With the NBA playoffs on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, here are some memorable 76ers playoff games dating to when they moved from Syracuse before the 1963-64 season. Is your favorite missing? Send feedback to Marc Narducci at email@example.com.
Third of 12 parts.
The 76ers had earned the right to play in the NBA Finals for the first time since winning the championship in 1983, and there was pandemonium on the floor of the then-First Union Center.
Except one person was missing — the coach.
Shortly after their 108-91 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on June 3, 2001, which advanced the Sixers to the NBA Finals, no one could find Larry Brown on the court.
That was because Brown was alone in the locker room.
“When I got on the floor [during the celebration] Larry wasn’t there,” Billy King, then the general manager of the Sixers, said in a recent interview. “He was in his office in the locker room just sitting there.”
At that point, it was Brown’s 19th season as an NBA head coach and the first time he reached the Finals
“I said, ‘Larry, go out there and celebrate,’ ” King said. “Nobody realized he wasn’t on the floor celebrating.”
The Sixers had been favored to reach the Finals, but it hadn’t been easy. They lost their first playoff game to Indiana before winning the opening-round best-of-five series, three games to one. They then were extended to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals, advancing only when Vince Carter’s last-second shot missed in an 88-87 win in Game 7 over the Toronto Raptors.
“We had a tough road getting there, and Larry just needed a moment,” King said.
Brown needed a little time to put it all in perspective before he joined in the celebration.
“To think, after that Milwaukee game, we were going to play for a championship. Those are memories that will always live with you.”
“What I remember was the feeling of going to the Finals. It was something I missed out as a coach a number of times,” Brown said in a recent interview.
Before coming to Philadelphia, he had twice lost in the Eastern Conference finals while coaching the Indiana Pacers in 1994 and 1995. He also lost in the Western Conference finals as head coach of the Denver Nuggets in 1978.
His Sixers team went on to lose in five games to the Lakers in the NBA Finals, but after that Milwaukee win he appreciated reaching this stage.
Even though the Sixers were convincing winners in Game 7, the series against the Bucks was difficult, and Brown admitted he was emotionally exhausted.
“It was a tough series against a great Milwaukee Bucks team,” Brown said.
The Bucks had two players who made that season’s NBA All-Star team, Glenn Robinson and Ray Allen. In addition, Sam Cassell, who had 20 points and five assists in Game 7, was a quality point guard.
The Sixers trailed the series, two games to one, before winning consecutive games. They went up, three games to two, on an 89-88 thriller in Philadelphia in Game 5, with Dikembe Mutombo totaling 18 points and 13 rebounds. The outcome wasn’t decided until Ray Allen missed a one-handed tap-in at the buzzer.
The Bucks won Game 6 at home, 110-100, despite Allen Iverson’s 46-point effort.
That set the stage for Game 7.
Aaron McKie, who that season was named the NBA’s sixth man of the year, thought back to his local roots while approaching Game 7. McKie starred at Philadelphia’s Simon Gratz High School and then at Temple before entering the NBA.
“It was everything you dreamed of,” McKie said in a recent interview. “Playing Game 7 for your hometown team. To get the opportunity to go to the NBA Finals, what more can you ask for?”
The Sixers did not need a dramatic finish this time.
They trailed, 26-25, after the first quarter but outscored the Bucks by 18 the rest of the way.
Iverson, who was the NBA’s MVP for the 2000-2001 season, scored 44 points, and Mutombo added 23 points and 19 rebounds. Allen led the Bucks with 26 points.
After the game, McKie and his teammates were emotional.
“It was a relief winning that Game 7,” said McKie, now the head coach at Temple. “They were one of the super-talented teams, with Glenn Robinson, Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, and Tim Thomas. They were loaded. We battled and played well down the stretch.”
Raja Bell came off the bench to score 10 points in 8 minutes, 46 seconds for the Sixers. He joined the team late in the season, making his NBA debut and playing five regular-season games.
“We got Raja while he was playing in the YMCA,” Brown recalled.
That wasn’t an exaggeration. Bell was working out at a YMCA in Miami playing against his father and others when the Sixers called to sign him.
“He didn’t make San Antonio’s team, and [Spurs coach] Gregg Popovich and I were close, and Pop always thought Raja would be the type of player I would embrace and like, and he was right,” Brown said.
The Sixers were a banged-up team in the playoffs, and Bell got his shot and made several key contributions in the postseason.
In no surprise, Iverson took control in Game 7. In scoring his 44 points, he hit 17 of 33 shots, including 4 of 6 from three-point range and 6 of 7 from the foul line. He also had six rebounds and seven assists.
In the seven games against the Bucks, Iverson averaged 30.5 points. Another major factor was Mutombo, who averaged 16.6 points, 15.6 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks.
The Sixers had acquired Mutombo at the trade deadline from Atlanta with Roshown McLeod for Tony Kukoc, Nazr Mohammed, Theo Ratliff, and Pepe Sanchez.
“We had been talking to Atlanta [before the trade deadline], and when it approached, Larry said this might be our only chance to get to the Finals, and he felt Dikembe could help us get there,” King said. “Larry really pushed for the trade, and we made it.”
It was one of several moves that worked that year, which to that point was Brown’s most successful NBA season.
Once Brown returned to the court after his brief time in the locker room, he soaked up the atmosphere.
“It was pretty electric,” he recalled. “When people say the sixth man was the fans, I think it really helped us. To think, after that Milwaukee game, we were going to play for a championship. Those are memories that will always live with you."