The Sick, The Lame, and The Swollen

In March 1971, the Baltimore Bullets and Philadelphia 76ers met in the first round of the NBA playoffs. It would be the start of Earl Monroe’s final playoff run in Baltimore. It also would go down in NBA history as one of the league’s more-grueling playoff jousts. Not quite in the category of the Knicks-Heat clashes of the 1990s—but close. Having recently published the book Shake and Bake with NBA great Archie Clark, I have a clip file of the series from the Baltimore Morning Sun, Baltimore Evening Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, and Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Beloved bylines such as: Alan Goldstein, Seymour Smith, Bob Maisel, Mark Heisler, Alan Richman (yes, the food critic), Bill Tanton, Mike Janofsky, and Jack Kiser. 

I’ve pulled the best quotes from their playoff stories, without traditional attribution, and rolled them into a “super stories” for each game of the series. It’s my way of bringing this classic series back to life as vividly as print journalism allows, 50 years hence. Above all, this journalistic mind meld captures the greatness on the floor in that series. Let’s start with a series preview, mostly from Heisler, and jump right into game 1, with more installments to come real soon.


The 76ers (47-35, 2nd place in Atlantic Division) begin the quarter-final round of NBA playoffs at 8 Wednesday night in the {Baltimore] Civic Center against the club described by Coach Jack Ramsay as “probably the finest offensive team in the league.”

They are, of course, the Bullets, first-place finishers in the Central Division. The playoff is a best- of-seven and Baltimore has the odd-game advantage. 

It has been a long, dull season for the Bullets. They took first place when the season started and were never challenged. Late in the season forward Gus Johnson’s left knee, operated on two years ago, was hurt again. Two weeks ago, center Wes Unseld severely sprained his ankle. Both are expected to start Wednesday night. 

Without Unseld and with Johnson playing hurt, or not at all, the Bullets lost seven of their last nine games, finished with a 42-40 record and won their division by a full six games. 

Because of Johnson and Unseld, the Bullets are held in a certain terror. After one game in the Spectrum this year, Billy Cunningham had scratches the length of both arms. Cunningham, the 76ers’ leading scorer and rebounder, gets the pleasure of playing the 6-6, 234-pound Johnson at both ends of the floor.

“He’s so strong, he can move you around so easily,” Cunningham said. “When he goes for a rebound, he’s not pushing or doing anything illegal, he just pushes you right out of your spot. 

“It’s going to be real physical, but it’ll be a clean game. He expects to bang you and he expects you to bang him.”

The teams match up something like this:


Both teams are strong, but the 76ers guards are better defensively. Archie Clark (21.3 ppg) will go against Earl Monroe (21.4) while Hal Greer (18.6) plays Kevin Loughery who closed strong and wound up with a 19-point average. Fred Carter (10.3), the Bullets No. 2 or 3 guard, is their best defensive guard, a streaky shooter and a wild jumper. Wally Jones (10.1), the 76ers’ No. 3 guard, is a very strong defensive player, is a streaky shooter, but a fine floorman. 


Both teams strong and deep. Cunningham (23.1) and Johnson (18.2) have been all pro picks.

Jack Marin (18.8), the Bullets’ other starter, is a fine long-range shooter. He is 6-5 and fast and plays well in the running game. The 76ers’ Jim Washington (13.4) is a superb jumper, but has trouble with smaller forwards. 

John Tresvant gives the Bullets a substitute they can play on Cunningham without letting Billy run wild. Tresvant is playing with the sixth team, but he can help. The 76ers have 34-year-old Bailey Howell (10.6), still fiercely competitive, and Fred Foster, quick man who plays good defense 


The 76ers don’t look for much scoring from their centers and Unseld is not point-hungry. Unseld is a fine shooter, a very strong rebounder and makes fine outlet passes to start the Bullets’ fast break. Dorrie Murray is a decent backup. Against the 76ers, the Bullets make more of an attempt to use Unseld in the offensive. 

The 76ers’ Luke Jackson played well the last week of the season and moved ahead of rookie Dennis Awtrey. Jackson is strong, conscientious and plays well against strong centers. Awtrey Is a good backup who is getting better. 

Over the last two years, the 76ers are 7-6 against the Bullets. The series looks even. 

“We should knock them off in five games with Wes (Unseld) and myself healthy,” said Gus Johnson, who had his ailing left knee drained of fluid yesterday. 

“They’ve got three guys to worry about on offense—Greer, Clark and Cunningham. But any of our five guys is capable of blowing the game open. The big problem with Philly is the guards. They’re the guys who usually break us down. They are quicker than our guards and they know how to get the open shot.”

There was great the diversion of opinion among the Bullets concerning Greer, a veteran of 13 NBA seasons whose scoring average slumped almost three points to under 19 a game this year. 

“Hal’s an old man,” noted Jack Marin. “it wasn’t so hard to walk out on a $25,000-a-year job some years ago, but you know he’s making a lot more than that, so he keeps playing.”

Game One, Wednesday, March 24, 1971:

Baltimore—Hal Greer, the Methusalah of the 76ers, who many considered “over the hill” after a lackluster season, was his old destructive self in sparking Philadelphia to a 126-to-112 victory over the Bullets in their playoff opener at the Civic Center last night. 

The 34-year-old guard, who has scored over 20,000 points in 13 pro campaigns, added 30 more in this one, including 12 in the third quarter when the 76ers broke open a close game to move in front, 90-77. It was a “laugher” the rest of the way. 

Greer was just another face to the Bullets through the first half, which ended in Baltimore’s favor, 56-55. The 76er captain looked disoriented, lost. 

“And then we let him do just what he always does,” explained a dejected Gus Johnson. “It was expected. We didn’t play him (in the second half). He trails the play, gets all those shots and puts them in the hole.”

“What really happened to the Bullets,” said Philadelphia’s Bailey Howell, now getting more technical, “is that they were playing our guards with their hands in the first half and they got in foul trouble. The officials in this league will let you put your hands on your man, but if you impede his movement, it’s a foul. That’s what the Bullets were doing to Greer and Archie Clark. It’s a good way to play them if you don’t get called for it. It’s good in the playoffs, but in the season, it would take too much out of you doing it at every night. After 30 games of playing that kind of defense, you’d be dead.“

To make circumstances worse, Earl Monroe, the Bullets’ leading scorer, came down with the flu then was hit in the ribs in the first half . . . From then on, Monroe was clutching his right side whenever he pranced up or down the court. He even shunned dribbling with the right hand.

“It happened in the first period when I dove for a loose ball,” Earl said. “Somebody gave me a knee . . . I don’t know whose knee it was but I’m gonna find out. I’m gonna look at the flicks of the game after the season. Then I’m gonna get the guy in the Baker League,” [Philly’s popular summer basketball circuit].

“He didn’t say anything about it at that time,” said trainer Skip Feldman. “But when he tried to get up and move around, he said he could barely get his breath. He said somebody’s knee caught him in the ribs, just below his right arm. The doctor checked him over and we tried to tape it up, but it was no use. He still couldn’t breathe without pain.”

Monroe ended up playing 11 minutes and getting his ribs X-rayed.

“The doctor thinks he could have a hairline fracture of the rib, and that could be trouble. If it’s only a bruise, we can block it off (with pain-killing shots). But if it’s a fracture, he won’t be able to get his arm up shoot.”

While the Bullets await the verdict on Monroe, they still have other worries in the form of Johnson and Unseld.

An X-ray may not be enough for Johnson, who says he belongs on the operating table. “Right now, if I had any sense, I’d let them operate and take both cartilages out, “he said. “If it (one of his knees) goes out on the floor, at least they’ll say I’m going out trying. “

Johnson, playing with pain, was one of Baltimore’s high scorers with 19 points. Three of his field goals came on dunks, but after he sailed over Billy Cunningham on one of them, he walked away in agony. 

“I hurt my knees landing,” Johnson said. “The doctor told me if I could avoid it, not to dunk. But it’s my game. I feel it’s the way I command authority.“

For the Bullets, their play-off chances never did look overly optimistic. After last night, the chances look even worse. Unseld and Johnson probably can’t do much better than they did in the opener, and Monroe has to be considered doubtful for tomorrow night’s game in Philadelphia. 

They face an uphill fight at best. 


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