The 76ers and the Boston Celtics have played against each other 552 times. The 553rd will be Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center, and from that thick and marvelous history, certain memories instantly spring to mind: Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain, John Havlicek stealing the ball, Julius Erving on the move and lifting off, Larry Bird throwing no-looks and getting open looks, Boston fans chanting at the Sixers to beat L.A. Great moments all, but none as strange or hilarious as an incident that, more than 34 years after it happened, still sounds too wild to be true.
If the mention of Eagles fans pelting a raggedy Santa Claus with snowballs in 1968 has become a flaccid and trite criticism of Philadelphia’s sports culture, the events of Wednesday, Dec. 12, 1984, served as an appropriate cosmic counterbalance. Before the Sixers-Celtics game that night, 10 men in their early-to-mid-20s arrived at the Spectrum, each of them hailing from the city’s suburbs, each of them wearing a Santa costume. By the end of the Sixers’ 110-107 victory, nine of those men would be involved in a brawl with several Celtics fans near the court. Santa no longer had to fear Philadelphia. Instead, Santa was Philadelphia, delivering hard justice to the town’s most hated adversaries. This was The Night Santa Fought Back.
None of the erstwhile Kris Kringles had spoken publicly about their roles in the brawl until a recent series of interviews, one of which took place during a breakfast get-together among four of them. What follows is the story of that rollicking, beer-sodden, blood-stained night, from those who witnessed and participated in it.
The story begins with a basketball rivalry, as it should. During the late 1970s, Mike Power and Jay Barthelmess had played at Central Bucks High School East; Joe Reichwein, at Hatboro-Horsham.
POWER: We knew of each other. After one of the games between East and Hatboro, we’re leaving the gym, and I said to Joe, “Hey, good game.” And he goes, “Later.” That became his nickname.
JOE REICHWEIN: Every time they saw me, it was “Later.” Actually, summer league is when I got a taste of their personalities. Jay got subbed in for, and he’s pointing at me, and he goes to the guy replacing him, “Wait a minute, you’re not going to cover him. You can’t cover him. Sit down.” So I started laughing, and we became friendly. It broke the ice.
The circle of friends expanded over time to include the 10 guys who went to the game: Power, Barthelmess, Reichwein and his younger brother Mike, Craig Eshleman, Chris Born, John Sweeney, Kevin Davies, Jeff Lysec, and Bob Knapp.
BARTHELMESS: Talk about diverse personalities. Bob Knapp was the smartest guy we knew. Jeff Lysec didn’t say five words, just the politest guy in the world. Chris Born, the same way. But they came out that night. Craig was in the ad specialty business. We were living together in Doylestown. He said, “Let’s get everybody together and do something. Why don’t we go to a Sixers game in Santa suits?” All of a sudden, Craig went out and bought 10,000 candy canes. I said, “I can get the tickets.”
Barthelmess, who had played Division III ball at Susquehanna University, had met Sixers forward Marc Iavaroni years earlier when they were instructors at a basketball camp. At Barthelmess’ request, Iavaroni set aside 10 tickets for the group. As it turned out, a 16-point win over the New York Knicks on Dec. 9 – three days before they faced the Celtics – would be Iavaroni’s last with the Sixers, who traded him to the San Antonio Spurs for a third-round draft pick.
The group agreed to rent a van and meet for drinks – while dressed in their Santa outfits – at a T.G.I. Fridays inside the Willow Grove Mall before heading to the game. Joe Reichwein would be the designated driver. Mike Reichwein would rendezvous with them at the Spectrum.
ESHLEMAN: At that time, T.G.I. Fridays at the Willow Grove Mall was, like, a happening spot.
MIKE REICHWEIN: I was at East Stroudsburg. I came back for the game. I drove down. It was finals week, but I said, “I’ve got to go.”
BARTHELMESS: These costumes were real Santa suits. Craig found a store in the city that did them for all of the theaters, so they were velour or velvet. The only thing we had to buy were our beards. Everything else was rented. They were awesome. They were the real deal.
ESHLEMAN: We thought we were going to go through the mall and get our picture taken with a bunch of hot girls. But security freaked out. They forced us back into T.G.I. Fridays. Around Christmastime, the moms didn’t want their kids confused.
BARTHELMESS: They weren’t ready to see nine Santas, especially nine really big Santas. If you look at us, Craig and John Sweeney are both 250-, 300-pounders. All of us were of significant size. So in Santa suits, it was probably pretty imposing. We were going to hand out the candy canes, but they probably didn’t think they were real candy.
Their seats were in the Spectrum’s lower bowl, behind one of the baskets, 10 rows up from the floor.
BARTHELMESS: We had a big Sixers banner, and we had a routine planned.
JOE REICHWEIN: We waited at the top for the national anthem to finish, and we had our candy canes, and we went down the aisle, singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The referee has the ball. He’s ready to put it up. And his head turns. All the players are looking at us. Candy canes are flying everywhere. The ref goes, “OK,” and they start the game. They delayed the tipoff for us.
The Sixers were 16-5. The Celtics were the defending NBA champions and had won 19 of their first 21 games, including a 130-119 victory over the Sixers at Boston Garden a month earlier – a game made infamous for a fight between Erving and Bird that earned each superstar an ejection and a $7,500 fine. But the increased tension – and security – in the arena didn’t dissuade the group from trying to put on a show at halftime.
JOE REICHWEIN: I just remember saying to Mike Power, “Grab my Santa suit. We’re going on the floor. Don’t let them stop you. We paid to be here, and I’m not stopping.”
ESHELMAN: This was before Sept. 11. Nowadays, they’d tackle you.
BARTHELMESS: We’re high-fiving with Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and M.L. Carr. M.L. Carr was so cool to us. He embraced us.
JOE REICHWEIN: We built a pyramid. The crowd was into it. And then Mike Power gets in the layup line, and M.L. Carr was the one who loved it the most. He kept feeding Mike balls. Mike had one that lipped in and out, and the crowd went, “Oooh.”
MIKE REICHWEIN: He banged an elbow jumper.
BARTHELMESS: He might have been one of the only sober ones. Craig ran across the floor, in front of the media, and did a hook slide, popped up, and went, “Sixers!”
POWER: After halftime, we were sitting in our normal seats. That’s when Scott Palmer found us.
Palmer, now the Phillies’ director of public affairs, was a sports anchor and reporter for Channel 6, the local ABC affiliate.
ESHLEMAN: He did a “What’s My Line?” thing. He came up to each one of us and asked, “Are you the real Santa Claus?”
SCOTT PALMER: You put 10 guys in Santa Claus suits at a Sixers-Celtics game – that screams Channel 6.
The only physical confrontation among the players occurred in the closing seconds of the third quarter, when McHale and Moses Malone shoved each other.
PETER ALFANO, NEW YORK TIMES: When the quarter ended, referee Jess Kersey conferred with Erving and Bird, the team captains, in an attempt to prevent any problems. He should have also talked to one of the dozen or so men dressed as Santa Claus who were in attendance.
With 11 seconds left in regulation, Charles Barkley sank two free throws to give the Sixers their final, three-point margin.
BARTHELMESS: So the game’s nearly over. The Sixers are winning. Celtics fans are not happy. They have white sweaters and jackets on with green shamrocks, Celtics regalia. We’re down there again because we want to go on the floor again to celebrate. And things are kind of tangled up.
JOE REICHWEIN: Mike Power had stumbled and tripped, because there was just no room to move. We shouldn’t have been there. We didn’t have seats on the floor. But we were there, and the game was almost over.
ALEXANDER WOLFF, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: A fan in a Santa suit had obstructed the view of a patron in a $60 seat, and they mixed it up.
JOE REICHWEIN: There was a bunch of Celtics fans. One got up. He was pissed. He pushed Mike Power, and Mike goes into the chairs, the ones that are collapsible. Now this guy’s going after Mike. I got him in a full nelson for maybe five seconds.
BILL LYON, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER: There is all of one second left and Boston calls timeout to plot your basic miracle play. And just about the time you think you can inhale once, a bunch of guys dressed like Santa Claus get in a punch-out fight in the stands. Ho-ho-ho.
ERVING: I looked up, and the Santa Clauses were throwing haymakers at the unruly fans, and the fans were returning the favor. We had to stop the game and check that out.
BARTHELMESS: John Sweeney stayed in his seat and never moved. He was one of the nicest guys in the world.
JOE REICHWEIN: Security comes. I let this guy go. They have me. He turns around and hits me right in the right ear. Of course, I spit in his face.
JOHN SCHULIAN, PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS: Four palookas dressed as Santa Claus were already punching everything that moved, forcing the security guards who had come to protect the Celtics from revenge to revise their priorities posthaste.
JOE REICHWEIN: Security realizes I was just trying to control things until they could get this guy out of there, that he was the problem. So they let me go. They’re trying to get him. He’s trying to get to me. There are bodies everywhere. I see him, and I was able to get him.
BARTHELMESS: Joe busted him up good, and this is my favorite vision of my lifetime. The guy goes down. He starts to get up. Mike Reichwein comes out of the stands. Hop, skip, jump, bang! Hits him again. He was done. He didn’t even get up again.
PHIL JASNER, PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS: The only punch of consequence, ironically, was one that appeared to be thrown by a fan wearing a Santa Claus suit.
JOE REICHWEIN: Right in the side of the face. Out of his loafers. His white jacket turned Sixer red.
ESHLEMAN: The Reichweins never backed down from an altercation.
MIKE REICHWEIN: The one guy stood out because he had that white Celtics jacket, and it really annoyed me.
CEDRIC MAXWELL, CELTICS FORWARD: An omen.
WOLFF: An omen of what?
MAXWELL: Tells you things aren’t good in the world.
JOE REICHWEIN: We didn’t start it, so I’m comfortable.
BARTHELMESS: I remember going up the aisle, hands behind my back, beard’s off to the side, and there’s a lady. She’s got to be 60, 70 years old, and she just looked at me and said, “Good hit, Santa.” She didn’t think anything of it.
ESHLEMAN: We all got thrown out of different exits of the Spectrum. We met up again, got back in the van, and went to the Bent Elbow in Fort Washington.
MIKE REICHWEIN: I drove back to East Stroudsburg that night. Had an 8 a.m. final. Anatomy and Physiology.
The friends stay in contact through email and text messages. They are or have been executives for most of their professional lives: software, beverage sales and marketing, medical sales.
BARTHELMESS: I’ve told this story so many times, and no one believes me. No one really believes me.
ESHLEMAN: We should have been more mature than we were, but it didn’t work out that way.