To Sixers fans of a certain vintage, the celebration of the 1982-83 championship — so very long ago now — is made all the more compelling by the way it began. As seen at 1:36:50 of this video, Philadelphia point guard Maurice Cheeks snags the long rebound of a three-point attempt by the Lakers’ Magic Johnson in the closing seconds of Game 4 of the ‘83 Finals. Then he maneuvers through traffic, high-steps downcourt and dunks.
Mo Cheeks, high-stepping? Mo Cheeks, dunking? At the time that seemed about as likely as him donning a Ben Franklin wig, climbing atop Independence Hall and reading the Declaration aloud. Cheeks never cared to draw attention to himself, never cared if the spotlight found him. Yet here he was, spontaneously combusting.
Not without reason, either. That team had been climbing the ladder for years, only to see its fingers stomped, again and again and again. In 1980, Magic denied the Sixers with a performance for the ages, filling in for an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center and then filling up the boxscore in the Lakers’ title-clincher. In 1981, the Celtics rallied from a three-games-to-one deficit to beat the Sixers in the Eastern Finals. In 1982, the Sixers won an epic Game 7 in Boston after again blowing a 3-1 conference-finals lead, only to fall once more to LA in the Finals.
So when the Sixers finally — finally! — made it over the hump in ‘83, the joy was unfettered. The celebration reverberated then, and if you think about it, it reverberates still. Just imagine if they could win a title now. Imagine what that would be like, given the fact that they haven’t done so since ‘83, and that like their long-ago predecessors, they keep stubbing their toes in the postseason. The second round has proven to be the stumbling block, not later rounds, but they too have had high hopes, only to see them dashed by Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler or (ahem) Ben Simmons.
It is as Mark Twain supposedly said: History doesn’t repeat itself, though it often rhymes. The current Sixers would like nothing more than to rhyme with their history, to echo their past. (And then, presumably, do so again and again. But first things first.)
A reminder of that history comes Monday night, when the ‘82-83 team will be celebrated on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of its title run. It will take place during a game against the Bulls, for whom Cheeks serves as an assistant. Several members of that Sixers club will take a bow, as well they should, considering they breezed to 65 regular-season victories and won 12 of 13 playoff games, nearly fulfilling the fo’-fo’-fo’ prophecy ascribed to Moses Malone, the late Hall of Fame center. (There is some dispute as to whether he actually said that, but no matter; “Fo’, Five, Fo’ “ is engraved on their championship rings.)
“It was a long time coming,” Cheeks said when the Bulls visited in January. “We had a lot of struggles before that to get to that mountaintop.”
They acquired Malone from Houston on the eve of that season, and he proved to be the missing piece to the puzzle, the ingredient that spurred a team already featuring Julius Erving to new heights. And to hear Cheeks tell it, there wasn’t a now-or-never feel about the season; it was simply a matter of settling in and enjoying the ride.
“We were just having fun,” he said. “It was just such a team.”
Funny thing, though: Cheeks has always had mild regrets about his dunk at the end of the Finals. He believes Dr. J should have been the one to provide the exclamation point, since he was not only the ultimate teammate, but the ultimate showman and ambassador. It was widely viewed as his NBA title — and it would in fact be his only one, in addition to the two ABA crowns he won early in his career, with the Nets.
“It would have been better,” Cheeks said, “if Doc did one of those dunks, rather than me doing my dunk.”
Go back and look at the above video again: Erving is in fact running downcourt alongside Cheeks, to the point guard’s left. But Cheeks maintained in January what he has always maintained — that he never saw Erving.
“Even he said to me on the bus coming back (after the game), ‘Why didn’t you throw me the ball?’ ” Cheeks said. “I didn’t see him. ‘What are you talking about?’ Like I actually had no idea. Then subsequently after I’ve seen the video so many times, it was like yeah, he was right there. I should have thrown the ball to him.”
Others maintain the ending was just right, because of its purity and spontaneity. Who better to touch off a celebration by the quintessential team than the quintessential table-setter? Marc Iavaroni, a rookie forward that season, said in a recent phone interview it was as if Cheeks had “an out-of-body experience.” John Kilbourne, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, said Cheeks was “probably in another zone altogether.”
“It was natural,” said Earl Cureton, a backup big on the team. “It was a good way for it to end.”
NBC Sports Philadelphia studio analyst Jim Lynam, an assistant to the late Jack Ramsay in Portland in ‘82-83, knows Cheeks well, having served as his assistant when he was a head coach in Philadelphia and Portland. When told during a phone interview that Cheeks regrets not giving the ball up, he couldn’t help but chuckle.
“I never heard that,” he said. “I’m glad you told me. I’ll bust Cheeks’ ass when I see him.”
And you know he will.
“I love Doc,” Lynam added, “but I would say ‘Cheeks, you ready? Forget that. … Take it and dunk it yourself. Doc’s got enough of the accolades. Rattle their cage.’ Because it was so spontaneous.”
Iavaroni remembers that at a previous reunion of the championship team, Erving stood before his former teammates and outlined all the disappointments that came before, and how they solidified the bonds between the holdovers.
“That’s what that dunk symbolized to me: The monkey was off Maurice’s back, and everybody else’s,” Iavaroni said. “And he wanted everyone to know that.”
It can be like that again, because of history’s rhyming nature. It is left to Joel Embiid, James Harden and Co. to compose the verses, to play out the parallels. Do it right, and the celebration will be just as memorable, just as heart-felt.