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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Erving-Bird Photo Brings Back Memories

Renowned photographer Tony Tomsic captured a great shot of Julius Erving skying over Larry Bird during game seven of the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals at the Boston Garden. I cannot post the picture because I don't own the rights to it but you can check it out here. This image has been reproduced many times, including on the cover of the 1983 book Basketball Super Shooters and inside the book Bird on Basketball; in the latter it appears on page 62 accompanied by the caption "I jump straight up and flick at the bottom of the ball to cancel Dr. J's (Julius Erving's) house call."

Tomsic's photo dramatically portrays Erving's unique combination of athleticism, grace and power; Erving's hand is well above the "box," his arm is fully extended over his head and he obviously is completing his move with great force; Erving was a finesse player but he dunked with power, particularly when bigger players were in his path (Bird was listed at 6-9, 220, while Erving was listed at 6-7, 205)--and that is why I see an aesthetic similarity between Erving and LeBron James: the only player in today's game who soars to the hoop with that blend of hops, power and arm extension is James.

It is worth noting that Bird--who is almost universally depicted as a ground bound, unathletic player--jumped high enough that his elbow was almost parallel with the rim. Bird may have lacked the broad jumping ability of Erving, Michael Jordan and a select few other high flyers but he certainly could get up, particularly in his first several NBA seasons before his back problems began (it is possible that Bird could broad jump, too, but there is no way to know for sure because I cannot ever recall seeing him try to take off and glide; he always jumped straight up on his dunks and his blocked shot attempts). I have often told people that they could win some bar bets by asking who averaged more blocked shots per game, Bird or two-time Slam Dunk Contest champion Dominique Wilkins; Bird blocked 755 shots in 897 games (.8 bpg, including a career-high 98 blocks in 1984-85), while the "Human Highlight Film" blocked 642 shots in 1074 games (.6 bpg, including a career-high 87 blocked shots in 1983-84).

In his book, Bird implies that he blocked Erving's shot but that is not true. What actually happened is that Clint Richardson stole an errant pass by Bird and fed Erving on the left wing. Erving exploded to the hoop, leaped into the air and was about to "posterize" both Bird and Kevin McHale but Bird fouled Erving on the elbow and the ball clanged off of the rim at the 3:03 mark of the fourth quarter. Erving hit both free throws to put the Philadelphia 76ers up 104-89 and the Sixers went on to win the game 120-106, knocking off the reigning NBA champion Boston Celtics. It would take 13 more years--and 20 more game sevens--before another NBA team would win a game seven on the road; that accomplishment is so meaningful and significant that even though the Sixers ultimately lost in the 1982 NBA Finals before acquiring Moses Malone and cruising to the 1983 title, Coach Billy Cunningham said of the victory over Boston, "It might sound strange, but it might have been as satisfying in a way as winning the championship, after what we experienced the previous year (losing the Eastern Conference Finals to Boston in seven games after having a 3-1 lead). Losing that game would have been truly devastating to the franchise as well as the city."

Erving finished with 29 points, five assists, four rebounds, three blocked shots and three steals, shooting 10-21 from the field and 9-9 from the free throw line. Erving's teammate Andrew Toney led all scorers with 34 points on 14-23 field goal shooting, while Robert Parish topped the Celtics with 23 points and 14 rebounds but shot just 8-21 from the field; Bird had 20 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists, two blocked shots and two steals but he shot just 7-18 from the field and 6-8 from the free throw line.

The Magic Johnson-Larry Bird rivalry is well regarded--as it should be--but in the early 1980s nothing topped Erving versus Bird: they battled six times per year in the regular season and then met in three straight Eastern Conference Finals, with the Sixers winning in 1980 and 1982; Magic and Bird only faced each other twice per year in the regular season and did not square off in the NBA Finals until 1984.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:50 PM



At Thursday, March 18, 2010 9:18:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

i saw that pic on a website the other day. bird is up there on that jump. definitely a great rivalry but i wish doc was younger. it would of made it even better. i never hear doctor js name mentioned when the top 10 or 15 of all time are mentioned but being in 3 nba finals in four years and the one in 77 and winning an aba in 76 its amazing how his basketball play is forgotten. people always mention his afro, big hands and unbelievable jams but he easily could have plenty of championships. i lived for these doc and bird rivalries.

At Thursday, March 18, 2010 5:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Dr. J also won an ABA title in 1974; he led his teams to six Finals and three titles between 1974 and 1983, winning four regular season MVPs and two Finals MVPs during that time. When the AP selected its team of the 20th Century in 1999 Dr. J made the cut as a top ten player but I agree with you that he should be mentioned more often as a top 10-15 player and not just as a spectacular dunker.

At Friday, March 19, 2010 8:27:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

I should of mentioned the 74 title. dr j was a figment of our imagination. i still wonder what vecsey was talking about when he said doc was a lot of hype in kalbs book when comparing erving and bird. that makes no sense considering how close vecsey is to erving.

At Friday, March 19, 2010 2:54:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that the Vecsey quote you cited makes no sense.

At Monday, March 22, 2010 2:26:00 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

Awesome photo!

When you say "It would take 13 more years--and 20 more game sevens--before another NBA team would win a game seven on the road", I guess you're referring to Detroit over Miami in 2005. As you may recall, Shaq and Wade both played with injuries (Shaq to his thigh, Wade to his ribs) in that game. As a Detroit fan, I was pleased to take the W, though. I didn't realize before reading your post that Game 7 road victories are so incredibly rare.

At Monday, March 22, 2010 5:22:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Bhel Atlantic:

Actually, I was referring to Houston's win at Phoenix in the 1995 Western Conference semifinals. Interestingly, Indiana won at New York in game seven on the very next day, so after more than a decade between game seven road wins in the NBA there were two such wins in a 24 hour period!

After that long drought in the 1980s and early 1990s, game seven road wins have happened a little bit more frequently--but they are still uncommon: road teams have won eight game sevens in 33 tries since Indiana's win over New York in 1995. Last season, Orlando won game seven in Boston but the Lakers (versus Rockets), Hawks (versus Heat) and Celtics (versus Bulls) each won game sevens at home.

At Monday, March 22, 2010 6:32:00 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

Oh, ha ha, I had a momentary mathematical brain freeze, thinking that 1982 + 13 = 2005! I'm actually good at math, I swear. :)


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