The 76ers' Fitz Dixon era

ASSOCIATED PRESS Julius Erving is welcomed to Philadelphia by Sixers owner Fitz Dixon on Oct. 21, 1976.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Julius Erving is welcomed to Philadelphia by Sixers owner Fitz Dixon on Oct. 21, 1976.
Posted: March 29, 2013

Setup: Fitz Dixon buys the 76ers from Irv Kosloff for $8 million with the hope of bringing an NBA championship to Philadelphia. When told that superstar Julius Erving of the New York Nets might be available, Dixon, after being told who Julius Erving actually was, instructed general manager Pat Williams to get him. Dixon wrote a check for $3 million made out to the New York Nets and gave Erving $3 million in salary. The fans were thrilled, and an NBA championship . . . not so fast.

FITZ EUGENE Dixon, despite spending his summers in his native Maine and winters in Florida, was a true Philadelphian.

When the LOVE statue was in danger of being shipped to New York, Fitz reached into his pocket and pulled out $35,000 to keep it here.

He was chairman of the Art Commission, the Fairmount Park Commission and the Delaware River Port Authority.

And he helped save Pennsylvania Military College, which was renamed Widener University in his family's honor, from bankruptcy.

Over the years, his family had owned the Eagles, part of the Phillies and Flyers, and Fitz owned the original Philadelphia Wings lacrosse franchise. But he had a desire to own a major franchise in which he was the majority owner.

"It was an itch I always wanted to scratch," Dixon said.

The itch became reality in May 1976, when Sixers owner Irv Kosloff was ready to sell. He and Ike Richman bought the team in 1963 from Danny Biasone, owner of the Syracuse Nationals, and moved the team to Philadelphia. Kosloff was a longtime pro basketball fan and wanted to bring the NBA back to Philly after a 1-year hiatus.

Kosloff's original plan was to buy the franchise for $500,000, divide it among eight other shareholders, and enjoy the ride. Except that Kosloff and Richman were unable to find anyone else and were left with the club to themselves. After Richman's death in 1965, not only was Kosloff left as the sole owner, he had to pay the Richman family its share.

Kosloff kept the franchise afloat through some very rough seas, but persevered. But with salaries soaring and a desire to get out, Kosloff sold 95 percent of the team to Dixon.

"I had 13 years of full, active satisfying days, and liked it," Kosloff said when he announced his selling of the club. "But then I also knew that I regretted I didn't get to do certain other things, and that perhaps now ought to be the time to do them."

A couple of years into their ownership, Kosloff and Richman acquired Wilt Chamberlain.

And 5 months into his regime, Dixon, with his own stack of blue-blood cash, got his plum.

In October 1976, Julius Erving was in a salary dispute with the Nets. The Nets, after being one of four ABA teams to merge with the NBA, were having some money issues. They were poised to pay newly acquired Nate Archibald and Erving handsomely until the New York Knicks demanded that the Nets pay them $4.8 million for "invading" their NBA territory.

Because of the demand, Nets owner Roy Boe was forced to renege on a promise to raise Erving's salary. Erving balked and held out.

The Nets offered Erving's contract to the Knicks in return for waiving the indemnity, but the Knicks turned it down.

So when the Sixers swooped in and offered the Nets $3 million, Boe had to take the deal.

"The merger agreement [with the Knicks] killed the Nets as an NBA franchise," Boe would say. "The merger agreement got us into the NBA, but it forced me to destroy the team by selling Erving to pay the bill."

As the story goes, Pat Williams went to Dixon and told him the team had a chance to acquire Erving. Dixon then asked, "Who is Julius Erving?"

So Williams told him Erving was the "Babe Ruth of basketball."

Maybe putting it in baseball terms was a good idea. Dixon gave Williams a thumbs up to get the deal done.

While the transaction destroyed the Nets for years, it was one the Sixers needed to make. Adding Erving to a team that already included former ABA superstar George McGinnis, Doug Collins, a 19-year-old Darryl Dawkins, Lloyd (soon-to-be World B.) Free, Joe Bryant, Steve Mix and Caldwell Jones, another ABA refugee, gave the Sixers one of the deepest rosters in the league. Anything short of a championship would be a disappointment.

Despite a 50-32 record, disappointment came when the Sixers blew a 2-0 lead to the Portland Trail Blazers and lost in the NBA Finals in six games. Then came the six-game loss to Magic Johnson and the Lakers in 1980.

But the crushing blow came in 1981, when the Sixers blew a 3-1 lead and lost in seven games to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. The Celtics had an easy time with Malone and the Houston Rockets in the Finals, leaving Dixon and the Sixers to ponder, "What if . . . "

When the 1980-81 team sprinted out to a 33-4 start, it was mentioned in the same breath as the 1966-67 76ers, voted the greatest team in NBA history. The team would eventually finish 62-20 and Erving would be the NBA's MVP.

The combination of the loss to Boston and the crowd of 6,704 that showed up for Game 7 in the Eastern semis against Milwaukee on Easter Sunday was more than Dixon could take.

The team won more games, 273, than any other franchise during Dixon's reign - the closest being the Lakers, who won 259 - yet the Sixers' attendance fell from 644,456 in 1977-78 to 469,355 in 1980-81.

Losing money was not a good option for Dixon.

"I, as an individual, was unable or did not desire to continue funding our losses at the gate," Dixon said upon selling the team in 1981 to Harold Katz. "My only regret is, we couldn't bring an NBA championship to Philadelphia. We tried hard. It was . . . elusive, shall we say. We came close, we had the best record, but we didn't win the title."

That pleasure belonged to Katz two seasons later. But it was Dixon's money and the Nets' misfortune that was the foundation of that success.

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