Seems Like Old Times: This Sixers-Celtics matchup brings back favorite memories

Posted: May 13, 2012

It’s funny because of all the talk of how much Philadelphia hates all Boston teams, the rivalry between the Sixers and the Celtics is the only one that is actually a rivalry.

Familiarity breeds contempt, and the NBA rivalry between these two Northeast cities is the only one that has enough encounters to inspire true hatred.

Despite their shared regionalization, Boston and Philadelphia only share the NBA’s Atlantic Division.

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The other teams are either in other divisions, conferences of leagues.

Except for in basketball, regular season meetings are limited and playoff encounters have been rare.

In the NFL and Major League Baseball, Philly and Boston could only meet for the championship.

Philadelphians do hate the Patriots but that’s mainly because they beat the Eagles in XXXVIII.

Philly’s hatred of Boston’s NFL franchise has more to do with the pent up frustration of our franchise having no Super Bowls while the Patriots have three.

In Major League Baseball, the Phillies of the National League and Red Sox of the American League have never played in the World Series.

Until MLB instituted Interleague Play in 1997, the Red Sox hadn’t played a regular-season game in Philadelphia since the American League Athletics left for Kansas City after 1954.

The dislike of the Red Sox is more about their fans traveling to Philadelphia for games and being insufferable than anything that has actually happened on the field.

Yes, the Flyers beat the Bruins for their first Stanley Cup in 1974 and since both are in the Eastern Conference they always play in the regular season and sometimes meet in the playoffs.

But that rivalry isn’t a historical one.

Hell, the Flyers owe their existence to the fact that in 1964 Ed Snider, then the vice-president of the Eagles, couldn’t believe that while attending a basketball game at the old Boston Garden he saw a crowd of fans lining up to buy tickets to see the last-place Bruins.

That’s when he correctly deduced that the NHL had a place in Philadelphia.

Flyers fans work up more lather to play the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins than the Bruins.

Boston would sacrifice every game the Bruins play against the Flyers if it guaranteed a reciprocal win over Montreal.

But the NBA rivalry between the Sixers and Celtics is real or at least it was real.

It was fueled by decades of the two franchises first slugging it out annually as division rivals and then often having to get things on again in the playoffs.

For the longest time, one was the biggest obstacle to a title for the other.

It began in 1964 when the Syracuse Nationals relocated and returned the NBA to Philadelphia after the Warriors moved to San Francisco after the 1962 season.

The Celtics and Nationals already had shared animosity from having played seven playoff series before the move to Philly.

The Sixers immediately raised the ante by bringing back Wilt Chamberlain from San Francisco shortly after the All-Star break in 1965 to renew his individual rivalry with Celtics center Bill Russell.

For five straight seasons the Sixers and Celtics met in the Eastern Conference Division Finals with the winner then going on to claim the NBA title.

Unfortunately for Philadelphia, the Celtics won four of the five encounters.

Still in 1967, the Sixers won their first championship by fielding what was arguably the greatest team in NBA history.

Eventually both team’s Hall of Fame rosters got old and the playoff rivalry fizzled out after 1969.

Still Philadelphia had to grit its teeth as the Celtics won titles in 1974 and ’76 while the Sixers struggled through rebuilding.

The flames were stoked again for the 1976-77 when Julius “Dr. J” Erving began operating in South Philly.

For a brief moment, the Sixers were the dominant team taking out Boston in the ’77 and 1980 playoffs.

Unfortunately for Philadelphia, the Sixers lost in the NBA Finals both times.

The arrival of Larry Bird in Boston for the 1979-80 season made things as fierce as they had been in the 60’s.

Between 1980 and ’85, the teams met four times in the playoffs, with the Celtics using the Sixers to spring board to NBA titles in 1981 and 1984.

Ironically for the Sixers, in 1983, the year they won their last title, they didn’t face Boston in the playoffs.

Doc and Larry Legend got old and the Sixers-Celtics rivalry again went stagnant after the 1985 Eastern Conference Finals.

The hierarchy in the Eastern Conference change as both the Sixers and Celtics slumped to some of the lowest points in their histories.

It took 17 playoffs before the two franchise would meet again in the 2002 Eastern Conference first round.

It wasn’t just that the Celtics beat the Sixers 3-2, but, for all intents and purposes, it ushered in the end of the Allen Iverson-era in Philadelphia.

So now as the Sixers and Celtics tip off from their 12th playoff encounter – 19th if you go back to the days of Sixers being the Syracuse Nationals – the passion of the rivalry is more forced than natural.

Fans born after 1973 have no real remembrance of what it was like when a playoff meeting between the Celtics and Sixers was typically the door to the NBA Finals.

Most of the current Sixers weren’t born the last time these franchises played a series when a legitimate shot at the championship hung in the balance. Only Tony Battie and Elton Brand were out of diapers.

This series doesn’t have the high stakes of the past because it’s most likely about which team earns the right be fodder for the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.

You can’t even say this could be the start of a new rivalry because the young Sixers are just starting to discover themselves while the Celtics are trying to squeeze out one last something before the “The New Big Three” era loses the final race against Father Time.

Still, it is Sixers versus Celtics, and while that no longer means what it once did, it does, at least, bring me back.

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