The 1983 Philadelphia 76ers were hungry for a championship. The Sixers had lost the NBA Finals in 1977, 1980 and 1982, and suffered an even more agonizing conference finals loss in 1981 that cost them an almost sure title. 1983 was the year they finally got over the top.
Philly made a huge off-season move to shore up their frontcourt. They traded veteran center Caldwell Jones, a nice player and serviceable rebounder to the Houston Rockets and got Moses Malone back in return. Malone was a two-time MVP at the center position and with a 25 points/15 rebounds per-game average in 1983, he added a third MVP trophy to his shelf with Philadelphia.
Malone was the best rebounder in the game and a top-five scorer and now he joined forces with Julius Erving. At the age of 32, “Dr. J” averaged 21 points/7 rebounds/4 assists per game and was 1st-team All-NBA. The backcourt was exceptionally balanced, with Maurice Cheeks being a top ball distributor and Andrew Toney having a deadly perimeter jumper.
The quartet of Moses, Dr.J, Cheeks and Toney all made the All-Star game and they all averaged 30-plus minutes per game. Bobby Jones came off the bench and was Sixth Man of the Year, along with being 1st-team All-Defense. Cheeks was another 1st-team All-NBA defender. Clemon Johnson providing some rebounding help off the bench.
Philadelphia had a 21-5 record by Christmas, although if you wanted to pick nits, you could point out that they had lost by 26 points on the road to the rival Boston Celtics, and needed two overtimes to beat the Celtics at home.
The 76ers were just starting a dominating 30-2 stretch with a home win over the Celtics included, where their record stretched to 50-7. If you wanted to pick nits though, you could look at the fact that the streak ended with another loss in Boston Garden. They closed the season with a record with a 65-17, easily the best in the NBA…but if you wanted to pick nits, they lost one more time on the road in Boston and finished 3-3 with their biggest conference rival.
I bring this up not because I really want to pick nits, but to simply point out that, contrary to the popular historical view today, there were reasons to have doubts about the Sixers going into the playoffs and to wonder if this would finally be the year.
The structure of the NBA at the time was two divisions per conference and the playoff format had six teams per conference. The division winners got byes and the four other teams played a best-of-three. Philly took a few days off and then played the New York Knicks, led by the explosive Bernard King and a quality center in Bill Cartwright.
Moses had everyone fired up with his promise of “Fo-Fo-Fo”, or Four-Four-Four. It was his prediction of three straight sweeps for a championship. And he nearly delivered.
Malone went for 38 points/17 rebounds in leading a 112-102 win over the Knicks in Game 1. He then delivered a 30/17 performance in Game 2. Philadelphia rallied from eighteen points down at halftime with a stellar defensive third quarter. Cheeks added 26 and Dr. J chipped in 20 more as the Sixers held serve at home.
The games at Madison Square Garden were tight but the 76ers found ways to win. Moses and Dr. J combined to score 48 points and get 25 rebounds, as Philly got the best of the interior play in a 107-105 nailbiter. They closed out the sweep with a 105-102 win, shooting 55 percent and getting a 29/14 night from Malone.
It was anticipated that a fourth straight meeting with the Boston Celtics would be at hand in the conference finals. But the Celtics fell apart in the playoffs, being swept by the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Bucks were a playoff perennial and consistent 50-win team, including having given the Sixers some great battles in recent years. They had Sidney Moncreif, a 23 ppg scorer and the Defensive Player of the Year, along with another top offensive player in Marques Johnson. They weren’t a pushover by any stretch.
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals was sloppy, each team turning it over 25 times. The Bucks held Malone to just 14 points and took the opener into overtime. The 76ers survived 111-109 thanks to some brilliant shooting by Cheeks and Toney. The guards were a combined 23-for-33 from the floor.
Moses returned to form with a 26/17 performance in Game 2 and the Sixers played stout defense, holding the Bucks to 41 percent shooting in an 87-81 win. The same combination of Moses and tough defense delivered the Game 3 road win that all but sealed the series. Malone posted a 25/14 line, Milwaukee only shot 43 percent and Erving’s 26 points helped Philadelphia turn a one-point deficit after three quarters into a 104-96 win.
The Fo-Fo-Fo prediction was right on target until the fourth quarter of Game 4. Philadelphia led by two, but in a game where they only shot 41 percent, Milwaukee pulled out a 100-94 win to extend the series. The clincher came in Game 5 back home. Toney drilled 30 points, Erving had 24 points/10 rebounds, while Moses just kept rolling, with a 25/14 and Philly gradually took control in a 115-103 win.
One more step remained and it was with the team that had ended the dream for Philadelphia in both 1980 and 1982. The Los Angeles Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were the hurdle. The Lakers also had Norm Nixon, an outstanding scorer and passer, to pair with Magic in the backcourt. Jamaal Wilkes was a big offensive threat at small forward. Even with James Worthy hurt, the small forward was still a rookie and the Lakers still had Bob McAdoo coming off the bench to spell Kareem.
Philadelphia trailed Game 1 by three at the half, but Malone was making sure they controlled the boards. He finished with a 27/18, while Erving added a 20/10 and Toney knocked down 25 points in a 113-107 win. The 76ers again trailed at the half in Game 2, down by four points when Malone’s 24/12 helped pave the way to a 103-93 win. The fact the 76ers got 32 free throw attempts while the Lakers only had five undoubtedly gave Philly some help as well.
The series went to the old Los Angeles Forum for the middle games, and the basic pattern held. Philadelphia again trailed by three at the half and again won the basketball game. This time the final was 111-94, as they took over the fourth quarter thanks to a 54-41 rebounding advantage, while Malone and Dr. J. combining for 31 boards on their own.
There was one more to go and one more time, the 76ers trailed the Lakers at halftime, this time by 14 points. The deficit was still 11 after three quarters. In the final period, Philadelphia outscored Los Angeles 33-15. Malone’s rebounding kept getting better, as he hauled in 23 boards to go with his 24 points. Erving and Cheeks each went for 20-plus.
The final of Game 4 was 115-108 and over the two games in Los Angeles, the 76ers outscored the Lakers in the fourth quarter by a combined 72-37. That’s domination when it counts. Malone was NBA Finals MVP, with a 26/18 per-game average. Moses also grabbed 206 rebounds total in the 13 playoff games.
“Fo-Fo-Fo”, or “Fo-Fi-Fo” as it became known, is the legacy of the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers and that’s appropriate.
It should also be noted how many difficult moments there were along the paths to the title—the second-half deficits in every game of the Finals and the number of close games. Not to take anything away from them, but to acknowledge just how good they were down the stretch and to respect how much stress the fans likely endured on the way to a championship that was a long time coming.