Under Pressure

In late March into early April 1971, the Baltimore Bullets and Philadelphia 76ers met in the first round of the NBA playoffs. It would go down in NBA history as one of the league’s more-grueling playoff matchups. Having recently published the book Shake and Bake with NBA great Archie Clark, I have a clip file of the series that’s so far allowed me to recap Games 1 – 5. Now, it’s critical Game 6. Do-or-die for the 76ers. Jack Kiser of the Philadelphia Daily News provides some pregame background:

“The kookie, mixed-up, unexplainable world of professional basketball makes an unexpected call on the Spectrum this afternoon. Anyone wishing to forecast the outcome can be fitted for straight-jackets at 2 p.m., which is tapoff for the 76ers-Baltimore shootout. The Bullets have a 3-2 edge in the best-of-seven series. If sanity does return to the series, the 76erd have a better-than-even chance of sending it all back to Baltimore for a deciding game tomorrow afternoon.

“There’s nothing sane about having an 0-6 playoff record at the Spectrum, which 76ers Coach Jack Ramsay has. No other coach in NBA history can make that statement. Ramsay, one of the best (if not the very best) coaches in the league has won a mere four playoff games in three years, and they have come on foreign courts at Boston, Madison Square Garden, and Baltimore. So far the “home team” is 1-4 in the series. “Unbelievable,” is the way Baltimore’s Gene Shue puts it. “Why? You try to explain it and you go crazy.”

Here’s what happened next—50 years ago yesterday—compiled from newspaper accounts of the game:

Philadelphia, April 3, 1971—It is a different game the pros play in April. It is better and rougher and more exciting because it means something. “That’s the name of the game—pressure,” 76er guard Hal Greer said, and pressure makes men do strange things. Even grown men who have been through it so many times before that they should be able to control themselves. Even 76er coach Jack Ramsay.

The pressure got to Ramsay Saturday. It got to him early, barely six minutes into the first period. His center Dennis Awtrey’s fourth personal foul, 24 seconds after his third, set him off. In a flash, Jack was on his feet signaling for a time out as he walked toward midcourt. He beckoned to Greer, instructed him to say something to the officials, then stood there his hands thrust into his back pockets. 

“Ramsay, sit down!”

The fan sitting in the expensive seats behind the press table had a loud voice. All he said was, “Ramsay, sit down!” It was enough.

The coach whirled. “Fuck you!” he retorted. 

When a man like Jack Ramsay loses his cool with a 10-point lead midway in the first quarter at home and hollers an obscenity to a spectator, he must be near the breaking point. It just goes to show you what playoff basketball can do, especially to the coach of a team facing elimination.

Luke Jackson came in for Dennis Awtrey midway through the first period. Jackson went over Marin for a rebound that made the 76ers’ lead 30-14. Marin, weighing in at 200 pounds, came off the boards swinging his elbows at Jackson, who tips the scales at 240. Jackson fired a roundhouse right that looked mean enough to fell a moose, but Marin came back with a punch of his own and Luke counter-punched. That started one of the most dangerous mismatches of the season. But Baltimore’s Wes Unseld, who at 240 pounds, grabbed Luke’s arms and Marin survived.  

The game‑and pressure—continued. “Can we get a call? One time, can we get a call?” Ramsay shouted at referee Manny Sokol and fellow referee Mendy Rudolph called traveling against the 76ers at the other end of the court.

“The most strategic point of this series,” Baltimore’s general manager Bob Ferry explained, “is Ramsay’s rating the officials after each game. When he jumped all over the officials early in this series, it was strategic to how the games have gone.” Ferry claims that Hal Greer, the 76ers’ captain, holds a meeting with the officials prior to the game to tell them “how close to call them.” 

The 76ers carried a 15-point lead into the first few minutes of the third period. Then, for an incredible five minutes and five seconds, they didn’t score a point. “When we came out for the third quarter, I’m like dead on my feet,” said Philadelphia’s Billy Cunningham. 

“Physically,” Cunningham explained, “we’re all exhausted out there. Both teams.” 

Baltimore’s Gus Johnson had gotten a second injection of Xylocaine during the halftime break and scored seven of his nine points. “The first shot didn’t take,” said Bullets trainer Skip Feldman. “Gus’ pain is deep (n his knee joint), and the one shot didn’t get deep enough. That shot at halftime really helped. The doctor put it right in the joint.” 

Earl Monroe, the Bullets’ high scorer with 30, hit a 10-footer tying the game with 3:35 left in the quarter. After that the game became, like, tense. Baltimore managed a three-point lead late in the third period. The 76ere were ahead by five early in the fourth quarter.

When in trouble, the Bullets instinctively turn to Monroe for help. And today was no different. In the frantic fourth quarter, the Bullets went to “the Pearl” almost exclusively. And in the eyes of Baltimore coach Gene Shue, Philly responded to this strategy by employing a [then illegal] zone defense to prevent Monroe from penetrating the middle. But no penalty was invoked by the officials. “It looked like the Penn State sliding zone,” volunteered Jack Marin. 

With 3:29 to go and the Bullets ahead, 88-87, Archie Clark drove on Johnson, used every move he had and then what he called an “ad lib.” Gus came down and Clark stayed up long enough to make the layup which put the 76ers ahead to stay. “That is what makes me proud of these guys,” said Ramsay. “Time and time and time again, we’ve gotten into situations where we needed a field goal, needed a big play at both ends of the court, and we’ve gotten it.” The final: 76ers 98, Bullets 94.

A despondent Gus Johnson sat by his locker and was having trouble putting on his socks. His pride hurt but his legs hurt even more. “If we had won,” he said, “I was seriously thinking about having an operation Monday. My knees are killing me. It’s just disgusting. I don’t feel like I’m helping the team. I tried to shut it out of my mind, but now it’s become a case of matter over mind.

“Cunningham knows damn well I can’t move, and he’s the man I gotta stop if we’re gonna win this thing. I’ve been overplaying him to his left and he’s still going left and shooting right around me. Let’s face it, if I can’t play him, we’re in trouble.

“But if I can crawl, I’ll be out there tomorrow. They’ll shoot some of that stuff in me and I’ll play until they (the knees) collapse.”

Their playoff series is down to the short hairs. This means that pushing and shoving, longtime NBA defensive tactics, are apt to be replaced by powerful, left-right combinations to the head and body. What has been a physically brutal series right along figures to get rougher. The Bullets are tight from having seen there 3-1 advantage in the best-of-seven series evaporate like the morning dew. Even in happy times, the Bullets have been known to attack the game of basketball with all the skill and grace of striking longshoremen. And now that their fuse has been snipped also clean, it might be wise for the 76ers to bring along a good cut man to work the clincher. 

“I think we’ll win tomorrow,” said Baltimore’s Kevin Loughery. “We’ve got the better team.”

The 76ers dashed out of the Spectrum late Saturday afternoon to catch the Metroliner [train] to Baltimore, where they’ll endure two more hours of the pressure, the madness that is playoff basketball. Two more hours of the nerve-jangling game that makes grown men act like damn fools. 

Next: Decisive Game 7

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