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1977 NBA Finals Fight

October 17, 2017


In the late 1970s, big men in the NBA were giants, and they played that way.

No self-respecting heir to the legacy of Wilt Chamberlain chose a step-back 20-footer to score.  NBA centers wanted to receive the ball on the block, and dared anyone to get in their way.  Former college coach Al McGuire said a center needed to be “a-gile, mo-bile, and hos-tile.”

Darryl Dawkins fit the mold.  He stood 6-11 and weighed 251 pounds.  His larger-than-life frame strode directly from his Orlando high school home court onto the bright lights of the NBA.  Dawkins matured on the bench for two years before turning into a fierce threat to bend rims and break backboards on a nightly basis.

Maurice Lucas played for McGuire’s Marquette University teams, and opted for the high-style American Basketball Association over the NBA.  When the two leagues merged, Lucas ended up with the Portland Trail Blazers. At 6-9, 215 pounds, he became the face of the newly-invented power forward position, a dominating scorer in the paint who was hard to stop.

Philadelphia and Portland developed a rivalry in the late ‘70s as the best two teams in their respective NBA conferences.  They advanced to meet in a surprise NBA Finals in 1977.  While Philadelphia featured the league’s most dynamic player in Julius Erving, the series was defined by the Lucas – Dawkins matchup, and the two big men squared-off in the Finals’ greatest – and most frightening – fight in Game 2.

The spectacle was appropriately staged in Philadelphia’s Spectrum arena, the setting for the first movie in Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” fighting franchise only two years earlier.  The sheer terror of Lucas and Dawkins squaring-off in a boxing stance left onlookers momentarily frozen in place (Brent Musburger’s “Somebody DO SOMETHING!” is the decade’s most underrated sports broadcasting call).  The team benches cleared, and even a few fans were inspired to join the violence in yet another flash of 1970s sports spectator anarchy.

Both Lucas and Dawkins were ejected from the contest, handily won by the 76ers.  Dawkins took out his frustration by demolishing a bathroom stall in the Philadelphia locker room.  Portland went on to win the Finals, 4 games to 2.

Dawkins’ bulk was no match for the Lakers’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s height and talent, and the 76ers traded him after a second straight playoff disappointment.  Philadelphia finally won the NBA title a few years later without him.

Sportswriters considered Lucas the winner of the near-brawl with Dawkins, crediting him with shifting the momentum of the Finals in Portland’s favor.

Lucas played for a half-dozen NBA teams during a 14 year career as basketball big men began to retreat from the post, distancing themselves, figuratively and literally, from the center of the ring.

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