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Monday, February 26, 2024

Erving-Bird Photo from 2024 All-Star Weekend Sparks Memories of a Great Rivalry

After 2024 All-Star Weekend, Julius Erving posted this picture on his Instagram page:

For those of us who grew up watching the NBA in the 1980s, this picture of Erving standing next to Larry Bird sparks memories of that decade's first great rivalry: Erving's Philadelphia 76ers and Bird's Boston Celtics faced each other six times in each regular season from 1980-87 and they also squared off four times in the Eastern Conference Finals. The final head to head tally was 2-2 in playoff series, 12-12 in playoff games, and 23-21 in Bird's favor in regular season games (their teams split the four games during that era when Bird and/or Erving did not play). Keep in mind that Bird did not face Magic Johnson in a playoff series until the 1984 NBA Finals--by which time Bird had already played Erving in the Eastern Conference Finals three times (1980-82)--and that Bird and Johnson only played each other twice each regular season.

My favorite Erving-Bird photo depicts Erving skying over Bird in game seven of the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals. The 76ers won 120-106 as 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.

In a 1983 "Sports Champions" video, Erving provided a voiceover narration of him driving against Bird that captures the essence of their rivalry while poetically describing the beauty of competition:

When I get the ball in my hands and when you turn and you face him, when you take the initiative to aggressively face him, then he has to react. He may not react physically but his heart jumps if you turn and you really look at him like you mean business. His heart might even stop for a second, especially if you are good. This is when you start playing the game as you were when you were a kid, because this is when you are playing basketball and you are not working. To me this has always been a beautiful experience because I can look in a guy's eye and I can also tell if he means business and I can also feel whether my heart stops or stands still or not. If I'm looking at him and he's looking at me and we have got the same thing in mind--playing basketball and playing it the way that nobody else in the world plays it--then I think we create something beautiful.

There is something very special not only about the incomparable way that Erving played basketball but also about the way that he feels about the game. Erving and Bird brought the best out of each other, and that is the essence of competition at the highest level.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:31 PM



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