Exactly three weeks from today, I will turn 29 years old. That means I was not even conceived yet when the 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers completed a sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers to win the 1983 NBA title.
I never saw a single second of that team take the court, never saw the madness of a playoff game at the Spectrum or the pandemonium that took place on Broad Street the night the Sixers hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy in Los Angeles in May 1983. And yet, I feel like I know damn near everything about that team.
Growing up, my father bestowed upon me the heroics of the 1983 championship team — this despite the fact he is nowhere near as big of a basketball-head as I am. Still, he never passed up a chance to talk about that team’s greatness, to the point where it felt almost as if I’d been there for the ride. Everything from Dr. J’s brilliance to Maurice Cheeks’ unsung hero status to Moses Malone’s “Fo, Fo, Fo” proclamation (which actually became a “Fo, Five, Fo” result). I can almost name the entire roster off the top of my head despite not even being around when it was assembled, with the names and legends rolling off the tongue without even a thought needed to recall them: the most revered Sixer ever, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks (get this man in the Hall of Fame THIS YEAR), Andrew Toney, Bobby Jones, Marc Iavaroni, Clint Richardson, head coach and Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham.
Most of these men I never even saw play a game of basketball in real time in my life, yet they all evoke strong emotions and memories nonetheless. That’s because before 2008 and the World Fucking Champion Philadelphia Phillies came along, those 1983 Sixers were the last team to parade down Broad Street, the last champions Philadelphia could truly claim. And they are as loved and revered today as they were 30 years ago.
So with the 30-year anniversary approaching, Sports Publishing and Skyhorse Publishing Inc. released an updated version of their 2007 book, “Tales From the Philadelphia 76ers Locker Room: A Collection of the Greatest Sixers Stories From the 1982-83 Championship Season.” The book was written by former 76ers GM Pat Williams, who helped assemble the championship team as general manager from 1974-1986, and freelance writer Gordon Jones, with the introduction written by the coach of the team, former Sixer and NBA Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham.
The publishers were kind enough to pass along a copy to The Sports Fan Journal and specifically myself, and I eagerly read through it with delight.
If you’re looking for a book along the lines of John Feinstein’s classic “A Season on the Brink,” in which the famed author spent a season with Bobby Knight and his Indiana Hoosiers, this isn’t the book for you. It’s not as hard-hitting or engrossing … but it is entertaining as hell.
The book is exactly what its title proclaims: tales from the locker room. Williams does a masterful job laying out the struggles of the 1983 team’s predecessors, getting oh-so-close yet never able to get over the hump. It chronicles how the team was formed, from the signing of Dr. J to drafting Mo Cheeks to landing the missing piece in Moses Malone.
It brings you insights on the unsung heroes, the bench guys, and the relationships that were forged. Williams lays out the reverence everyone had for Erving, the dominance and hidden personality of Moses, the intensity and anguish of Cunningham.
This book is the type of quick read that will leave with you anecdotes you’ll relay to your children. For example:
- Rookie Andrew Toney, never lacking in confidence, waving Erving out of his post-up position in practice to give him more room to go one-on-one. Erving cleared out, and afterward people were asking Toney if he realized who he’d just waived off. No one asked Doc to move; they fed him the ball. Toney responded, “Well, he moved, didn’t he?”
- The season before, the Sixers went up 3-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics, only to see the Celtics come back to tie the series at 3-3. Damn near everyone said the Sixers had no shot to win Game 7, not after the Celtics had tormented them for years. Well, the Sixers won, and Cunningham, fed up, agitated and cranky, essentially told the entire media afterward to go stick it. And while the Sixers lost to the Lakers in the NBA Finals behind Magic Johnson’s MVP performance, it was one more step toward the ultimate goal the following year.
- Then, of course, there is the 1983 All-Star Game. Four Sixers made the team: Dr. J, Moses Malone, Andrew Toney and Maurice Cheeks, and the book specifically mentions Dr. J going over and meeting Marvin Gaye before the game and before Gaye’s famous National Anthem.
Then there is the journey through the season and, ultimately, the triumph that ensued for a team that was expected to win and did.
Whether you’re from Philadelphia and experienced the ride or grew up learning about it as if you were there, or you’re just a fan of the NBA and one of the greatest collections of talents ever assembled, “Tales From the Locker Room” is the perfect read. You’ll fly through it as Williams and Jones take you from story to story, player to player, personality to personality — all the way from the heartbreaking endings in the 1970s, the growing pains, the transformations and then the championship season that was nearly a decade in the making — recalling some of the most intimate details and nuances during the championship expedition.
I already grew up feeling like I had experienced the 1982-83 championship ride that I wasn’t even around for, and after reading this book, I feel even more like I was there. Thirty years is a long time, but the scenes jump off the pages as if you were picking up the paper the day of the parade.