Philadelphians may soon collect on an IOU issued by the city's pro basketball team several years ago. Overdue in this case is a National Basketball Association championship, compliments of the 76ers, who made their slogan "We owe you one" the season after losing to Portland in the 1977 NBA finals.
The slogan was retired, but not the feeling that the Sixers, called by some "the best team money can buy," still hadn't delivered. The club could finally make that delivery, though, by defeating the winner of the Los Angeles-Seattle series in the NBA championship.
Philadelphia thundered into its first championship appearance since '77 by dismantling the Boston Celtics four games to one in the Eastern Conference finals.
Once considered the league's best collection of one-on-one players, the 76ers have adjusted their roster and are now making beautiful basketball music together under Coach Billy Cunningham, a member of Philadelphia's last championship team. Cunningham even has the Sixers talking about "family" in the manner of Pittsburgh's "We Are Family" Pirates.
"Billy talks about it in our meetings," says forward Julius Erving. "He talks about 'caring' and 'helping out,' how it relates to what we do on the court."
All this may sound incredible to those who remember the soap opera 76ers of a few years ago, the ones who didn't have enough playing time and basketballs to keep everybody satisfied.
Only six games into the 1977-78 season, millionaire owner Fitz Dixon decided the time had come to steer a different course. Gene Shue, the man handed the task of rebuilding the Sixers from the rubble of a 9-73 record in 1973-74, was fired and Cunningham hired. Since then the team has undergone a rather smooth metamorphosis, blending in team-oriented players such as Bobby Jones, Lionel Hollins, and Maurice Cheeks into its current mix of talents.
But even a year ago, the club was still keeping pace with the baseball Phillies as playoff flops, losing to San Antonio in a conference semifinal series that went a full seven games.
Sixer rooters found no end to their frustrations during the recently completed regular season, when Boston doubled its 1978-79 victory total to edge out Philadelphia for the Atlantic Division title and secure the homecourt advantage in the playoffs.
This advantage loomed as a potentially critical one entering the conference finals since in six regular season meetings of Philadelphia and Boston, the home team had won each time.
The title-hungry 76ers, though, weren't deterred by the Boston Garden and all those championship banners hanging overhead. They won two games in enemy territory, held the Celtics (113.5 average) under 100 points in every game, and laid to rest -- for the time being at least -- their image as post-season underachievers.
Before the series, Erving had said, "The Celtics paid the price all season, but we are ready to pay the price now." Where they really showed new-found grit was on defense, once a club weakness.
The most forceful display of Philadelphia's powers of denial came in Game 4, when the Sixers hosted an awesome "block party," rejecting 15 shots in a 102-90 victory. As intimidating as these blocks were, an even better indicator of Philly's overall defensive prowess came in the fourth quarter, when the 76ers maintained a 12-point margin while shooting 2 for 23 from the field.
"This team knows it has offensive shortcomings that playing defense can overcome," says Cunningham of his team's efforts without the ball.
Offensively, of course, no scoring drought can last long with Erving around. He literally soars to the basket, and with an assortment of moves unmatched by any other player in the game.
During his days in the old American Basketball Association, "the Doctor" virtually won titles single-handedly. Now, however, he has a less dominant role , yet he can turn it on at seemingly any moment. His 26.9 scoring average is only the tip of the iceberg in this, perhaps his best, all-around season. His first Most Valuable Player selection as an NBA player, many feel, could be forthcoming.
Right behind Erving in point production is muscular center Darryl Dawkins, the 6 ft. 11 in., 250-pound manchild drafted right out of high school five years ago. Dawkins is good for 14 points per game, some via his favorite shot -- the dunk, and a passel of authoritative rebounds.
Adding extra strength inside are forward Caldwell Jones, an agile seven-footer with a shot-blocking penchant, and strapping Steve Mix, a reserve who has a tight end's build but a soft-touch jumper.
There's enough speed in the backcourt with Hollins, Cheeks, and Henry Bibby that the Sixers have gotten by quite nicely even with all-pro Doug Collins on the injured list.