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The Step Back: The Dr is in (Philadelphia)

Dr J - NBAE / Getty / Double Clutch illustration by Steve Leard

The Philadelphia 76ers are named after the year 1776, which is when the Declaration of Independence was signed in The City of Brotherly Love. If you’re not up on your history, you could be forgiven for assuming the name’s actually a reference to 1976 though, which is when, on this day, the 76ers acquired Julius ‘Dr J’ Erving in one of the more unusual transactions in NBA history.

It happened as a result of the merger between the American Basketball Association (ABA) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) that same year. Erving had just led the New York Nets to the 1976 ABA Championship. But when the franchise joined the NBA, the city’s original NBA team, the Knicks, demanded that the Nets pay them $4.8 million for ‘invading’ their territory.

Transitioning to the NBA had already cost the Nets a considerable sum. This meant owner Roy Boe couldn’t pay the Knicks and honour the new contract he’d promised his star player. Boe attempted to solve both problems at once by offering the Knicks Erving in exchange for waiving the fee. The Knicks (who were, back then, a competent, successful organisation) declined, but the opportunistic 76ers swooped in, buying Erving from the Nets outright for $3 million.

It was a hefty price to pay in 1976. But as the team’s General Manager Pat Williams told The New York Times, “His availability got the juices flowing. He is a great attraction and we’re trying to sell out a building of almost 18,000 seats.”

The acquisition did so much more than that though, transforming the 76ers into a contender overnight.

Instant impact

That first season, Philly won 50 regular season games with Erving averaging 21.6 points per outing. In the postseason he upped that to 27.3 points per game, leading the team to the NBA Finals, where they lost in six games to the Portland Trail Blazers. The Nets meanwhile went 22-60 in their first NBA season without Erving, their ABA glory days already long behind them.

While the 76ers failed to immediately replicate the success of that first year of Erving’s tenure, they did make it to the Conference Semifinals the next two seasons. Williams continued to build around Erving during that time though and got the formula right ahead of the 1979-80 campaign.

Playing alongside the likes of Darryl Dawkins, Caldwell Jones and Maurice Cheeks, Erving averaged 26.9 points as the 76ers won 59 regular season games that year. In the postseason, they waltzed past the Washington Bullets and Atlanta Hawks before meeting the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The rivalry

The series marked the continuation of a great rivalry that began in the 1950s, when the Syracuse Nationals (who became the 76ers) and the Celtics met seven times in nine seasons. Then, in the 1960s, the Wilt Chamberlain-led 76ers took on the Celtics five years running. In the 1980s, the series pitted Erving against Larry Bird and it was epic.

Well, the first year wasn’t. In fact, it was pretty straightforward, as the 76ers beat their rivals in a five-game Conference Finals match-up after winning a pivotal Game 3 with the series tied 1-1. They then lost to the Los Angles Lakers in six games in the Finals – their second defeat at that stage in four years. The series did, however, see Erving produce one of the most memorable plays of all-time, the ‘Baseline Scoop’:

Determined to bounce right back, Erving led the 76ers to 62 regular season wins in 1980-81, averaging 24.6 per game.

Again, they met the Celtics in the Conference Finals, a series many still consider to be the greatest of all time. And understandably so. Five of the games were decided by a combined total of eight points and the Celtics overcame a 3-1 deficit to eventually force a Game 7. The tight, tense finale, was eventually settled by a Larry Bird fastbreak jumper with a minute left on the clock. The 76ers were beaten and could only watch on as the Celtics lost to the Houston Rockets in the Finals.

The following season, fate brought the two teams together at the same stage for a third-straight year. In what was almost an exact re-run of the previous match-up, the 76ers leapt out to a 3-1 lead before the Celtics levelled it, forcing a Game 7 in Boston. As Erving points out in the video below, the odds seemed to be stacked against the 76ers, but they stormed to a 120-106 victory thanks to a 29-point outing from their talisman and a memorable 34-point game from Andrew Toney.

Here’s Dr J with a little more insight:

Winning it all

Perhaps exhausted by the Boston series, the 76ers lost to the Lakers in six games in the Finals. The following year they avoided their bitter rivals entirely though and faced the Milwaukee Bucks in the Conference Finals. After winning that series in five games, they went on to sweep the Lakers in the Finals to claim their first and only NBA Championship to date, immortalised by Erving’s ‘Rock the Baby’ dunk over Michael Cooper:

Believe it or not, by that point Erving was 32 and already slowing down as younger teammates Moses Malone and Toney outscored him in the series. Although the team returned to the postseason each of the next four years, they failed to make it back to the Finals and Erving announced his retirement at the end of the 1986-87 season, aged 36.

During his time in the NBA, Erving made 11 All-Star appearances, won two All-Star Game MVPs, made five All-NBA First Team appearances and two All-NBA Second Team appearances. He is the eighth-highest scorer in ABA/NBA history with 30,026 points in both leagues combined and is widely considered the player who made dunking mainstream in the NBA. His jersey was retired by the 76ers in 1988 and he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.