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Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Best of Rivals: Julius Erving Versus Larry Bird

A 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:47 AM

8 comments

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8 Comments:

At Monday, March 30, 2009 11:19:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

dr j was great bird was better more nba titles more all nba more all stars totally better player no contest

 
At Tuesday, March 31, 2009 1:14:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

Your comment ignores some important information. Julius Erving spent nearly a third of his career--five seasons--in the ABA. As I mentioned in my article about ABA stats, if you disregard the first five years of any player's career then you take away a lot of his best performances and many of his achievements/honors.

Julius Erving made the All-ABA or All-NBA First Team nine times, earned two Second Team nods and won four regular season and two Playoff MVPs. Erving made the All-Star team all 16 years of his career. He led his teams to three championships in six Finals appearances; he has the eighth highest career scoring average in NBA Finals history and was even more prolific in the ABA Finals. He scored at least 20 points in 31 of his 33 ABA and NBA Finals games. Erving made the playoffs all 16 years of his career, which was a North American pro sports record until John Stockton and Karl Malone surpassed that total.

Bird made the All-NBA First Team nine times and the Second Team once. He won three regular season and two Playoff MVPs. Bird made the All-Star team 12 times. Bird led the Celtics to three championships in five Finals appearances. Bird scored less and shot worse in the Finals than he did during the regular season.

So, when one considers the totality of their accomplishments, Erving and Bird match up much more closely than many people probably think. As for their head to head battles, despite the fact that youth was on Bird's side, Erving and the 76ers played Bird and the Celtics nearly to a dead heat, as noted in this post. If you leave out the 1985 ECF, when Erving was clearly past his prime and the Celtics were much better than the Sixers, the Sixers won two of their three ECF battles.

 
At Monday, May 28, 2012 2:01:00 AM, Anonymous Gary T. said...

Bird may have exceeded Doc in titles,mvp's and all nba selections.
As far as grace,class and originality,both on and off the court,it's not even close!

 
At Monday, May 28, 2012 4:37:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Gary:

I agree with the second part of your comment.

As for the first part, if ABA statistics and records are counted--and they certainly should be--then Erving beats Bird in regular season MVPs four to three and they are tied in terms of All-League First Team selections (nine each) and championships (three each).

 
At Tuesday, March 05, 2013 2:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the early 80s 76er vs celtic rivery was the rivery in sports ever. when the word rivery meant something. and tell me if this means any thing. when the celtics had the ball, a great deal of the time it was dr j (past his prime, that was guarding bird. when the 76ers had the ball, there was no way bird was put on him. usually as i re-call it was mchale

 
At Saturday, March 16, 2013 1:54:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...very good points, David.

 
At Tuesday, June 11, 2013 10:14:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Erving was first team all nba in bird first 4 years in league.philly made 3 finals to boston 1.erving won mvp before bird.bird was only better from 84-87 ervings final years.larry played with parrish,mchale,archibald,d johnson all hall of famers.moses only hall of famer doc played with.bird was great,doc was better.

 
At Sunday, February 16, 2014 5:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Funny how people talk about bird vs doc but fail to say an important fact bird had three hall of famers alongside him doc never had tht and when placed alongside another hall of famer the Sixers dominated the celtics and the rest of the league

 

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