The 1984-85 Sixers were a team, as history would tell us, on the downslide. The glory days were becoming just a memory, and the team would not return to the Finals until 2001. The Celtics, meanwhile, were a team of the future. Fresh off a 1984 championship, Larry Bird and Co. were in the midst of four straight trips to the Finals, with a third title (in 1986) on the way. And Bird, himself, had displaced Julius Erving as the game's premier small forward.
So when the Sixers-Celtics rivalry was renewed on Nov. 9, 1984, it very well could have been the crossroads, the meeting where the torch was transferred, where Doctor J was handing his shingle to Larry Legend.
On this Friday night in November, there was pride on the line, something to prove. One last stand. Entering the game, Erving and the Sixers had won just three times during the regular season in the Garden since Bird showed up in green, in 1979. Frustration was always a part of the equation.
Both teams came in undefeated - the Sixers at 5-0 and the Celtics at 4-0. But the Celtics were overwhelmingly the better team this night and calling Bird the best player on the floor would be an incredible understatement. With 1:38 left in the third quarter, Bird had made 17 of 23 shots while scoring 42 points in 30 minutes. Erving was a woeful 3-for-13 - including two airballs - for just six points and the Sixers were getting hammered by 21.
Add one more ingredient to the volatile mix: The game was being officiated by one referee. Earlier in the third quarter, lead official Jack Madden had fractured a bone above his kneecap and was forced to leave. This left 5-10, 155-pound Dick Bavetta to go it alone. Ten players, one ref . . . pass the match.
As the Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy described it: "It was like leaving Barney Fife in charge of Hill Street precinct."
Bird had just drawn an offensive foul. According to the Inquirer's George Shirk, "As he cut from the left wing toward the middle of the floor, Bird threw an elbow at Erving, which grazed the Doctor's right temple." Erving and Bird then began exchanging words - there were those who reported Bird saying, "42-6," and others who said he said, "Take those two and call me in the morning." While Bird has denied saying any of it, it wouldn't have been out of character had he said so. But what followed was definitely out of character for Erving.
By the time the chirping had stopped, the two superstars had just crossed midcourt. According to the Daily News' Phil Jasner, "Bird grabbed Erving and appeared to throw a punch."
Moses Malone and Charles Barkley grabbed Bird, trying to be peacemakers, but Erving, with Bird helpless while in the clutches of the two strongmen, landed three or four punches, with one hitting Bird squarely in the beak.
It was not pretty. Both players were ejected, marking Erving's first and only ejection as a pro.
"If both teams weren't good ones," said Celtics general manager Jan Volk, "if the rivalry weren't as intense as it is, if the two teams weren't the prime antagonists of each other, this wouldn't have happened.
"But this wasn't Doctor J and Larry Bird, or Moses and Robert Parish, it was the Celtics and the Sixers. This has been going on long before any of these people were playing."
In the aftermath, $30,500 in fines were doled out, with Erving and Bird each getting docked $7,500, a large amount for the day.
Both warriors were embarrassed by their actions and did not talk after the game. When the teams met 33 days later, there was no animosity, no retribution and plenty of remorse.
"It's over," Erving told Sports Illustrated. "These teams . . . want to play - not gang war, fight or do things that have made good copy. Boston doesn't need motivation to play Philly. And Philly doesn't need it to play Boston. It's behind me. It's behind us."
As for Bird, he said following the Dec. 12 rematch at the Spectrum, won by the Sixers, "I fought my brothers all my life, and I like them."
When the Celtics' Cedric Maxwell heard that the two superstars had buried the hatchet, he replied: "Thank goodness. [NBA commissioner David] Stern would have had a heart attack if they'd fought again. Those two are the role models."