Revenge of the 76ers
After years of frustration, the great 76ers team of 1966-67 finally defeated the Boston Celtics, then won the NBA championship.
No. 25 in a series of 25
SETUP: The 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers were honored in 1980 as the NBA's greatest team. They went 68-13, setting the NBA record for wins, and won the NBA championship by beating Boston in five games in the Eastern Conference finals and the San Francisco Warriors in six games in the Finals.
By the end of the 1965-66 season, the 76ers were fed up with the Boston Celtics.
After losing to the men in green 2 straight years, after hearing Johnny Most's effusive fingernails-on-the-blackboard voice recounting John Havlicek's 1965, Game 7 theft countless times, and having the smell of Red Auerbach's victory cigars linger throughout the offseason, the Sixers took action.
Dolph Schayes, who was thought to be too nice to be the head coach - especially of a team that included Wilt Chamberlain - was fired, despite winning 55 regular-season games, following the team's five-game ouster by Boston in the 1966 conference finals. He was replaced by former Marine and no-nonsense coach Alex Hannum.
Hannum, who coached Chamberlain in San Francisco, knew how to deal with the enigmatic giant. He also knew he had a team that was on the verge of greatness.
"There was no 'my way' philosophy," Hannum told Wayne Lynch, who wrote "Season of the 76ers." "I told them we had to do things together. There was only one Wilt and we all recognized that."
Vince Miller, Chamberlain's best friend from their days at Overbrook High, said, "[Chamberlain] was bored scoring 40, 50 points a night. He was already learning to change his game. Alex convinced him to go all the way with it."
The transplanted Syracuse Nationals, after moving to Philadelphia in 1963, began adding winning pieces. After the 1964 season, they drafted Olympian Luke Jackson out of Pan American, one of the NBA's first athletic and strong power forwards.
At the All-Star break of the 1964-65 season, they swung the deal that brought Chamberlain back home.
In the 1965 draft, they chose a pale-faced kid out of Brooklyn, N.Y., by way of Chapel Hill, N.C., by the name of Billy Cunningham.
And the final piece was obtained on Sept. 22, 1965, when the Sixers traded Johnny Kerr to Baltimore for Wali Jones. Jones, the former star from Overbrook and Villanova, had all but given up on basketball and was hiding out in Seattle trying to sort through some personal issues.
Walt Hazzard, his high school backcourt mate who was playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, found Jones and persuaded him to come home.
"Hazzard finds me in Seattle," Jones says in Lynch's book, "the only person in the world who knew where I was. He told me, 'Go on back, you need to play.' "
Lakers coach Fred Schaus gave Jones the money for the plane ticket.
Once Jones got back home, co-owner Ike Richman took care of him.
"Ike Richman had me stay in his house [in Elkins Park]," Jones recalled. "He would not let me be around anybody else. He wanted me to get my head together. He knew that I was mixed up. He kept me at his house and took care of me."
According to the book, Jones had ballooned to more than 200 pounds, thanks to alcohol consumption. But trainer Al Domenico would pick him up at Richman's house and work him out, in an effort to get Jones ready for the exhibition season.
With the Philly additions joining Syracuse mainstays Hal Greer, Larry Costello, Dave Gambee and Chet Walker, the framework was in place.
The 76ers jumped out to a 26-2 start, losing at Boston and at Cincinnati. After losing again at Boston, they ripped off another 11 straight to improve to an unworldly 37-3. A loss to the Knicks in Pittsburgh was followed by a nine-game streak, which upped their record to 46-4 on Jan. 23.
They would finish a pedestrian 22-9 the rest of the way.
By the time the playoffs began, the goal remained the same: Beat Boston.
First, the Sixers had to get by the Oscar Robertson-led Cincinnati Royals. The Sixers had handled the Big O and company during the season, winning eight of nine games, but the Royals, who finished 39-42, had won six of their last seven games, averaging almost 126 points.
"This Cincy team is blazing hot now," Hannum said at the time. "We've got to get serious about them."
The fans were pretty overconfident. In a city where the playoffs don't count unless you're playing the Celtics, only 5,097 showed up at Convention Hall.
The Sixers lost Game 1, 120-116, their first loss at home all season against a team not from Boston. It would have been difficult to lay this loss on Chamberlain, who scored 41 points and grabbed 22 rebounds.
But the Sixers, behind Chamberlain and Greer, dismantled the Royals in the next three games to win the best-of-five series.
Game 1 of the Eastern Division finals was held at the Palestra because the circus was occupying Convention Hall. Chamberlain was brilliant, scoring 24 points, pulling down 32 rebounds and handing out 13 assists. Greer wasn't too bad, either, knocking down 39 points. The 76ers' 1-0 lead marked the first time that Chamberlain was on a team that had a series lead on the Celtics.
In Game 2, in Boston, a balanced attack helped the Sixers overcome a 5-for-18 shooting performance by Greer. Walker scored 23, Jones 21 and Chamberlain collected 29 boards in a 107-102 win. A 2-0 lead over Boston was huge.
Back in Convention Hall for Game 3, the Sixers were in control and cruised to a 115-104 win. Greer rediscovered his shooting touch and scored 30, Jones added 21 and Chamberlain was a beast. He grabbed 25 rebounds - in the first half - and finished with an NBA playoff-record 41, to go with 20 points and nine assists. The record still stands.
Boston, despite Chamberlain's 20 points, 22 rebounds and 10 assists, Jackson's 29 points and 28 from Greer, avoided the sweep, 121-117, in Game 4.
But Game 5 was back in Philly. And the fans couldn't wait to officiate over the Celtics' funeral. But Boston wasn't about to go down easily. The C's were up, 70-65, at the half and were still ahead, 72-71, before the Sixers went on a 27-6 run, fueled by Jones, who hit eight of nine shots.
Chamberlain continued his magnificence, scoring 29 points, corraling 36 rebounds and distributing 13 assists.
With 4 minutes left, the Sixers were up, 131-104, and the Celtics were about to lose a series for the first time in 9 years. So dominant were the Sixers, they finished the game outscoring Boston, 97-57.
Fans began chanting "Boston Is Dead" as the clock ran out.
"It's a long, long climb, so to speak," said Chamberlain, "because you can never tell when the Celtics are dead, and it's always good that you know they're finally out of the way.
"I really feel this is the greatest Celtics team, so in beating this team, I think it helped to make up a little for the other losses we had over the years."
Greer was pretty upbeat, as well.
"We did not only defeat a great basketball team, we destroyed a tradition," Greer declared.
The champagne poured in the locker room, something teams didn't usually do until winning a championship. But this was the Celtics.
"Bottles of champagne were poured all over my head, all over my suit, all over my clothes, and finally ran down into my shoes," said owner Irv Kosloff. "I emptied one shoe and actually champagne poured out of my shoe. The suit, I put aside when I got home and didn't have it cleaned for about a month. I just enjoyed that wine-fermented odor. It just carried me back to that night many nights thereafter."
But there were still a few nights left in the season. There was an NBA Finals to take care of.
How ironic that the Sixers met their Philadelphia predecessors, the Warriors, for the championship. Led by high-scoring Rick Barry and inside force Nate Thurmond, the Warriors were the second-highest scoring team in the league, averaging 122.4 a game; the Sixers were No. 1, at 125.2.
Barry was on a mission, scoring 40.8 points a game while putting up 235 shots in the series. But the one-man show was no match for the balanced 76ers. With three players averaging more than 20 a game (Greer 26.0, Jones 20.2 and Walker 23.3) and two others averaging more than 17 (Cunningham 19.7 and Chamberlain 17.7), the Sixers won their elusive championship in six games.
"How does it feel after all these years of being tagged a loser?" asked Chamberlain, who averaged 28.5 rebounds a game in the Finals. "A little bit of joy tomorrow, a little bit the next day, and so on. It's plenty enough to last me the whole summer."
Said Jones: "The whole season was just magical, something where a team played almost perfect basketball."