Bill Lyon: Celtics vs. 76ers, a two-fisted rivalry for the ages

Posted: May 21, 2012

AnnnnnnnnDrewwwwww . . .

Down through the corridors of time it echoes still, loud and demanding and desperate, and punctuated for emphasis with a stomp of a shoe on hardwood that crackles like gunfire:

AnnnnnnnnDrewwwwww . . .

In odd moments I am surprised to hear it come to call again . . . and yet, almost 30 years later, it seems like just yesterday.

It is Billy Cunningham, the coach of the 76ers, and he is calling out once again, an exasperated reminder, for Andrew Toney, whose talent is breathtaking but whose attention span is in periodic need of a helpful nudge.

Billy C was known as the Kangaroo Kid during what was a stellar career in the NBA, and he coached as he played, which was all-out, and all-in, and frequently he would explode out of his chair with such a violent ferocity that he would rip the seat out of his pants. Al Domenico, the trainer and all-around handyman, was charged with restraining Billy by clutching his coattails and bump-bump-bumping along for the ride. Occasionally, the coach would vary his call to Andrew with a two-finger whistle that was so piercing the players joked that dogs from a two-mile radius would bay in heartfelt reply.

The object of Billy's angst, Toney, would obediently trot to his assigned spot, which almost always was out on a wing, and from there he would receive the ball and assume a crouching position.

And then the fun would begin.

On the 76ers bench they would lean forward in gleeful anticipation of what was to come and taunt the poor soul who had been assigned Toney, crooning: "Torture chamber . . . torture chamber . . ."

Andrew was an absolute killer. He had a jab-step quicker than a cobra's strike and a quick-draw jump shot, and it seemed that no matter which one the defender gambled on stopping he was going to guess wrong.

"Hey," would come the cry from the Sixers bench to the embarrassed defender, "you left some laundry back there."

Andrew also had the happy faculty of being utterly oblivious to the circumstances and the surroundings of the moment, and there was one opponent with whom he took a fiendish delight in tormenting, and he did so with such cruel abandon that he was anointed with this nickname:

The Boston Strangler.

In the early 1980s, there wasn't a better, or a more bitter, rivalry than the 76ers vs. the Celtics. (Not just in the NBA but in all pro sports and, yes, I know the Lakers, those elegant snobs, were around, too. But they played that black-ties ball whereas Boston-Philadelphia was black eyes. Ask your father. Better yet, your grandfather.)

Nobody else in the NBA has a blood-bonding to rival theirs. And all that history has come to mind now that once again, after an absence much too long, they have locked up in these playoffs. It's a mismatch, of course, the Celtics having the considerable advantage of having repeatedly ventured into the deep waters of the playoffs while the Sixers are still struggling to master the dog paddle.

It doesn't necessarily mean that the Celtics are automatic winners, just that, as the man says, that's the way to bet.

This is a tutorial for the Sixers, because in the playoffs the elbows are a little bit sharper, the surreptitious knees to the groin a little more robust, and when you're chasing your man through a thicket of picks and screens you'd best keep your head on a swivel. So it was in the days of AnnnnnnnnDrewwwwww, so it is now in the time of the sly and crafty Kevin Garnett.

Lessons in the NBA playoffs are hard-learned and hard-earned. There is no leap from novice to champ, none of that worst-to-first business. And nothing comes without pain.

"I told our guys the NBA playoffs are about the ebb and flow of emotion," said 76ers coach Doug Collins. "Boston has been through that. Right now this is all new for us."

New it is, but there is no time to stop and soak up; you learn on the fly.

Doc Rivers, the Celtics coach, makes an interesting point about the Sixers: "They're athletic as heck and they like each other. Most times young teams don't like each other because they're competing against each other to be the guy."

The irony is that the most obvious need the Sixers have at the moment is for "the guy."

A slight digression, if you'll indulge me: The moment that resonates still from the Sixers-Celtics wars has nothing to do with players or coaches, but with fans. In the spring of '82, in Boston Garden, Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, with the Sixers holding an overwhelming lead, their berth in the Finals assured, the Celtics faithful accept the inevitable and begin a swelling chant: "BEAT L.A. . . . BEAT L.A. . . ."

One shining moment for sportsmanship.

Greater respect has no man than for his opponent. Cherish him, for he can bring out the best in you.

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