Celtics-Sixers Ain't What it Used to Be

In case you're new to all this, or have stored it all deep in the recesses of your sports mind, be advised that in the seven seasons from 1979-80 through 1985-86 the hottest ticket in town was one to see the Celtics play the Sixers. During that span the Celtics averaged 62 wins a year, the 76ers 58. In 1980-81 they tied for the best record in the league at 62-20 (Boston got the edge on a tiebreaker). The Celtics won three championships and went to the Finals two other times. The 76ers won a championship and lost to the Lakers in the Finals twice. In head-to-head playoff competition, the 76ers defeated the Celtics in 1980 (five games) and 1982 (seven), while the Celtics prevailed in 1981 (seven) and 1985 (5).

The one-upmanship really began Jan. 22, 1980, when the Celtics signed free agent "Pistol" Pete Maravich for the remainder of the season. "A great story," recalls Sixer General Manager Pat Williams. "He actually visited with us first. He was definitely interested. We asked him to take a physical because we were concerned about a knee. But our Dr. Lorber gave him a full physical, which included the prostate probe. Pete didn't like that at all."

The 76ers' response came 17 days later. Williams traded a future draft pick and cash to Portland for Lionel Hollins.

Things heated up on Draft Day, 1980. Red Auerbach and Bill Fitch decided the Celtics had lost to the Sixers in the 1980 playoffs because they were too small. Hence the blockbuster deal with Golden State that resulted in future Hall of Famers Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. But the Sixers also made a decision that would seriously affect the rivalry. They drafted guard Andrew Toney out of Southwest Louisiana.

"We had the Boston Strangler," Williams hisses.

Indeed they did. Over time, the Celtics became obsessed with finding someone to guard Toney, who has fallen through the cracks of history because of the injury-related brevity of his career, but who may be the best forgotten player of all time. Quinn Buckner was obtained to be the guy, but he was not the answer. Then the Celtics traded Rick Robey for the unflappable Dennis Johnson. Finally, they had that guy.

Down at the other end of I-95, the Sixers were similarly concerned about Boston's Bird-Maxwell-Parish-McHale frontcourt, which was tall and skilled. The Sixers defeated Boston in 1982, but lost in the Finals to the Lakers, and Williams went to work. Darryl Dawkins went to New Jersey and Moses Malone was signed as a free agent, with Caldwell Jones going to Houston as compensation. "The Twin Towers were dismantled, replaced by a single Empire State Building," notes Williams. "And Moses had his best year, I believe." It probably was. He won his third MVP, as the 76ers won 65 games and swept the Lakers in the 1983 Finals for their first title since 1967 (they're still waiting for another).

The Celtics tried to compete by trading for one-time All-Star Scott Wedman in January 1983. DJ came during the offseason, and the Celtics won the 1984 championship. The 76ers drafted Charles Barkley in 1984, and that was the last big move they were able to make, as Boston just kept adding on, bringing in Ray Williams to complete the 1984-85 season and then importing Bill Walton for the 1985-86 campaign. Now the Celtics had a lineup with seven past, present, or future All-Stars.

"By that time they had kind of overwhelmed us," Williams admits. "In that period they had become one of the three or four greatest teams in history. But for a long time before that, one of us would initiate something and it would be point/counterpoint. The rivalry never left you. It was 24 hours a day, year-round. The rivalry was all that mattered. It had been quiet for many years before Bird came to Boston, but all it took was that one little spark. You didn't have to warm it up. It was instant combustion."

As a serious student of baseball history, Williams is amused that anyone would think there is anything new going on between the Red Sox and Yankees. "It's been ongoing for 80 years," he points out. "The numbers are different now, more zeros at the end. But nothing's really changed. Go back to Ed Barrow. He manages the Red Sox to the 1918 title and then he becomes the general manager of the Yankees! Can you imagine Grady Little doing that? Take the owners. John W. Henry instead of Tom Yawkey. George Steinbrenner instead of the two colonels [i.e. Col. Jacob Ruppert and Col. Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston, co-owners of the Yankees in the late-teens and early-'20s]. All this would make great theater."

What amuses Williams even more is the idea that all this wild spending, and all these machinations, may ultimately prove to be fruitless. "The Red Sox and Yankees have practically started their own league but all of us out here in the boonies, all of us baseball fans outside Boston and New York, are just delighting in the thought that some upstart little franchise out there could up and win the whole thing, no matter what the Red Sox and Yankees do," Williams suggests. "The Cincinnati Reds! What if Junior comes back to hit 60, and Adam Dunn, Sean Casey, and Austin Kearns go crazy and the Reds win it all? Who knows?"

What Pat Williams knows is what it's like to be Theo Epstein and Brian Cashman. I forgot to ask him if he misses that daily buzz, but I think I already know the answer.

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