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. 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. So far, we’ve bounced through Games 1- 3. Today, the coverage picks up with Game 4.
Philadelphia, March 30, 1971—It’s no disgrace getting beat by Baltimore. Wes Unseld, Earl Monroe and Gus Johnson are great players. Jack Marin and Kevin Loughery are damn good ones, only a half cut back. When they start honking together, anybody can get kicked silly.
But Dorie Murrey? Tell me, daddy, what’s a Dorie Murrey?
You wind up a Dorie Murrey doll and he changes clubs with every expansion. Few people notice his coming and fewer miss him when he’s gone. That’s hard to do when you’re 6-8 and 230 pounds, but Dorie Murrey has managed to wander through Detroit, Seattle and Portland without creating one small ripple.
But last night at the Spectrum, Dorie Murrey created such a big splash that he drowned the 76ers in a sea of embarrassment. Baltimore kicked the hoopla out of Philadelphia, 120-105, to take a killing 3-1 grip on the best-of-seven playoff series and Dorie Murrey was the legitimate hero of it all.
Murrey made his grand entrance with 9:32 left in the third quarter when Unseld committed his fifth personal foul. The Bullets were ahead only 68-65 at the time and the vociferous Spectrum fans envisioned the kill . . . Dorie had played only seven minutes in the first three games.
Things started out the way they usually do for the 6-8 Murrey, who was obtained early in the season from Portland. He committed a foul. But then he turned tiger and started doing amazing things . . . He started controlling the game. He challenged Philly guards trying jump shots. He forced Billy Cunningham’s drives into the nearest defender. He blocked shots. He scored two key hoops and a free throw. By the quarter’s end, the Bullets had mushroomed the lead to 89-81 . . .
Then Marin started throwing in long one-handers. Marin scored 17 points in the fourth period and the Bullets ripped the game open. “It seemed,” said Cunningham, “that every time he shot I was walking under the net and catching it.”
When the Bullet win seemed imminent, a message flashed across the mammoth scoreboard. It began, “Get a jump on next season’s tickets . . .” About the same time, an astute fans sang out, “Wake me up from this nightmare.”
Earlier in the day, 76ers coach Jack Ramsay had tried to get his team emotionally ready for the game by harping [in the press] about the Bullets’ overaggressive play. “This series might decide the karate championship of the world,” he said.
He, like his team, wanted a tighter game called. He got it, all right. Only it backfired … Sixty-four personal fouls were called, resulting in 95 free throws. Sadly for Ramsay, however, the 76ers did most of the fouling.
“Get this down in your notebook,” the Bullets’ Gus Johnson ordered a Philadelphia sportswriter afterward. “You want to punch, we can punch. You want to dance, we can dance, baby. We’re as agile and mobile as any team in the league.”
But certainly not fragile. At the final bell, Johnson popped two codeine tablets for throbbing knee, dabbed some iodine on a gash on his shooting hand and soothed his nerves with three quick beers.
This Bullet went out [of the game] like a misshapen slug, but not before he had stashed half the 76ers offense in cold storage for the night. Johnson went chest-to-chest with Billy Cunningham most of the time and had the Kangaroo Kid running around with lead in his pouch. Cunningham struggled through a 6-for-15 shooting night and scored only six points in the second half, which is when the 76ers almost got blown across the Walt Whitman Bridge.
“A beautiful night for the ‘Comb,” said Earl Monroe, referring to Johnson’s other name, Honeycomb.
“Comb,” said broadcaster Sonny Hill, “can never score a point and beat you to death.”
“Louder,” said Honeycomb. “Look at all the reporters running around looking for the high scorers. Come over here and write about the ‘Comb, you bleep-bleepers.”
Johnson’s main number is defense, his main weapon an ornery scowl that often drives an opponent into the yips. Throw the Comb into a pair of black trunks with a wide stripe and he’s Sonny Liston. Last night, Billy Cunningham was Tugboat Thomas.
“Eh, the important thing is to try and get him thinking out there,” said the ‘Comb, basking in the recognition now. “You get him worrying about where you are and it’s like having another arm, you know what I mean?”
At the outset, it looked like Johnson would never make it to halftime. Before the game was six minutes old, he had been whistled for three personal fouls and one technical. “Billy Cunningham’s a superstar,” he said, “But I’ll tell you something else. He’s also a super crybaby. One time I heard him telling the refs I scratched him on the back. That’s when they called me for the foul and they laid the ‘T’ on me. I got hot and yelled at Powers, “Hey, you been readin’ the papers?”
The ‘Comb ended his post-game soliloquy on a modest note, saying that this thing isn’t over yet and how the 76ers are capable of coming back and being really tough. It was about as convincing as a campaign promise of lower taxes.
Before departing, he stashed four beers into his gym bag and slipped into a pair of royal-blue patent leather shoes. Nobody had the nerve to say, “Hey, where you going with those beers?” As for the shoes? Might as well have been combat boots.
Coming Next: Game 5