When a Hawks-76ers playoff series is ever mentioned — which isn’t very often given the fact that these teams haven’t met in the postseason since 1982 — my mind goes to a rainy Wednesday afternoon in early April of 1980.
I can still see the red uniforms of the Hawks with Dan Roundfield and Tree Rollins controlling the paint. They were really good. They were 50-32 that season and had won the Central Division, enabling them to get a first-round bye. The Sixers, at 59-23, finished second to Boston in the Atlantic so they had to play a best-of-three series, easily disposing of Washington, 2-0. We seeing a pattern here?
In 1980, NBA games weren’t controlled by television. Heck, the NBA Finals were played on tape delay at 11:30 p.m. You played the games when you could get the building.
So when the league scheduled the 76ers to take on the Hawks at the Spectrum on April 9, there was no thought that the game had to be played at 7:30 p.m. There was no equivalent to Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, and Shaquille O’Neal doing their schtick in prime time. No thought to being on at night so that sponsors could feed that billion-dollar TV contract. Nor was a thought given to moving the Flyers to the afternoon. They had the building booked for a playoff game against this kid Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers and, when it comes down to it, they owned the building. Bottom line was that you had to get the game in. Morning, afternoon, or night didn’t matter. Just get the damn game in.
So what was the solution? The Sixers had to play Atlanta at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. A matinee. With people still at work. Crazy, right?
The starting time created a dilemma. With a small base of season-ticket holders, the team depended on tickets sold at outlets throughout the city and walk-up purchases to fill seats. So how do you get folks to fill an arena for a 3 p.m. playoff game? You put the word out on radio that plenty of tickets will be available at all Ticketron outlets, that discounts will be given, and you sell the idea of how cool it will be to be part of something so unique. It worked and I was in the middle of it.
I asked my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) if she wanted to go to the game. She said yes right away, although I have no idea how we pulled it off because she was a Philadelphia schoolteacher. I’m thinking maybe it was Easter break. She never missed a day of work, even for me!
So I headed to the Ticketron outlet — not sure if it was Gimbels on Cottman Avenue or Gold Medal Sporting Goods on Bustleton Avenue — and I bought my pair of tickets on Tuesday.
The game time wasn’t so convenient for Joe Juliano, who was covering games in Philadelphia for United Press International. He had to cover the Flyers game later that night.
“The Sixers and Flyers both had playoff games scheduled for that day,” Juliano recalled, “and the Sixers got the early game against Atlanta. I think the times were 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. How do I remember? It was two days before my … wedding.
“The bride-to-be wasn’t happy I had to work a double shift for UPI that day.”
The Sixers’ marketing department did its job. The Spectrum got its fifth sellout — 18,276. And the Flyers helped out, too, offering anyone who owned a ticket for their game a $2 discount on all Sixers tickets priced at $9, $8, and $7. Yep, nine bucks for an NBA playoff game.
Working the game might have been little Ed Barkowitz. No, he wasn’t covering it for the Daily News, but he was one of the Sixers’ ball boys.
“I was 11 years old,” big Ed Barkowitz said, “and working the visitors bench, and all I remember was thinking, ‘My god, Tree Rollins is so damn tall.’”
The Sixers beat the Hawks, 99-92, to take a 2-0 lead in the series. And it was a good thing the game wasn’t on TV. The Sixers took 49 foul shots, making 41. Darryl Dawkins, the only one of four centers to not foul out, made 14 of 17 by himself. Atlanta was whistled for 41 fouls, while the Sixers had just 30. Bobby Jones came off the bench to score 18 points, making 8-of-10 free throws and blocking five shots.
The coach of the Hawks at the time? The one and only Hubie Brown.
“Hubie Brown was second in the postgame interview room,” Juliano remembered, “and he explained at length why the Sixers were able to counter anything the Hawks did. I just sat there soaking it all in, like a nerd listening to a professor in advanced calculus.
“He went on for so long, I barely got the game story done before the puck dropped for the Flyers.”
Maurice Cheeks, the starting point guard, played 46 minutes, took just four shots (making two), had seven assists, and four turnovers. Imagine the uproar today if the Sixers’ starting point guard had that stat line. And Cheeks is in the Hall of Fame.
The Hawks would win Game 3 at the Omni in Atlanta before the Sixers took Games 4 and 5.
The Sixers eventually reached the NBA Finals where that kid from Los Angeles put up a 42-15-7 on them in Game 6.
Note: While fact-checking the game, I discovered that I was at the Spectrum the night before. The Flyers beat the Oilers, 4-3, in overtime. Rick MacLeish sent the game into OT with an incredible wrist shot with 1 minute, 19 seconds left in regulation, beating Oilers goalie Ron Low. The goal was right in front of me. MacLeish came down the right side, skated to the middle and — snap. Low had no chance. And I knew it the second MacLeish snapped his wrists. Bobby Clarke’s goal at 8:06 into the extra period was the winner. Low, by the way, stopped 47 shots that night. And Gretzky scored his first career Stanley Cup playoff goal. Not a bad couple of days.