As the summer wears on, with training camps and preseason play still off in (what feels like) the distant future, we turn our attention to the past. Join us as we while away a few late-summer moments recalling some of the most scintillating slams of yesteryear, the most thunderous throwdowns ever to sear themselves into our memories. This is Dunk History.
I can’t say I have a crystalized memory of this dunk. I do know it happened, though, because it’s frozen in time on a spectacular Sports Illustrated cover, and back when I was a fledgling NBA fan in the early 1980s, SI was as much my source of record as anything else.
I was born in 1969 and sports-crazy by the late '70s. It was a much different time to be a fan. Today’s NBA junkies know teams and players by sight — television, Internet, League Pass, tethered smartphones, etc. When I was in elementary school and worshipping my heroes, it was more about what you could read. Heck, the NBA Finals were still broadcast in tape delay. So much was left to the imagination.
My level of fandom leapt forward in 1979. In the spring, I purchased my first book in the "Complete Handbook" series — "The Complete Handbook of Baseball 1979." Player profiles, team predictions, stats, pithy writing, a photo of every important player ... this was a game-changer for a 10-year-old. I was hooked for life.
I quickly added all the major sports (and American soccer!) to my "Complete Handbook" buying cycle. I devoured these books on the school bus and in study hall (you're not chasing girls when you're 10), memorizing every tidbit I could. About two months after I purchased my first "Complete Handbook of Basketball," some guy named Dawkins started smashing backboards. The dunks on my bedroom Nerf goal were considerably less destructive.
Late in the summer of 1979, another game-changer: a relative landed me a Sports Illustrated subscription. So many of my initial heroes showed up on those covers. Outlaw legend Ken Stabler was on the first issue delivered to my house. A clean-shaven, suit-clad Bill Walton showed up two months later for the NBA Preview. I wanted to believe Stabler had endless lasers left in his left arm; alas, he only had one more good season, then Bummed out in Houston. I wanted to believe Walton would become magically healthy in San Diego; we know how that turned out, though his 1986 renaissance was well worth the wait.
Around this time, my parents decided to get the Boston Globe delivered to our home. We were too far from the city for the prized late edition — West Coast games never made it into the morning paper — but this nonetheless remained a treasured record. The legendary Sunday Globe sports section was a particular gift, with all those extended notes columns to pore over. My formative years were spent reading Peter Gammons, Bob Ryan, Dan Shaughnessy, Jackie MacMullen, Will McDonough, Leigh Montville ... the list goes on and on. How lucky can a sports kid get?
As we swung into the 1980s, I started to get a curious obsession about the 1970s history I'd missed, the events that came down before I was fully aware. Watergate. Patty Hearst. The breakup of The Beatles. Bobby Orr. Pete Maravich. Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison. The 1975 World Series. Walton fit into this theme — I voraciously read up on his UCLA and Portland exploits, and felt somewhat cheated that he couldn’t play that way anymore (and most of the time, he couldn’t play at all).
Julius Erving fell into that category, too. I wondered if I was simply born too late to observe the fully unleashed "Dr. J." I felt a little cheated.
I started to collect older Sports Illustrateds and "Complete Handbooks," catching up on the mid-'70s stuff I’d missed. I learned how to negotiate the microfilm and microfiche machines in my junior high library. I looked for old books and magazines in second-hand stores; every so often, I’d unearth another "Complete Handbook" or the right SI cover, jump out of my Nike Cortezes and race to the register.
I studied up on Erving’s rise to prominence — the brief but explosive career at UMass, the way he dominated the ABA. I read with interest the gushing over Erving when the leagues finally merged before the 1976-77 season.
Erving was expected to dominate the league immediately, something that didn’t happen often enough. Was he too deferential to George McGinnis and Doug Collins on that initial Philly team? Did we expect too much from someone who changed teams right before the season?
Did Erving ruin his knees for good during the high-flying ABA days? Did he lose some of his powers when he trimmed his glorious afro? "The Complete Handbook of Basketball 1980" suggested Erving might need to move to the backcourt full-time; it also hinted that he might be a little overrated.
Two years later, Erving won league MVP; the tank wasn’t so close to empty after all. Still, I wondered if I had missed the revolution, the peak of his powers, and if Erving would ever make good on the "We owe you one" promise he made to Philadelphia in 1977.
New England millennial kids won’t comprehend this, but during my childhood, the Boston Celtics were the only local team with any luck or timing. The Patriots of the '70s and '80s were a cosmic joke (who else loses 10 overtime games in a row?) with horrible ownership. The Red Sox were polishing up The Curse of the Bambino (so Shaughnessy could fund his retirement with it). The Bruins were perennial also-rans to the 1970s Canadiens and 1980s Islanders and Oilers.
But the Celtics? This was the team fortune smiled upon. Red Auerbach’s legacy was already well-established before I started following the team — Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, the dominant 1950s and 1960s — but a new wave of Celtic breaks came about in the late 1970s and into the '80s.
Auerbach was wise enough to select eligible junior Larry Bird with the No. 6 overall pick in the 1978 draft. (Not too wise, though; after all, he did take Rick Robey three slots earlier.) When the Celtics went all-in for Ralph Sampson and were rebuffed in 1980, they had to settle for Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, courtesy of an infamous trade with the Golden State Warriors. (Credit Bill Fitch for that one; he, not Auerbach, was the man who coveted Parish.)
Boston Garden was believed to be its own source of kismet. The random dead spots in the parquet floor made for curious caroms; balls just seemed to take funny bounces. The Celtics also received a number of favorable calls in those days, back when home-court advantage meant far more than it does today. Beating the Celtics in Boston was never easy, but during a critical or clinching playoff game? Next to impossible.
We'll let this passage from Ryan's 2014 memoir, "Scribe: My Life in Sports," set the scene:
The 1981 and 1982 Celtics-76ers battles for the Eastern Conference championship ought to be repackaged and distributed to any NBA fan under forty so they can understand why their father, uncle or grandfather gets a glow on while talking about the Good Old Days of the NBA. These were teams good enough and deep enough to bring greats such as McHale and the 76ers Bobby Jones off the bench. A young Larry Bird matched up with a cagey Dr. J. Hall of Famers battled Hall of Famers and Absolutely-Should-Be Hall of Famers such as Maurice Cheeks and Jones, an eminently dignified and worthy six-nine force who I fear, like [Andrew] Toney, has fallen through a significant crack in NBA history.
If you won’t take it from Bob Ryan, the ombudsman of the NBA, nothing I can write will sway you. These series were absurdly compelling.
Philly had no problem dispatching the Celtics in the 1980 Eastern finals, a five-game walkover. The Sixers ultimately fell to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games, done in by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s early dominance and Magic Johnson’s perfect finisher, which relegated Erving's absurd Game 4 swoop to the background. But the next two Boston-Philly meetings were absolute war, a full seven games needed both times.
The Sixers shouldn't have lost the 1981 series, blowing a 3-1 lead. The Celtics somehow won the final three games by just five total points. Philly blew a late six-point lead in Game 5, a double-digit lead in the second half of Game 6, and a nine-point lead in the final quarter of Game 7. Boston made some shots and got some breaks down the stretch, and Game 7 played out with little referee interference; it was downright comical how much contact was allowed in that final game.
Boston winning a Game 7 at home was no surprise. At this point in NBA history, home teams were expected to win; for great home teams, it was almost their birthright. The Celtics were 12-2 in playoff Game 7s through the 1981 series, and had never lost one at home (9-0). So when Boston held home-court advantage for the 1982 rematch with Philly, it was a big deal.
For the third straight playoffs, the Sixers took control of the series early, racing out to a 3-1 lead. But you couldn’t blame Boston fans for feeling confident during Game 5 on Causeway Street. They’d seen this movie before. As the Celtics finished off a 114-85 Game 5 blowout, the Garden rocked with an emphatic chant:
“See you Sunday ... See you Sunday ... See you Sunday.”
The way Boston fans figured it, the Celtics would find a way to win Game 6 in Philly and return to the Garden on the weekend, where Game 7 victories were a lock. How could a fanbase be this arrogant when trailing in a series? I don’t know. It made sense at the time.
Game 6 was close for three quarters, but the Celtics closed with a 27-11 final frame and won going away. The Hub fans got their wish. "See you Sunday," indeed. Rally all the Ghosts of Celtics Past.
I know I watched every minute of Game 7, but I don’t remember the details too well. The Sixers won every quarter, though the lead was a mere 52-49 at halftime. A 31-22 Philly spurt in the third period put things in control. Is that when Dr. J jammed the jinx?
The Sixers rolled up 37 points in the fourth, suffocating any comeback hopes. Is that when Dr. J jammed the jinx? The final score was 120-106, and it didn’t feel that close.
But what I do remember, what I’ll always remember, is how the Boston crowd punctuated the game. From Anthony Cotton's game story in SI:
The crowd gave the soon-to-be-ex-champs a standing ovation with 1:06 left. Forty-five seconds later there was a new chant: "Beat L.A., beat L.A."
"That was nice," Erving said. "But it wasn't as loud as 'See you Sunday,' was it?
(Dawkins, for his part, had a different — and R-rated — reaction to the closing chant. How we miss you, Double D.)
No, it wasn’t as loud as “See you Sunday,” and the Sixers didn’t beat L.A. either. They’d get around to it the following year, with a dominant new center and a new resolve.
As for Game 7 road upsets, those went on ice for a while. The next 20 times the league saw a playoff series that went the full seven games, the home team won every time. The string wasn’t broken until the Houston Rockets trimmed the Phoenix Suns in the 1995 Western Conference semifinals.
I don’t remember exactly when Erving jammed the jinx. But I’ll never forget that cover, and I’ll never forget those teams, those rivalries. I’ll never give up my "Complete Handbook" collection (a belated RIP to editor Zander Hollander, who passed in April 2014). And I’ll never throw out my old Sports Illustrateds, either. Anywhere I go, they go.
More Dunk History:
• Shawn Kemp, Alton Lister and how memory works
• Chris Webber, Charles Barkley and a poster preserved
• Young Wolf Andrew Wiggins goes straight for Rudy Gobert's neck
• Rajon Rondo leaps past Dwight Howard, ascends to All-Star status
• Blake Griffin defines 'Mozgov,' picks up Stoudemire's mantle
• Vince Carter defies gravity, belief in the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest
• LeBron James rises up and Damon Jones 'gets banged on'
• Dwyane Wade welcomes Anderson Varejao to his 'Kodak moment'
• Paul George's 360 windmill causes stir on press row
• Michael Jordan, Mel Turpin and 'Was he big enough?'
• Von Wafer and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad dunk
• LeBron James takes flight, sends JET to crash landing
• J.R. Smith expresses himself by pulverizing Gary Neal
• Some of our friends' favorite dunks, Vol. 1: Chris Gethard, Hannibal Buress, Jensen Karp and more
• Dunk History, Season 1: Our 2014 series, collected