Recollections of what once likely was sport’s greatest rivalry seem dim now, black-and-white images engulfed by a haze nearly as thick as Red Auerbach’s cigar smoke.
Long ago, those scenes from 76ers-Celtics playoff dramas were near the heart of Philly sports: A delirious Convention Hall crowd chanting “Boston is dead!” Boston Garden fans encouraging the 76ers to “Beat L.A.!” Auerbach’s arrogant cigar ritual. Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell. Larry Bird and Julius Erving with their large hands around each other’s neck. “Havlicek stole the ball!”
While time and an ever-changing NBA order have diminished them, those memories will briefly regain some significance on Monday when the 76ers and Celtics face each other in the 2017-18 NBA postseason, their 13th playoff meeting and their first since the 2011-12 season.
For all the Celtics’ advantage in championships (17 to the Sixers’ 2), Boston’s edge in the 12 postseason matchups is only 8-4. Many of those series, especially when Chamberlain and Russell or Bird and Dr. J went head-to-head, were among the most memorable in league history. Here’s a brief look at four of the best:
1964-65 Eastern Division finals: Celtics win series 4-3
Chamberlain, who as a Philadelphia Warrior lost twice to Russell’s Celtics in this penultimate round, had returned to his hometown in January 1965 thanks, ironically, to a lopsided 76ers’ trade with the San Francisco Warriors.
The home team won each of the series’ first six games, but late in Game 7 at Boston Garden there was hope Philadelphia might at last overcome Auerbach’s Celtics in the playoffs. Boston led by a point, 110-109, with five seconds left when Russell’s inbounds pass struck a wire supporting one of the arena’s baskets. Hal Greer’s subsequent attempt at inbounding was tipped by John Havlicek into the hands of Celtics’ teammate Sam Jones. Philadelphia has had to live forever with what followed: the raspy and obnoxious call of the Celtics hyper-homer announcer, Johnny Most: “Havlicek stole the ball! Havlicek stole the ball!” Boston would beat L.A. for a seventh straight NBA championship.
1966-67 Eastern Division finals: Sixers win series 4-1
The 76ers finally got over the hump, dismantling the Celtics, who were coached for a first year by Russell. Chamberlain was other-wordly. In Philly’s Game 1 rout, he recorded an unofficial quadruple double – 24 points, 32 rebounds, 13 assists and double digits in blocks, which weren’t yet officially recorded. Then in Game 3, he collected 41 rebounds, still a playoff record.
Game 5 at Convention Hall was as delicious a sporting event as Philadelphia had ever witnessed. Before 13,007 bloodthirsty fans, the Sixers clinched the series with a 140-116 rout. The giddy crowd roared “Boston is dead!” throughout the fourth quarter and dozens of fans lit cigars in mock tribute to Auerbach’s despised routine. Philadelphia would defeat San Francisco in a six-game finals.
1967-68 Eastern Division finals: Celtics win series 4-3
The defending-champion 76ers had followed a record-setting 68-13 regular season with a 62-20 record, finishing eight games ahead of Boston. Though Chamberlain’s scoring dipped to 24 points a game, he led the league in assists, the only center ever to do so. But any thoughts of a Philadelphia dynasty were quickly squelched with another playoff heartbreak and the subsequent departure of Chamberlain, this time for good.
The Celtics won the opener in Philadelphia, but the 76ers took the next three games. Boston answered, winning the next three games, including two in Philadelphia, to become the first NBA team to recover from a 3-1 deficit. The Celtics’ Game 7 clincher at the Spectrum remains one of the most puzzling performances of Chamberlain’s often-enigmatic career. The greatest offensive force in league history did not attempt a single shot in the second half of what ended up a four-point Boston win. The Celtics would beat L.A. in the finals, making Russell the first African-American coach to win a title in a major professional sport.
1981-82 Eastern Conference finals: Sixers win 4-3
In the conference finals a season earlier, the Celtics again had overcome a 3-1 series lead to beat Philadelphia. In 1982, when Boston won Game 6 at the Spectrum, it looked like the unthinkable was going to happen yet again. But on a Sunday afternoon in Boston Garden, Andrew Toney, the “Boston Strangler,” scored 37 points and Julius Erving added 29 in a 120-106 Philadelphia triumph, just the second Game 7 the Celtics had ever lost at home. At the surprisingly one-sided contest’s end, Boston fans chanted, “Beat L.A.”, an indication that the Sixers had been supplanted as the Celtics’ foremost rivals.
Still, revenge was sweet. After one of the Sixers’ wins in the series, a Philadelphia fan lit a large cigar and savored it in front of Most. “[The Boston broadcaster] leaped up, cussing him,” then-Inquirer beat writer Bill Livingstone recalled. “But he still had his headphones on. He gave a yelp of pain and flopped back down in his seat.” Despite the Boston fans’ encouragement, the 76ers fell to the Lakers in the NBA Finals.