Fourth in a series of 13
Setup: Pro basketball has never been a huge draw in Philadelphia. But on April 19, 1981, fans stayed away in epic proportions. Game 7, Eastern Conference finals against the Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief, Bob Lanier and Junior Bridgeman Milwaukee Bucks and 6,704 show up. What an embarrassment.
SINCE LOSING to the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1977 NBA Finals, the Sixers saw their home attendance dwindle. Third in the league in attendance in 1976-77, Julius Erving's first year in the NBA, the Sixers had dropped to eighth in 1979-80, and were seventh in 1980-81 despite having a roster consisting of Erving, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones, Darryl Dawkins, and Steve Mix. The apathetic fanbase situation reached its apex on that Sunday in 1981, when only 6,704 fans showed up for the deciding game of the Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Sixers and the Milwaukee Bucks, a series that was incredibly competitive, pitting two teams that were very evenly matched.
Those who didn't show up missed a great Game 7. Bodies were flying, blood was splattered (when Mix' nose met Lanier's elbow) and the Sixers, thanks to some clutch play from Caldwell Jones, outlasted the Bucks, 99-98. Actually, the game was still in question some 2 hours, 16 minutes after it was completed because Bucks head coach Don Nelson, questioning a possible 24-second violation, went to the Channel 10 studios on City Avenue - back when 10 was a CBS affiliate - to check the game tape. Nelson was satisfied that all was in order and headed back to Milwaukee.
There were as many theories as empty seats as to why fans stayed away in droves.
One was that since Erving has told us, "We owe you one," we weren't about to waste our money on the team until that debt was paid in full.
Another was that it was Easter Sunday and folks would rather have been at home. That was quickly dispelled as 30,204 fans turned up across the street to catch the Phillies play the Cubs at Veterans Stadium.
It was too nice of a day to spend indoors.
Maybe the price of the best seat, $16.50, was a little too steep.
Maybe the fans were looking past the Bucks and looking forward to the Sixers' Eastern Conference final showdown against the Celtics. After all, it is Philadelphia and it is Boston.
Or as the Inquirer's Frank Dolson surmised, "Maybe all the folks who stayed home [on Sunday] were simply "Dallas" lovers protesting the treatment of their favorite TV show, which was preempted Friday night so that Philadelphians could thrill to the 76ers' sixth-game loss at the very moment it happened."
Imagine being the Sixers, enjoying homecourt advantage, all pumped up to be a game away from the conference finals. You emerge from the locker room, anxious, adrenaline overflowing. You reach the court, look up at all three levels in the Spectrum and all you see are empty red seats.
"Before the game it was, like, like . . . " said Erving, always the diplomat, trying to find the right words. Then he said, "I was sitting next to [teammate] Ollie Johnson on the bench. We said, 'We've got to do it for ourselves.' What was the attendance?"
When Erving, who scored 28 points and blocked six shots, was told 6,704, he shook his head and said, "That's lower than [visiting] Indiana [in his ABA days]. We got more than that on our charter flights."
In a more serious tone, Erving said, "It is a letdown. It is a downer. I think if our team had less character . . . you would have guys make stronger statements [about the poor attendance]."
"It's a shame people don't support us in Philadelphia," coach Billy Cunningham said after the game. "I'd just like to thank the people who did come out today. It sounded like 20,000 out there."
The Sixers went on to lose in the next round, falling in six games to those Celtics.
Attendance improved to sixth in 1981-82 before reaching No. 2 in 1982-83, when the debt was repaid.