[In the summer of 1976, having finally landed his ABA New York Nets in the NBA, owner Roy Boe once more examined his bank statement—and panicked. Fearing bankruptcy, Boe shipped his beloved, but expensive, star Julius Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers for cash. Pat Williams, then the 76ers’ GM, said he actually had to talk the team’s reluctant new owner, Fitz Dixon, into this landmark acquisition by referring to Erving as “the Babe Ruth of basketball.” Dixon didn’t know much about his latest investment.
With Babe Ruth now wowing Broad Street, the 76ers finished the 1976-77 season with a 50-32 record, best in the Atlantic Division. “The 76ers may be traveling the yellow brick road this season,” Dick Weiss of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote in April 1977, “but they have yet to discover the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” That pot of gold was the shiny NBA championship trophy that waited at the end of the 1976 playoffs.
With Erving teaming with George McGinnis, Doug Collins and a mostly solid roster, the Sixers were even money to hoist that NBA championship trophy come June. But Philadelphia lost in the finals to the Portland Trail Blazers, ironically headed by former Sixers coach and GM Jack Ramsay.
But Phil Jasner, a Daily News sportswriter, remained optimistic about the future of the new 76ers. He also started comparing the new Sixers to the franchise’s most-celebrated older version: the 1966-67 Sixers. Unlike Erving and the new guys, the old guys rolled through the league to hoist the 1967 NBA championship trophy. Hoisting the trophy that year were the amazing Wilt Chamberlain, Chet Walker, Billy Cunningham, Luke Jackson, Hal Greer, and Wally Jones. Many old timers still viewed this team built for power as greatest in NBA history.
Jasner now wondered which team was better: the powerful ’67 version or the jazzier ’77 model? In his article, published in the December 1977 issue of Basketball Digest, Jasner offers a hypothetical answer, drawing on the members of the ’67 team. Interesting reading.]
It was the season Wilt Chamberlain averaged 24.1 points, 24.2 rebounds, 7.9 assists, and shot 68.3 percent from the floor.
It was the season the Philadelphia 76ers played 30 games at home and won 28.
It was the season they finished 27-9 on the road, 13-2 on neutral courts.
In the two previous seasons, they had drafted hulking Luke Jackson from Pan American and precocious Billy Cunningham from North Carolina. Now they added Matty Goukas from St. Joseph’s, Billy Melchionni from Villanova.
It was 1966-67, the last time the 76ers won the NBA championship.
“I remember it was an awfully powerful team,” Dave Gambee recalled for Oregon, where he is a lumber broker. Gambee played 63 games that championship season, a veteran fourth forward, adding stability and experience.
“It was a team that could play poorly and, as often as not, still win. By a lot. Win on strength and quickness, attributes that remind me of the Portland team last season. Strong up front, speed in the backcourt, it’s why the Trail Blazers have done as well as they have. They don’t have the firepower we had in the backcourt, with Hal Greer, Wally Jones, Larry Costello, Melchionni, and Goukas, but they have the swiftness, and they have the big guy. We had Wilt; they have Bill Walton.
Gambee has season tickets to the Trail Blazers’ games, and he sees some things that bridge the years. “For one year, we were the best team I ever saw,” he said. “But we used to go up to Boston . . . you’d play teams more often in those days . . . and the Celtics would be peaking, year after year. He got sick and tired of losing to them.
“Winning the title gave us a lot of satisfaction. Lord, you could get tired of seeing the Celtics, seeing the fans throwing eggs out of the bleachers. It’s like what’s going on now in Portland. The Blazers lose a game, I worry about the referees, their safety. The fever pitch runs so high, it’s like a mania. The whole town talks about this team.
“I saw the first game of the finals last year on TV . . . Doctor J, he’s Elgin Baylor all over again. Each time he got the ball, he impressed me that much more. He can score with such apparent ease. But a guy gets open, he gets him the ball instead. He breaks the team’s back that way, changes his concentrations, something you usually see in guards, not forwards. The Doc, he’s a machine.
“The team we had was more balanced than this Philadelphia one . . . Wilt would be the difference, because having him about guaranteed control of the boards. We had Wilt and Luke, Portland has Walton and Maurice Lucas, but give Darryl Dawkins a few years and then watch out. He looks like he can take charge. They did a smart thing, taking him out of high school. The raw materials he offers, you couldn’t ask for more. Where would he have been today? In college, getting ready for the pros. He just took a shortcut to the same end.”
Billy Cunningham was the ‘67 club’s sixth man, a second-year forward with remarkable spring, seemingly endless potential. A tragic knee injury forced him off last year’s Philadelphia team onto the CBS team.
“Winning a title, the greatest experience of my career,” Cunningham said. “Memories . . . losing our first playoff game to Cincinnati, with Connie Dierking shooting out of this world against us, killing us. Then opening against Boston in the Palestra for some reason, and killing them. That series, Wilt was unbelievable, playing like a man possessed.
“Had to play the Warriors for the title, blew a lead and a chance to win it all at home, something like the way the Sixers lost that lead against Houston. Went out there, though, and one memory is driving back to the hotel with Wally Jones and discussing religion. Religion? I think what happened was, we had such a feeling of relief, of satisfaction, of knowing that it was finally over, that we talked about just about anything.
“I think we could beat this team in a series. It’d be difficult to stop Julius (Erving), George (McGinnis), Doug (Collins), and everyone else, but they’d have to stop us, too. And we had Wilt behind us, plus Greer, and nobody ever really appreciated how good a player Hal was . . . as far as I’m concerned, the most underrated player I’ve ever seen. On fastbreaks, the rule of thumb was, if somebody didn’t have a 100 percent open layup, then Hal was to pull up and shoot the 18-20-foot jumper. He was that pure a shooter, has such perfect form.”
Greer suffered through the 9-73 season here, coached in the Eastern League, now works on the PRISM telecasts of Sixers games. In ’67, he was the second-leading scorer, a 45.9 percent shooter, second in assists.
“The best year I ever had as a pro,” Greer said. “I remember the feeling of knowing we’d win, then wondering by how much. We finally won it, I stayed up all night with Alex (coach Alex Hannum), Chet Walker, and some others at Nate Thurmond’s place.
“We always knew exactly what our jobs were, that any starter could do it any night, that, with Wilt in the middle, we could have an off-night and win anyway.
“Alex was the best coach I ever had. He related to us, played cards with us, knew exactly what each of us could do. As long as we did it, things were great. Maybe you can’t take that approach today, maybe even Alex couldn’t, but it worked then. He did it for us. One time, he took us to Las Vegas for a few days, and I think we had too much fun because we lost a few in a row right after that. That was unheard of. Didn’t happen again, either.
“The team now isn’t into fundamentals as much as we were, but they have such great natural talents. I picked last year’s team to win it all at the beginning. If there’s a comparison, we only had one guy who could go one-on-one like those guys, and that was Chet. The rest of us, we had to help each other. Throw it into Wilt, set picks, keep cutting . . . that’s why Henry Bibby is an important addition. He’s a throwback, a Wally Jones up today. Doesn’t force, doesn’t do things he shouldn’t, just does his job. I’d like to have had Bibby and Doug Collins on our team in ‘67. They’d have been perfect.
“Lots of times, I’d get Luke, Wally, whoever . . . go to the Philadelphia AC and work on our own. This team, how can you practice the things they do? Exciting? Absolutely. This is the way they win now, different from the way we did, but it’s a different time, maybe the methods should be different.”
Wally Jones is Wali now, stopped by a leg injury and a contract hassle, but working for the team as a scout. “We felt we were invincible,” Wali said. “Alex had us so together, it wasn’t hard to sacrifice for one another on the court. I told George McGinnis I wish I was part of this team, and I think if I hadn’t gotten hurt, I might’ve been. I was involved with some of the young guys—Joe Bryant, Darryl, Lloyd Free, Mike Dunleavy—in the Baker League, and I see places I could help.
“I think the reason I feel the way I do is, I was there once, with the champion. I could’ve been again. Just thinking about that is an excitement. The game today is more acrobatic, stuff I love.
“Wilt could dictate that he was going for assists, and he’d do it. You’d throw it in, keep cutting and the most-open guy would get it. Alex let him do his thing, let me do mine. I call it basketballology, because the way we went about winning looked like a science.
The force next to Wilt was Jackson, a 6-foot-9 policeman. “The team we had was power, the team they have now is finesse,” Luke said from Beaumont, Tex., where he is sports coordinator for the parks department. “I have such good, fond memories . . . of the best team ever put together for a single season. Don’t ask me about what went on later, though. Wilt left, Chet left, Wally left, I got hurt. Why? Who knows? For one year, we were the best, later on it all got torn apart.
“But match us up against the team now, and we’d win, no doubt about it. They’d have nobody to compete against Wilt. Chet or Billy would chase Doc, and Doc would have to come to the hoop, where Wilt would be waiting. Doc’s better inside than outside, and he’d hurt us outside, but not as much as he hurts teams inside.”
They needed reminders en route to the top. Which is what Matty Goukas remembers. Goukas does analysis on Channel 48 telecasts, after surviving 10 seasons in the league. “Alex would remind us that we couldn’t just show up and think we’d win, that we still had to work, still make the effort,” Goukas said. “With Wilt and Luke, we had awesome rebounding, making us so much stronger than every other team. I was a rookie, but I quickly saw that the veterans expected to win every time out.
“After a while, we took it for granted that we would, because we knew how strong we were. Another thing was, we only had nine players most of the year . . . Larry Costello got hurt and Bobby Weiss was there for just a short time (six games), so Alex subbed by the clock. You didn’t have to worry that you’d play, and you even knew when.
“But comparing our team to the present team is comparing apples to oranges. We were obviously strong in the middle, but Luke wasn’t as quick as George McGinnis, and neither was his role the same. Luke’s role was to deal out punishment around the boards. Defensively, we tried to turn guys toward the baseline, knowing Wilt and Luke were waiting to help out.
“Clear a side for Julius against that team, and he’d still score, but Wilt would contest a lot of it. The force Wilt was in a game, maybe no one will ever be again.”
Chamberlain is involved in professional volleyball now, living in a majestic house at the top of a scenic hill in Los Angeles. Walker is trying to begin an acting career. Costello is waiting for the next opportunity to jump back into coaching. He was cut loose by Milwaukee last season, replaced by Don Nelson.
Billy Melchionni, now the assistant to New Jersey Nets’ president Roy Boe, was the title team’s other rookie, a sweet-shooting guard from Villanova. “To come out of college, directly into that situation, that atmosphere, it spoiled me for the rest of my career,” Melchionni said. “Guys play their whole careers, never win a title. There I was, my first year, on a team like that.
“The best team ever assembled. Wilt at his peak. Hal in his prime. Chet in his prime. Billy on the road to becoming one of the best ever. That was some lineup, some group of people playing together.
“We had the same feeling in the ABA the year I played with the Nets and we won. We had Doc, lost two games in the playoffs. Took Virginia 4-1, Kentucky 4-0, Utah 4-1. Felt the same way I felt in ’67, that there wasn’t a team out there that could beat us in a seven-game series.
“With the Nets, we had Doc, Brian Taylor, John Williamson, Billy Paultz, Larry Kenon . . . a pretty good lineup. Now we have none of them. Three years . . . not a long time ago, but they’re all gone.
“I go back to the old Sixers, they were better because of Wilt. As good as Walton is, he doesn’t dominate like that. Doc, he’s the best I ever saw . . . the only one who ever stops him is him, but we had overall firepower.
“Get in a long series with days off, nobody can match Doc. If he has his legs, it’s over. Bob Gross is playing him, and Gross is a good player, a Steve Mix type, a tooth-and-nail sort. But he can’t stop Doc.”
Melchionni was helpless when Boe sold Erving, and the pain has never completely subsided. “I watched the games now, I get sick,” Melchionni said. “Doc’s there, but he belongs here. I listened to such crap last year: that the stuff he did, he did in the other league; that he wouldn’t fit in with Philly. I said he was the best in our league; he will be the best in this league I told people, wait’ll it gets important. Then see who is the best player in the world.”
Ten years ago, it was the Philadelphia 76ers who were the defending NBA champions.