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.