Second in a six-part year-long series about the best local teams that never won a championship. Today: 1976-77 Sixers. Coming in June: the 1977 Phillies.
Amid all the flipping of bats and lids surrounding the 2019 Phillies and their free-agent-stuffed lineup, the tumultuous saga of the 1976-77 Sixers should stand as a cautionary tale.
The NBA’s highest-flying and highest-paid team, one so laden with talented and colorful stars that it provoked the normally staid New York Times to declare “there has never been a team like the 76ers and there may never again be another,” failed to win a championship.
In fact, their season was so turbulent and unexpectedly disappointing that it prompted a summer-long apology from the organization.
Part 1: The 1979-80 Flyers
The 76ers’ infamous “We Owe You One” ad campaign backfired as the debt went unpaid in 1978 and beyond. The slogan has endured, though, as a mocking epitaph for a team virtually conceded an NBA title when Julius Erving arrived in a hail of Bryce Harper-like hoopla two days before the 1976-77 season.
The signing of Erving, 26, a three-time American Basketball Association MVP whose athleticism was transforming basketball, created some of the loftiest expectations ever in Philadelphia sports. He joined an already gifted roster that included the previous year’s headline-grabbing acquisition, George McGinnis, as well as Doug Collins, Darryl Dawkins, World B. Free, Steve Mix, and Henry Bibby.
“Everybody looked at our team and said we shouldn’t lose a game,” said Bibby, now retired in California.
So, of course, they lost their first two.
While they captured the division title and compiled the league’s second-best record, the 1976-77 Sixers are remembered 42 years later more for what they failed to accomplish. They were, as a unit, less than the sum of their entertaining and expensive parts.
Erving, the elegant skywalker, was a revolutionary figure. The chiseled McGinnis was a forerunner of the muscular modern forward. The self-indulgent Lloyd Free, not yet World B., had a 44-inch vertical leap and nicknamed himself the Prince of Mid-Air. The free-spirited Dawkins wrote poems, shattered backboards and bathrooms, and infuriated coaches.
Joe “Jellybean” Bryant was an all-league character. So was Caldwell Jones, who once said his favorite seafood was “saltwater taffy.” Four of them — Bryant (Kobe), Bibby (Mike), Mike Dunleavy (Mike Jr.), and Harvey Catchings (Tamika) — would father future basketball stars.
While they never meshed, on or off the court, their individual abilities were enough to earn them a 50-32 record and a six-game margin over Boston in the Atlantic Division. They ousted the Celtics and Houston in the playoffs, and when they took a 2-0 lead over the Trail Blazers in the Finals, the hype seemed validated.
“We were up, 2-0, heading to Portland to wrap this thing up and get ready for the parade,” said Pat Williams, then the 76ers GM, now a senior vice president with the Orlando Magic. “The Flyers had had some unbelievable parades and ours was going to be a dandy.”
Then the Trail Blazers rained on their parade, winning the next four games. Philadelphia couldn’t overcome the constant turmoil, a prolonged McGinnis slump, the emotional spark Portland derived from a Game 2 brawl, and, maybe most important, the weight of expectations.
“That season we played under constant pressure,” Erving recalled. “With all the talent we had, expectations couldn’t have been higher.”
The best 76ers team that didn’t win a title couldn’t — or wouldn’t — grasp one of sports’ basic principles: Great chemistry often trumps great talent.
“We had this incredible team and Gene Shue was the coach-ringmaster trying to make the pieces fit, trying to keep everybody in line, trying to get minutes for everybody,” Williams recalled. “Oh my goodness, did he have a major job.”
None of them liked Shue. And the aloof coach didn’t help himself when he said he wasn’t sure the addition of Erving “would strengthen our team.”
After one loss, aristocratic owner Fitz Dixon burst into the locker room, stuck a finger in Shue’s face, and said, “I’m waiting to hear your excuses.” Asked later if that incident had disrupted morale, the coach said, “No, this team hasn’t had time for that. They’re too busy not talking to each other or fighting amongst themselves.”
His reserves demanded more playing time. His starters balked when theirs was cut. Dawkins trashed a locker-room lavatory on the night he angrily accused teammates of abandoning him during a playoff donnybrook. He asked to be traded, as did his equally irrepressible roommate, Free, who said of the way Shue deployed him, “I ain’t no yo-yo.”
And then there was Sunday, March 13, 1977, when a bombshell, lobbed by the most unlikely enemy, landed in the midst of their dysfunction.
That morning, a pointed essay by Erving’s wife, Turquoise, appeared in the New York Times. The star’s unhappy spouse alleged, among other things, that their welcome to Philadelphia had been chilly at best, that her husband’s selfish teammates didn’t get him the ball enough, that no one respected Shue, and that these 76ers would not win a championship.
“Those were her words,” Erving said of the woman he divorced in 2003. “Our team had a lot of obstacles that season. That was just one more.”
Curiously, the broadside energized the Sixers. After losing to Chicago in a turbulent haze that Sunday afternoon, they won nine of 10.
“Following Turquoise’s article, we looked at each other and saw how crazy things were,” said Mix, retired now in Florida. “We just said, 'The hell with it, let’s go win some games.’”
Just four years earlier, the 1972-73 Sixers had won only nine games while losing a record 73. That ineptitude, however, helped in the draft. They got Collins, a 6-foot-6 guard, with the No. 1 overall pick in 1973. With the No. 5 overall pick two years later, they selected Dawkins, a quixotic 6-11 Florida high-schooler. Free came in the second round in ’75.
Financially troubled teams in the ABA and NBA provided more help. Bibby was purchased from the cash-strapped New Orleans Jazz. Jones, the Sixers’ starting center, arrived from the ABA after a 1976 merger killed all but four of that league’s teams.
One of the survivors was Indiana, where McGinnis had averaged 29.8 points and 14.3 rebounds in the previous two seasons. When the Knicks tried to lure the 6-8 power forward to the NBA, the 76ers, who’d drafted him in 1973, owned his NBA rights and weren’t letting him go without a fight. Team owner Irv Kosloff and the Sixers eventually won the dispute, and McGinnis, like Erving a year later, signed a six-year, $3 million deal.
He immediately brought respectability and excitement to a franchise that recently had lacked both. Suddenly “Let George Do It!” billboards appeared everywhere and attendance virtually doubled. For McGinnis’ 1975 home debut, a Spectrum-record crowd of 18,029 turned out.
“George was one very large piece of a very interesting nucleus we were putting together,” said Williams. “We really ballyhooed him.”
With McGinnis, the ’75-’76 Sixers improved immediately, from 34-48 to 46-36, and earned a playoff berth. But they were upset in the first round by the Buffalo Braves — losing the deciding game at home. It was the first of two straight years a team led by former 76ers coach Jack Ramsay would eliminate them.
“The loss to Buffalo, on a Sunday afternoon at home, was one of the most disappointing of my career,” said Williams. “Heartbreaking.”
That offseason, Sixers officials began to hear rumors. The Nets had refused to renegotiate Erving’s seven-year, $1.9 million contract and he wanted out of New York. Williams phoned Nets GM Bill Melchionni, a former 76er, to express interest. The two kept in touch that summer.
“Then one day in October, Billy called,” said Williams. “He told me, 'We will make Julius Erving available.’”
Melchionni told Williams the Nets wanted $3 million and Erving the same amount spread over six years.
“That was a lot of money in 1976,” Williams said of a season in which the average NBA salary was $130,000.
Dixon, the heir to the Widener fortune, had purchased the Sixers the previous May from Kosloff for $6.2 million. Now he would be asked to spend almost that much for a single player. Williams drove to Dixon’s Montgomery County estate, Erdenheim Farm, to explain the opportunity.
“Who’s Julius Erving?” the owner asked.
Once informed, Dixon agreed. Soon Williams and lawyers were dispatched to New York. Negotiations involving the 76ers, Nets, and Erving’s agent (Irving Weiner) lasted all night. When they were successfully completed on the morning of Oct. 20, the Sixers’ party celebrated with breakfast, appropriately enough for the Dixon era, at Manhattan’s Yale Club.
The signing of Erving, whose Dr. J. nickname and soaring dunks had made him a national phenomenon, ignited Philly’s passions. An overflow media crowd attended his introductory news conference later on Oct. 20. Two nights later, without having practiced with or even having met his new teammates, Erving debuted in a loss to San Antonio at the sold-out Spectrum.
The next night, the team that Inquirer beat writer Bill Livingston labeled “the best money can buy,” lost again in Buffalo before the first in a string of road sellouts. (“I don’t think we played to an empty seat on the road all year,” said Bibby.) Already there were locker-room concerns about unpreparedness.
“This is a super-talented team,” said Collins. “But we’d better be ready to play every night because everyone is super ready for us.”
Ironically, it wouldn’t be until ’77 that the 76ers found a stride and a workable starting five — Erving, McGinnis, Jones, Bibby, and Collins. When they defeated the Celtics, 91-83, in Boston on Jan. 23, they’d won 10 of 11 and opened a seven-game divisional lead. A day later, Erving, McGinnis, and Collins were named All-Star Game starters.
An April 1 win over Kansas City pushed them to a season-best 20 games over .500. But they finished the regular season unimpressively, losing four of their final six. After a first-round playoff bye, they met Boston.
In Game 7 of that series, Erving, McGinnis, and Collins combined for only 32 points and Philadelphia made just one field goal in the last 8 minutes, 24 seconds. Yet somehow the Sixers survived, 83-77.
It was the franchise’s first playoff-series win since 1968 and players and fans celebrated. Dunleavy cut his head when he jumped into a locker-room door jamb. Bibby gleefully told reporters Boston had “choked” and that “Celtic pride didn’t come through.” An impromptu celebration outside the Spectrum led to the arrests of several fans.
Still, even in victory, there were signs of danger ahead. The 76ers, claimed Boston’s John Havlicek, played too much “one-on-one” — a charge 76ers assistant coach Jack McMahon felt compelled to respond to.
“We do have set stuff,” said McMahon. “We do have plays to run.”
They had enough plays to eliminate Houston in a six-game conference final series. Then came Portland, where Ramsay, a healthy Bill Walton, and Maurice Lucas had invigorated the seven-year-old franchise.
For the 76ers, the Finals would be a blur of injuries, missed shots, and even more controversy. The turning point might have been a wild Game 2 fight that inflamed the Blazers and exposed the Sixers’ dysfunction.
Philadelphia took the first two games at home. But McGinnis, who’d averaged 21.4 points a game, was slumping badly.
“We were counting on Big George to help carry us, to battle Maurice Lucas,” said Williams. “It didn’t happen. Very disappointing.”
Late in Philadelphia’s 107-89 Game 2 victory, Dawkins and Portland’s Bobby Gross scrambled on the floor for a loose ball. The two came up swinging wildly, one of Dawkins’ punches clipping teammate Collins in the jaw.
Lucas rushed in and belted Dawkins from behind. Coaches, players, security personnel, and fans hurried to the scrum. One fan punched a Blazer from behind. Erving, meanwhile, sat alone at midcourt, a bemused god observing these foolish mortals.
Afterward, Lucas bemoaned Dawkins’ “gorilla” tactics. Teammate Lloyd Neal called the fans who rushed the floor “psychos.” Gross accused Philadelphians of stealing four or five warm-up jerseys from the Blazers’ bench.
“I don’t think that sort of thing would happen in Portland,” said Gross.
After he and Lucas were ejected, Dawkins still steamed. He trashed a locker-room bathroom and as he stormed away from postgame questioners grumbled, “I’m mad, mad at my ... teammates for not helping a guy who got hit from behind.”
Suddenly the Blazers were energized. Back in Portland, they won Games 3 and 4 by 22 and 32 points, respectively, their 16th and 17th consecutive home victories. The Sixers returned to Philly desperate for a win, though not desperate enough to come together.
During a typically ragged scrimmage two days before Game 5, some teammates shouted, “Brick! Brick!” whenever the struggling McGinnis took a shot. An ongoing feud between Bryant and Mix worsened when Bryant said he could outplay his teammate “any day of the week.” In the Inquirer, Livingston accused Shue of being “unable to restore a higher sense of professionalism.” And Dawkins composed a poem.
His “Ode to Game 5” began, “As the Sixers look on to start Game 5/ We’re raring to go like bees in a hive.”
“The ode,” said Williams, “didn’t work.”
Portland triumphed at the Spectrum, 110-104. Erving had 37 points but the maligned McGinnis only 11 on 3-of-9 shooting. Ramsay’s disciplined style had exposed the 76ers’ lack of cohesion.
“The thing that helps us,” said Gross, who led Portland with 25 points, “is when they start trying to create something for themselves rather than for a teammate.”
The Sixers traveled back to Portland, Williams said, “fearing the worst in Game 6. But we went out there and played a heck of a game. We had a chance to win it down the stretch.”
In the closing seconds, Erving (40 points), McGinnis (28), and Free all missed potential game-tying shots in a 109-107 loss.
Amid the postgame gloom, Shue refused to second-guess himself. But when Philadelphia started the following season 2-4, he was fired and replaced by Billy Cunningham.
The ubiquitous “We Owe You One” campaign continually reinforced the disappointment. Team spirit improved noticeably under Cunningham in 1977-78. The 76ers went 55-27 and won another division title, but a loss to Washington in the conference final reignited the pessimism.
Attendance fell by 3,500 a game the following year and stayed depressed. Players from the ’76-’77 roster began to drift away slowly, like colorful autumn leaves from a tree. McGinnis and Free left after the ’78 season. Joe Bryant was gone in ’79; Bibby in ’80; the injury-riddled Collins in ’81; Dawkins, Jones, and Mix following the ‘82 season.
By the time the 76ers finally won a title in 1983, only Erving remained. It was only then that the “We Owe You One” references stopped.
“When our advertising people came up with that, I thought it was quite clever and effective,” said Williams. “Except that the next year we got knocked out by Washington and we began to hear, 'Now you owe us two.’ And it went on like that year after year.
“I remember when it started, the ‘We Owe You One’ on billboards was accompanied by this giant finger thrust upward. It was a forefinger. But the way it turned out for us, it could have been a middle finger.”
JULIUS ERVING: Acquired in October 1976 from the cash-strapped New York Nets after the NBA absorbed them and three other American Basketball Association teams.
DOUG COLLINS: The Sixers’ first pick (first overall) in the 1973 NBA draft.
GEORGE McGINNIS: After four ABA seasons, he signed as a free agent with Philadelphia in July 1975.
DARRYL DAWKINS: The Florida high-schooler was the 76ers’ first-round pick (fifth overall) in the 1975 NBA draft.
WORLD B. FREE: The Sixers’ second-round pick in the 1975 NBA draft.
STEVE MIX: Signed as a free agent in August 1973.
JOE BRYANT: The 76ers acquired Kobe’s dad from the Golden State Warriors in September 1975.
CALDWELL JONES: Drafted by the 76ers in 1973 but playing in the ABA at the time, Jones signed with Philadelphia as a free agent in February 1975.
HENRY BIBBY: Acquired from the New Orleans Jazz in September 1976.
FRED CARTER: Acquired in 1971 from Baltimore along with Kevin Loughery for Archie Clark and a second-round pick. Was dealt to Milwaukee in December of the 1976-77 season.
MIKE DUNLEAVY: The Sixers’ sixth-round pick in the 1976 NBA draft.
HARVEY CATCHINGS: The Sixers’ third-round pick in the 1974 NBA draft.
JIM BARNETT: Signed as a free agent in January 1977.