The Best of Rivals: Julius Erving Versus Larry BirdA slightly different version of this article was originally published in the June 2004 issue of Basketball Digest.
In the early 1980s the biggest NBA rivalry was Julius Erving-Larry Bird. Magic Johnson versus Bird was a great college showdown for the 1979 NCAA title but after they entered the NBA Johnson and Bird only faced each other twice a year until Bird's Celtics defeated Johnson's Lakers in the 1984 NBA Finals.
Erving's Philadelphia 76ers played Bird's Celtics six times in each regular season and faced off in four Eastern Conference Finals between 1980 and 1985. Erving and Bird frequently guarded each other, while Magic and Bird played different positions and only guarded each other on defensive switches.
The Erving-Bird rivalry captured the public's imagination. In 1983, Electronic Arts produced Julius Erving-Larry Bird One-on-One, the forerunner of NBA Live and all the other sports video games; it would have been unimaginable to choose any other matchup at that time. Erving and Bird actively participated in the creation of the game and as a result the final product incorporated real life aspects of each player’s style.
Larry Bird had an instant impact in 1979-80, winning Rookie of the Year and lifting the Celtics from 29 wins to 61. Erving was already firmly established as an all-time great; the next year he and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were the only active players selected to the NBA’s 11 man 35th Anniversary All-Time Team. The Sixers finished two games behind Boston in the regular season, but defeated the Celtics 4-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Early in the 1980-81 season, Erving posted his NBA career high of 45 points in a 117-113 overtime win versus Boston in Philadelphia; Bird had 36 points and 21 rebounds in defeat. At the end of that season the teams met again and the Celtics secured the number one seed in the conference with a 98-94 win in Boston. Erving won the 1981 NBA MVP over Bird in the closest balloting ever, becoming the first non-center to capture the honor since Oscar Robertson (1964).
Philadelphia stormed to a 3-1 advantage when the teams faced off in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics countered by taking game five in Boston 111-109 and game six in Philadelphia 100-98, Bird’s first win in Philadelphia in 11 regular season and playoff games. Boston completed the improbable comeback when Bird's jump shot in the final minute provided the margin of victory in a 91-90 game seven thriller.
In 1981-82, Erving and Bird clashed in the Eastern Conference Finals for the third straight year. Philadelphia took a 3-1 lead but again stumbled twice, resulting in another pressure packed game seven in Boston. This time the Sixers rolled to a 120-106 win, led by Andrew Toney's 34 points and Erving's 29. It would be more than a decade before another NBA team won a game seven on the road.
Erving and Bird played hard but generally clean against each other. One famous exception occurred in November 1984. Bird was uncharacteristically dominating Erving. Some reports said that he taunted his rival by saying "42-6, Doc" (the respective scoring totals of the players to that point), a charge that Bird denied.
They also were roughing each other up at both ends of the court. It culminated in an exchange of blows that led to the ejections of both players, the only such episode in Erving's 16 year professional career. Each player was fined $7500, one of the largest fines in NBA history at the time. The players expressed no lingering animosity publicly and never engaged in subsequent extracurricular activity against each other.
Boston suffered early playoff elimination in 1983 and the Sixers endured the same fate in 1984, but Erving and Bird renewed their postseason rivalry for the last time in the 1985 Eastern Conference Finals. The teams split 3-3 in the regular season, but Boston took the playoff series 4-1. Bird was now in the prime of his career, while the 35 year old Erving would retire after two more seasons.
Erving and Bird battled to a virtual standstill for eight seasons: 2-2 in four playoff series, 12-12 in playoff games, 23-21 in Bird’s favor in regular season games (Boston and Philadelphia split the four games they played during that era when Bird and/or Erving did not play). Both had an uncanny propensity to produce in the clutch, as Pete Axthelm noted in a 1986 column: "Bird...probably makes as many crucial shots as any recent star except Julius Erving." It is easy to point out the stylistic differences between them, but they were similar in the area that matters most: the ability to bring out the best in one's teammates and elevate a team to a championship level.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:47 AM