Philly Sports Playback: 76ers beat the Celtics in Game 7 in Boston, May 23, 1982

Dave Uram
May 23, 2020 - 8:00 am
Philadelphia 76ers head coach Billy Cunningham against the Atlanta Hawks at The Omni.

Manny Rubio/USA TODAY Sports

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — “And here we are again,” Hall of Famer and 76ers icon Billy Cunningham said to KYW Newsradio when looking back on the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals versus Boston.

Cunningham, a key player for the Sixers in the ’60s and ’70s, as well as their head coach from 1977 to 1985, was all too familiar with coughing up big series leads to the rival Celtics and eventually losing. 

In the 1968 Eastern Division Finals, the 76ers blew a 3-1 series lead to Boston, losing Game 7 100-96. Cunningham was out with an injury. In 1981, the Sixers led Boston 3-1 again in the Eastern Conference Finals — but lost the next three games by two points, two points and one point. 

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The very next season was nearly déjà vu. They, again, were up 3-1 in the series against Boston but fell in Games 5 and 6, each by double digits. 

“And the newspapers and the articles were questioning everything, from our heritage, etc, and going up to Boston, you’re surely not the favorite to win this game,” Cunningham remembered. 

However, on May 23, 1982 — 38 years ago today — the underdog 76ers prevailed 120-106. 

“We ended up just playing a flawless game and winning that ballgame.”

With time winding down, the Boston crowd started chanting “Beat L.A.” to the 76ers, who would go on to face the Lakers in the finals. Los Angeles won that series in six. 

“I know winning a championship is great, but that was such a rewarding victory for all of us that were part of it, plus the (Philadelphia) fans,” Cunningham said. “And I remembered that when we arrived back in Philadelphia, the amount of fans waiting for us at the airport. We got on a bus that was going to take us to our cars … and people were just rocking the bus with the enthusiasm and I remember my daughters were scared to death, they were afraid that the bus was gonna turn over.”

While Julius Erving scored 29 points with three blocks and three steals, Andrew “The Boston Strangler” Toney had a game high 34 points on 14-of-23 from the field. 

“(Toney) cherished those moments, such as playing in the Boston Garden in the seventh game,” Cunningham said. “He had no fear of failing, and that’s the sign of a great player. You’re not going to make every shot down the stretch, and he had no fear of that, and he responded in that game.”

Cunningham also shared his memories of the 76ers sweeping the Lakers the following season in 1983 to finally win their second NBA Championship. Stay with the KYW Sports Pod to hear about that on the Sunday, May 31, “On This Date” episode. 

Asked what he thought of the present-day Sixers and All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, he said, “I think the court is still out until they get to the next level. They came awfully close last year against Toronto, no question. Does everybody compliment each other? Putting a team together is just not putting talent — all offensive players — it needs to be a balance. And is the balance there? And we’ll find out.”