The Philadelphia 76ers were a franchise that was now established as a consistent contender. The Sixers were led by Julius (“Dr. J”) Erving, a spectacular small forward, and they reached the NBA Finals in 1977 and were in the mix each of the next two seasons. But Philadelphia never got over the hump—whether it was Bill Walton and the Portland Trail Blazers or the Washington Bullets, the Sixers didn’t reach the throne room. The 1980 Philadelphia 76ers got themselves close to doing that, but were dispatched with a dose of Magic.
Philly won 59 games and finished second in the Atlantic Division. This was Larry Bird’s rookie year in Boston and fans pointed toward an Eastern Conference Final between the two rivals. With Erving getting help from young point guard Maurice Cheeks, post man Darryl Dawkins, tough defender Bobby Jones and future head coach Doug Collins, the 76ers dispatched Washington in the best 2-of-3 mini-series the NBA used to play to pair the bracket for the conference semi-finals.
Division winners got a first-round bye, but the Sixers beat Atlanta in five games and then surprisingly did the same to the Celtics, winning Games 4 & 5 by double-digits and securing a trip to the Finals. Having put the rookie Bird’s hopes on hold, Philadelphia was now poised to do the same to the Los Angeles Lakers and their own first-year sensation, Magic Johnson.
The 1980 NBA Finals opened in Los Angeles, with CBS cameras on hand and Brent Musberger calling the play-by-play. Los Angeles’ legendary center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had not won a championship since he’d been Milwaukee seven years earlier and went by the name Lew Alcindor. Erving had never won a title since coming over from the ABA. Which star would get the ring first?
Los Angeles took Game 1 behind 33 points and 14 rebounds from Jabbar. While the big fella would be similarly spectacular in Game 2, the Sixers got answers from Dawkins, built up a 20-point lead and ultimately held on for a 107-104 win.
Philadelphia had homecourt advantage now, but couldn’t keep it, as Jabbar delivered his third straight game with 30-plus points and 10-plus rebounds. With their backs to the wall for Game 4, the Sixers again came up clutch. Dawkins scored 26, while Erving, consistently between 20-25 points for each game in the series, was solid and they finally kept Kareem under control.
The series headed back to L.A. tied at two games apiece (It was not until 1985 that the NBA would put the Finals on a 2-3-2 format that would exist through the 2013 Finals). Game 5 of the Sixers-Lakers series was a tight battle throughout and it seemed a turning point had gone in Philadelphia’s favor when Jabbar sprained his ankle and had to briefly leave the game.
In his absence, Magic stepped it up and Kareem would return and gut it up down the stretch to produce a 108-103 Lakers win. This series has its place in NBA lore for the way the Lakers came through in Game 6 without their Captain, but we shouldn’t overlook the missed opportunity Philadelphia had in the fourth quarter of Game 5 when Jabbar was out or hobbling, and the Lakers hadn’t yet had time to develop an alternate game plan.
For Game 6 back in Philadelphia, Jabbar was ruled out and didn’t even make the trip. Head coach Paul Westhead decided to have Magic play center. Another piece of lore makes the Lakers win here seem almost preordained, as Johnson scored 42 points in an epic performance, but the game was tied 60-60 at half. The Sixers lost the Finals immediately out of halftime, as they were blitzed with a 14-0 run and never could come back, even on their home court. The Philadelphia 76ers of Dr. J weren’t done being frustrated—they would come up short in the Finals in 1982, but that would only make the glorious run of 1983 all the sweeter.