NBA, there was an interesting mechanism used to engage local fans. Teams were allowed to stake a Territorial Pick claim to a player from a 50-mile radius of their home arena in exchange for the team’s first round pick. The thought process behind this was that fans would be more likely to foster a connection with one of their own than they would with some out-of-towner. With Chamberlain being far-and-away the best player in the draft, it was a no-brainer for the Warriors to stake a territorial claim. Chamberlain quickly became the best player in the NBA. Through his first three seasons, Chamberlain dominated the league, but his extremely talented supporting cast could not come close to the talent amassed by the Celtics (8 Hall–of–Famers on roster in 1960-61). Unfortunately for Philadelphians, there was an even bigger shadow than the Celtics looming over their team’s fortunes, Eddie Gottlieb’s ambitions.
In 1962, Eddie Gottlieb sold the Warriors to a group of California based investors led by Franklin Mieuli, who promptly moved them across the country to San Francisco’s Cow Palace. The motive for the sale (other than money) is not entirely clear. There is the notion that Gottlieb, as NBA commissioner, wanted to expand the league westward, but this is unproven. The move upset several players, most notably Paul Arizin, who quit the team to play for the semi-professional Camden Bullets of the Eastern Professional Basketball League. (They won the Championship in Arizin’s only season.) Fortunately for fans of pro basketball in Philadelphia, the city was without a team for just one season. In 1963, the Syracuse Nationals moved to Philadelphia and became the Philadelphia 76ers.
Both the Warriors and the Sixers have won two NBA titles since their respective moves. However, when you juxtapose the Warriors’ recent success with the woes of the ‘process’ era Sixers, it is inevitable that some fans will yearn for the Warriors to return to their roots.
Before Comcast SportsNet came about in 1997, there was PRISM. No, not the NSA’s mass surveillance program, but rather the cable television channel, Philadelphia Regional In-Home Sports and Movies. PRISM was launched in 1976 as a joint venture between Ed Snider’s Spectacor and 20th Century Fox. For a subscription fee of around $12, Philadelphians had, for the first time, the ability to watch all Flyers, Phillies, and Sixers home games, all Big 5 basketball matchups, and all WWF events held at the Spectrum.
In addition to broadcasting live sporting events, PRISM showed a variety of other programming. Under the direction of Sport Director Jim Barniak, PRISM and its sister station SportsChannel Philadelphia, had a slew of sport talk shows and anthologies (The Great Sports Debate, Broad and Pattison, and Sports Scrapbook among others), as well as countless movies (and even the occasional late night skin flick). PRISM had it all. However, the station had some teething issues.
PRISM spent the first five years of existence operating at a loss. This could be attributed to the cost of acquiring the rights to broadcast sporting events and movies, as well as management’s reluctance to run advertisements. At launch, PRISM had a grand total of six subscribers. In the early days of cable, there were very few cable providers and the vast majority of American urban areas were not wired for cable. Those who were fortunate enough to live in an area with the necessary wiring faced astronomical costs. In 1976 PRISM’s $12 price tag was the equivalent of $52.20 in 2017 dollars. At a time when gasoline cost $0.59 per gallon, and median income was around $13,000, PRISM was a luxury that many families could simply not afford.
By 1986, PRISM had a subscriber base of approximately 370,000 households in the Philadelphia area. The majority of these subscribers were suburbanites, as much of the actual city of Philadelphia remained unwired for cable. However, there was a slight loophole that Philadelphian’s could exploit. From 1983-1985, the signal for PRISM was broadcast over the air via WWSG Channel 57. The signal was scrambled, however, this scrambled signal was easily decoded with the proper equipment. This arrangement ended after channel 57 was sold to a new owner and changed over to an entertainment channel later to become UPN-57 (now CW Philly).
Ownership of PRISM varied a great deal over the station’s lifetime. Originally a joint venture between Spectacor and 20th Century Fox, the network became fully owned by Spectacor in 1982. Ed Snider’s group would promptly sell PRISM a year later to a joint venture between Rainbow Media and the Washington Post. In 1985, CBS purchased a minority share in the network before cashing out in 1987. The Washington Post also sold its interest in the venture to Rainbow Media, leaving the Cablevision (formerly owned by the Dolan family, now Altice USA) subsidiary as the sole owner. A deal to sell a 50% share to NBC for a 50% Cablevision interest in the new NBC cable channel CNBC fell through in 1989, leaving Cablevision as the sole owner of PRISM until shortly before the channel’s demise.
In 1990, Cablevision launched a sport-specific basic cable channel called SportsChannel. This channel carried PRISM sport events in the event that there was a scheduling conflict. While the channels were affiliated, they maintained their own separate graphics and announcing teams until 1995, when Cablevision created a uniform appearance that was used on both channels. With a growing network of channels, a new 10-year carrier deal with Comcast, and an ever growing subscriber base, life must have been looking pretty sweet to PRISM’s management. Unbeknownst to all, the end was nigh.
The end of PRISM came rather suddenly in the form of the juggernaut that is Comcast. In 1996, Comcast acquired Spectacor and all of its assets, including the Philadelphia Flyers, and the Philadelphia 76ers, the Spectrum, and the new arena now known as the Wells Fargo Center. The new Comcast-Spectacor behemoth announced that they would be allowing the Flyers and Sixers broadcast deals with PRISM to lapse in favor of starting a new regional sports network that would be centered around their team’s games. PRISM had already lost their TV deal with the Big 5 over a monetary dispute (The Big 5 wanted to be paid for the broadcast rights, while Cablevision felt that the Big 5 should have been paying them), and now lost two of their three professional sports broadcast deals. However, there was one saving grace: this new network would take some time to get started. As the Flyers deal had lapsed just after the merger, this meant that the team was without a broadcast partner. Cablevision, believing that they could get a one-year deal on the cheap, sent the Flyers (and thusly Comcast) a low-ball offer. The response from the Flyers was that they would be producing their own broadcasts in-house, and would sell the rights to said broadcasts to local networks until Comcast SportsNet was ready to air. Panicked, Cablevision agreed to a one-year deal worth approximately $5 million dollars.
In the meantime, Cablevision sold a 40% stake in their sports holdings to Fox/Liberty media for a cool $850 million in June of 1997. PRISM was meant to be rolled into the new Fox Sports Networks, with national pieces being mixed in with local content. There was a slight issue with this however, as the Phillies had just jumped ship to Comcast. This left PRISM with no long-term commitments from any sport organization. Fox decided that the best way to handle this was at the negotiating table. In late summer, Comcast and Fox came to an agreement. PRISM and SportsChannel were shutdown on October 1st, 1997, and the Sixers were let out of their broadcast deal. In exchange, SportsChannel’s signal was purchased by Comcast to be used by the new Comcast SportsNet, while PRISM’s signal was retained by Fox/Liberty, and hosted the Premium movie channel Starz!. Just like that, PRISM was gone.
PRISM and SportsChannel undoubtedly changed the course of Philadelphia sports fandom. Prior to PRISM, Philly fans had three options for consuming Philly sports. They could go to the game, listen to it on the radio, or read about it the next day in The Bulletin, Inquirer, or Daily News. They could also hope and pray that their team was good enough to feature on nationally televised games. Outside of the ranks of the dedicated beat writer, the sport media lens was very broad and unfocused. PRISM was a key part in focusing that lens in Philly, and came about at a time where all of the teams were winning. This success, coupled with the ability to watch that success helped to create the Philadelphia superfan of today.
In February of 1966, the NHL awarded the city of Philadelphia an expansion team, on the condition that they have a new place to play by the time the 1967 season began. Ground was broken on June 1, 1966, with Flyers part-owner Jerry Wolman and Philly Mayor James Tate doing the honors. Wolman, Ed Snider’s 41-year old brother-in-law who also owned Connie Mack Stadium and the Eagles, was the money behind the Spectrum.*
A complex financial agreement resulted in Wolman getting the arena and then selling it to the city for $1. Wolman, who also owned the Eagles and Shibe Park, would pay Philly $60,000 in annual rent in return for a 50-year lease. The sweetheart deal carried with it an ultimatum: Wolman had to get the arena done in 16 months, or Philly wouldn’t get an expansion hockey team.
As the arena came closer to completion, Wolman began to run out of money. To come in under budget, he got a building code variance on the roofing material. It was a decision that would come back to haunt him, the Sixers, the Flyers, and Philadelphia sports fans.
The first event at the Spectrum was a Jazz Festival in September 1967 featuring Sarah Vaughn, Dizzy Gillespie, and Stan Brubeck. The first sporting event was a Joe Frazier fight against tomato can Tony Doyle in October. Frazier had little trouble knocking out the Utah native in the 2nd round. After the fight, Frazier told reporters that he had heard that Doyle’s wife had just had twins. “I figured, let’s get him home to see them.” The win moved the brash Philadelphian to 18-0 and cemented his status as the heavyweight district’s #1 contender.
On October 18th, Wilt Chamberlain and the Sixers, happy to no longer be playing in the Philadelphia Civic Center but rather in a state of the art arena, made their debut with a convincing 16 point win over the Lakers. The next night, the Flyers played their first ever home game, holding off the Penguins 1-0. Beers at those first games costed ten cents, with premium beers costing an outlandish forty cents.
The arena was off to a hot start, but in February of 1968, the roof caved in. Literally. High winds ripped a huge chunk of the roof off of the Spectrum shortly before an Ice Capades show, and the crowd found themselves staring up into the sky. (Showing a rather remarkable sense of humor, the Ice Capades band began playing “Into the Wild Blue Yonder”.) It was quickly patched up, but two weeks later it blew off again. This time Mayor Tate came down from City Hall to examine the damage, and closed the arena.
Philly politics took a fix that should have taken 10 days to repair into a month, as arguments erupted about who was going to pay for the repairs. Arlen Specter, who had narrowly lost to Tate in the recent mayoral election, sent his own investigators to the Spectrum, and announced that it had been built without the proper permits. The roof became a political football.
As Tate and Specter were trading barbs in the paper, the Flyers and Sixers were forced to play home games on the road, the Flyers playing home games in Quebec (where their farm team, the Quebec Aces, called home), the Sixers returning to their old haunt, Convention Hall.
“The Spectrum wasn’t a very valuable property back then,” co-owner Ed Snider would recall years later. “The roof had made it a national laughingstock.”
It could have have hardly been a more inauspicious start. But as we all know, the roof was finally fixed, and the Spectrum recovered from its early disasters to become one of the most historic venues in America. It would go on to host Stanley Cup Finals, Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley concerts, the greatest game in NCAA tourney history, and some of Dr. J’s most memorable dunks. It was a raucous yet warm venue that catered to the everyday fan, and not the well heeled like most modern arenas. Fans were very close to the action, almost every seat was a good one. As a result the home court and home ice advantages were undeniable. The Sixers won 65% of their games there, while the Flyers won 61% of their home tilts. Perhaps former Flyer Dave Poulin said it best, “The Spectrum is a unique, tiny building that somehow enabled the fans to be closer to you physically and as a result were much closer to you emotionally.”
You can wear a piece of the Spectrum’s remarkable history with this incredibly comfortable Spectrum shirt created by local artist Jon Billett. It’s an incredibly comfortable tri-blend shirt, and is part of our stadium series that also includes Shibe Park and Palestra shirts.
READ MORE: A very interesting story in the SI Vault about the political debate that erupted after the roof came off.
*Shortly after the SPectrum was completed Wolman ran into financial difficulties after the John Hancock Tower in Chicago, which he financed, turned into a white elephant. He could get financial help if he could sell the Flyers. To do that, he needed Snider to sell his shares. Snider refused, and Wolman was driven to bankruptcy. Snider then tried to buy the Eagles from Wolman for a song. Wolman needed the money, but refused to sell to Snider. He eventually sold to Leonard Tose. Wolman and Snider never spoke again. You can read more about it here.
There was no question who the star of LaSalle’s 1954 championship team was. It was #15 Tom Gola, the 6’7″ junior forward who was more or less the original Magic Johnson, a player who would be at center court for jump ball and then moments later be bringing the ball up the court as point guard. But he wasn’t only a great ballhandler, he was also a superlative scorer and rebounder, averaging over 23.7 PPG and 21.7 RPG in the 1953-54 season. (He is the NCAA’s all time leading rebounder, with 2,201). As the Knicks coach Joe Lapchick stated when asked about Gola in 1954, “Gola is the most completely versatile player in the collegiate game. He can do everything, and do everything amazingly well.” According to the 1954 team program, he was “Calm and cool, off court and on. His lacksadaisical air cloaks a fiery competitive spirit.” According to his coach, Ken Loeffler, “Tom’s poise is his greatest asset.”
After a 21-4 start, LaSalle, the winners of the 1952 NIT, were invited to take part in the NCAA tournament. Their toughest test would come in the first round in Buffalo, as they came one second from losing to Fordham. Down by two with five seconds left, Gola took an inbounds pass at halfcourt and whipped a pass to Fran O’Malley, who was waiting under the basket. O’Malley laid it in with one second on the clock, and the game headed into overtime. LaSalle took an early lead in OT and held off Fordham to gain the 76-74 victory, led by Gola’s 28 points.
Their next game would be a shootout at the Palestra against a North Carolina State team that had won the first ever ACC tournament a week before in an overtime thriller over Wake Forest. Gola and Charles Singley, the 2nd leading scorer on the 1954 Explorers, each scored 26, and LaSalle poured in 52 2nd half points to win 88-81.
On to the Elite 8, where LaSalle again had a more or less home game at the Palestra against Navy. The game was close early on, and the two teams went into the locker room at halftime tied at 21. But LaSalle coach Ken Loeffler, who the 1954 team program said was “highly regarded as a court strategist by coaching and sports writing fraternities” must have made the right adjustments at the half. LaSalle blew the game wide open in the 2nd half, and waltzed into the Final Four with a 64-48 victory. Gola led the team with 22 points, and Singley poured in another 16.
The team then headed out to Kansas City to play in the Final Four (Where, interestingly, LaSalle plays Kansas State Friday afternoon). The games would take place in Municipal Auditorium (You can check out a pic here of the same arena at the 1957 Final Four, where you will notice #13 on Kansas, who you may recognize as another former Philly superstar). The first game would match LaSalle with Penn State, who had shocked Bob Pettit and LSU in the Sweet 16, then surprised Notre Dame in the Elite 8.
LaSalle would have an unlikely hero in the Final Four. Frank Blatcher (who you can read about here) was a 24-year old sophomore who had done a tour of duty after graduating from Southern. The 6’2″ outside gunner was too much for Penn State in the first Final 4 game, pouring in 19. The Nittany Lions held Gola to a mere 5 field goals, but he still nailed 9 from the line to also finish with 19, and LaSalle won going away, 69-54.
It was onto the championship game, against Bradley. The Braves had shocked the Hank Iba coached Oklahoma A&M (Now OK State) in the Elite 8, then edged USC 74-72 in the Final Four.
The championship game was a thriller…for one half. Bradley took a 43-42 lead into the half, but again it was Gola keying a 2nd half run, and the Explorers ran away with the championship, 92-76. Blatcher again came up huge from the outside, pouring in 23 points. Charles Singley poured in another 23, and Gola added 19, as LaSalle set a new championship game record with 92 points. In the 59 years since, only 3 teams have scored more in the championship.
LaSalle’s stars were all juniors and sophomores, and the next year LaSalle made a serious push for back to back titles. But Bill Russell and the San Francisco Dons proved to be a little too much for the Explorers. Gola graduated that year, and the Explorers haven’t been back to the Final Four since.
Gola would go on to a successful NBA career, being named an All-Star five times while playing for the Warriors and the Knicks. He later coached the Explorers to a 23-1 record in the 1968 season (one player on that team was Fran Dunphy) while serving as a state representative and running for Philadelphia city controller. He would run for Mayor in 1983, but lost in the primaries. One of the greatest athletes in Philadelphia sports history, Gola passed away in 2014 at the age of 81.
Here’s our final list. A bartender who heard the list thought it should have been most under-appreciated, not underrated. “Everybody knew Joe Frazier was great, they just didn’t appreciate that he was great.” Perhaps a fair assessment, but I guess the final word here is that these are guys who don’t get their just due when great athletes in this city come up in conversation, and we want to make sure they don’t get overlooked. Whatever word best applies to guys who don’t get their just due, please feel free to apply. Feel free to agree, disagree with these in the comments. Thanks to Lalli for helping me put this together.
#1. Paul Arizin
#2. Hal Greer.
#3. Donovan McNabb.
#4. Ricky Watters.
#5. Joe Frazier.
#6. Bobby Abreu.
#7. Kimmo Timonen.
#8. Dick Allen.
#9. Eddie Plank.
#10. Del Ennis.
#11. Brad McCrimmon.
#12. Freddy Leach.
#13. Von Hayes.
#14. John LeClair.
#15. Byron Evans.
There is no mystery as to why a man who revolutionized the game of basketball is so underrated. It is because Paul Arizin is, quite simply, a man without a team. While Wilt would make a triumphant return as a Sixer after the Warriors moved, Arizin never got the chance, so his records are kept in the city of Oakland, where he never played a game in his life. Furthermore, he is underrated there as well, simply because he never played there. While the jersey numbers of Tom Meschery (12.7 ppg, 8.6 rpg) and Al Attles (8.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg) hang in the rafters at Oracle Arena, Paul Arizin’s #11 is free to any player who wants to wear it, despite his 22.3 ppg and 8.6 rpg. Despite the fact that he has the 3rd most points and 5th most rebounds in franchise history and despite the fact that he was named one of the NBA’s 50 All-Time Greatest players in 1996**.
Paul Arizin was born in Philadelphia, and he shockingly did not make his high school team. After high school he went to Nova. He made a name for himself in the Catholic Youth Organization during his freshman year in college. He was approached by then Wildcat coach Al Severance and asked, “How would you like to go to Villanova?” He answered, “I already go to Villanova.” He started for the team his sophomore year, and was instantly a superstar. He averaged 20.1 PPG in his career, and despite playing only 3 years is the 5th all time leading scorer in Villanova history. Upon his death in 2006, Jay Wright said, “Paul Arizin was the most dignified, classy and humble legend I’ve ever met. He is adored and respected by anyone who has touched Villanova basketball.”
He was the first pick in the NBA Draft in 1950. He lived up to the billing. He averaged 17.2 PPG and was named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year. The next year he led the league in scoring, at 25.4 a clip. But it wasn’t just his scoring that electrified the league…it was the way he did it.
When Paul Arizin entered the league, almost every player in the NBA was still utilizing the two handed set shot or the hook shot. The jump shot had been invented in the 1930s, but it was still seen as a circus shot, and was rarely used. Until Paul Arizin came along. Arizin had developed the jump shot as a youngster. As he told the Inquirer in 1998, he learned the shot while playing intramural ball in high school, “Because they held dances in those gyms, the floors would be very slippery. I couldn’t get feet set under me to try a hook shot, so I started shooting with my feet off the floor.”
Other players had tried, but Arizin was the first bonafied superstar to make the primary weapon in his arsenal. Once Paul became one of the premiere players in the game, other players started emulating him, and by the end of his career, he had relegated the two handed set shot to the same dustbin that held the peach basket and the stitched basketball.
Arizin took off two years to serve during the Korean War, and the Warriors went from contenders to the laughing stock of the league. As soon as he returned, the team improved, and in 1955-56, they won the NBA title, led by Arizin’s 24 PPG and 7.5 RPG.
He would maintain a high level throughout his career, averaging 21.9 points and 6.8 rebounds in 1961-62, the final year of his career. When the team decided to move to San Francisco, he decided not to make the trip, despite being the 2nd highest scorer on the team. The Philly native had been offered a job at IBM making more money than he was making in the NBA, and he decided to moonlight with a semi-pro team called the Camden Bullets. He remained in the area for the rest of his life, and passed away in 2006.
He gets to be number one on the list not only because he was one of the greatest basketball players in the history of the NBA, but because he revolutionized how the very sport was played.
**He is one of only three in the Top 50 to not have their jersey retired. The other two were Dolph Schayes and John Lucas. Interestingly, the Sixers are in a very similar situation…Schayes played almost his whole career Syracuse as a National (the current Sixers). But since he only played one year in Philly, he has been ignored by Sixers brass. I’ll have another post on this soon.
On May 26th, 1959, Harvey Haddix put on the greatest pitching performance in baseball history, but lost the game. That was because, after losing his perfect game in the 13th, he gave up a home run to Joe Adcock (It was later ruled a double due to a mixup on the basepaths, but the Braves still won.) A mere three days later, Adcock was involved in perhaps an even stranger walk-off.
On May 29th, the hapless Phillies traveled to County Stadium in Milwaukee to take on the powerful Braves. The Braves were led by young sluggers Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews, as well as an aging but still spectacular Warren Spahn. Spahn wasn’t on the mound that day (He would throw a complete game 4-hitter against the Phils two days later), and the Phillies quickly got to starter Carl Willey, tagging him for 4 runs in 2 1/3 innings. Braves reliever Juan Pizarro came in slow the onslaught, and the two teams entered the 9th inning tied at 5 apiece.
Phillie starter Gene Conley, who had just come over from Milwaukee the past offseason, gave up a triple to Hank Aaron to start the 9th, then walked Wes Covington intentionally. With one out and runners on the corners, he decided to do the same to Adcock, in the hopes of loading the bases and coaxing the next batter, slow catcher Del Crandall, to ground into a double play. But Conley’s first intentional ball came a little too close to the plate, and Adcock smacked it to 2nd. Thinking he didn’t have time to turn two, Phillies second bagger Sparky Anderson (yes THAT Sparky Anderson. He played one season in the Bigs…for the 1959 Phillies) heaved the ball home. The throw was late, Aaron was safe, and Joe Adcock had his second shocking walk-off in 72 hours.
Gene Conley would pitch for the Phillies for two years, and is the answer to an incredibly awesome trivia question. He is the only person to ever do what? Answer in the comments if you think you know.
If there were an award given for a player who is most respected by basketball insiders, while getting the minimum public appreciation, Greer could win hands down.
The reason that so many players are on this list is timing. And that couldn’t be more true for our 2nd Most Underrated Philadelphia Athlete, Hal Greer. He was a guard at a time when two of the best guards in the history of the NBA played. And he was teammates with the best Sixer in the history of the franchise. Being compared to Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, in addition to playing second-fiddle to Wilt Chamberlain in Philadelphia lands Hal Greer on our list. His unmatched production and consistency are what rank him so high.
There aren’t many guys in pro sports like Hal Greer anymore. He was born June 26, 1936 in Huntington, West Virginia and became the first black athlete to receive a scholarship at Marshall University. After graduating in 1958, he was drafted by the Syracuse Nationals, who later became the Philadelphia 76ers. He went to the university located in his hometown and then played out his 15-year professional career for the same franchise.
He was most known for his speed and his mid-range jumper. His style was much more hard work than it was flash. Greer’s teammate, and then coach, Dolph Schayes had this to say: “Hal Greer always came to play. He came to practice the same way, to every team function the same way. Every bus and plane and train, he was on time. Hal Greer punched the clock. Hal Greer brought the lunch pail.” He is also remembered for his quirky style at the free-throw line, from which he would shoot jumpers. His career free throw percentage is 80.1%.
Over the course of his NBA career, the 6’2″ guard averaged 19.2 points per game, 4 assists, and 5 rebounds. He scored more than 20 points per game in eight seasons. He played in ten consecutive All-Star games from 1961 through 1970. Although he was the smallest player on the 1968 East All-Star team and although he played just 17 minutes, he earned the MVP Award after going 8-8 from the field, 5-7 from the line, and scoring 21 points. From ’63-’69 he was named to the All-NBA Second Team. He was the type of player that always turned things up in the playoffs. In the 1967 playoffs, he averaged 27.7 ppg, 5.9 rebounds. and 5.3 assists while quarterbacking the best team in basketball history to an NBA Title.
The fact that he scored so well while playing alongside Wilt Chamberlain speaks volumes about Greer’s abilities.
Greer retired after the ’72-’73 season. At that time, he had appeared in more games (1,122) than any other player in NBA history. His 21,586 career points ranked among the all-time top 10, as did his totals for minutes played, field goals attempted and field goals made. His numbers still stand up almost 40 years after he retired. He currently sits 30th all-time in scoring, 22nd in field goals made, and 26th in total minutes.
The usual waiting period for induction into the NBA Hall of Fame is 5 years. Underrated as always, Greer was forced to wait nine.
#15- Byron Evans, #14- John LeClair, #13- Von Hayes, #12- Freddy Leach, #11- Brad McCrimmon, #10- Del Ennis, #9- Eddie Plank, #8- Dick Allen, #7- Kimmo Timonen, #6- Bobby Abreu, #5- Joe Frazier, #4- Ricky Watters, #3- Donovan McNabb