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The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers had some fierce battles in the early 1980s. They squared off in an epic and heated series in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals. The rivalry peaked in October 1983 when the teams met in a preseason game that included fights and early ejections, one by Celtics star Larry Bird.

Heated fights continued for the first couple of months of that 1983-84 season as the NBA locked out its officials. While Bird got the heave-ho during the meaningless game, he never blamed the refs. In fact, he had nothing but praise for the referees.

Larry Bird was tossed for fighting with Marc Iavaroni in 1983

Philadelphia 76ers forward Marc Iavaroni and Boston Celtics star Larry Bird trade punches during the first quarter of a 1983 exhibition game at the Boston Garden. | Getty Images

The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers met in October 1983 and played as if the season was on the line. The problem was that the season hadn’t even started. The preseason was anything but meaningless for both teams, who knocked each other out of the playoffs in two of the last three years.

The game wasn’t four minutes old before things turned ugly. Bird and Sixers forward Marc Iavaroni were ejected for fighting. Celtics guard Gerald Henderson took a swing at Sixers guard Sedale Threatt and was also shown the door.

Things got so heated in the game that Celtics GM Red Auerbach even stormed the court. The 65-year-old Auerbach confronted Philadelphia’s 6-foot-10 center Moses Malone.

“Hit me, you big SOB,” Auerbach said to Malone, according to United Press International. “Go ahead. I’m not big. Hit me you SOB.”

When the game ended, Auerbach tried to explain why he was so upset.

“First, they knock (Cedric) Maxwell down, and then that other guy (Iavaroni) is doing a job on Bird, and all that kind of stuff is going on,” he said. “I couldn’t help it. I just got mad.”

The Bird/Iavaroni fight was just a sign of things to come for the NBA that year

Lost in the fight was the fact the NBA’s referees had been locked out. While the Celtics/Sixers brawl took place in the preseason, there were several other significant fights that took part early in the year.

Milwaukee Bucks center Bob Lanier took a full swing at Detroit Pistons center Bill Laimbeer, breaking his nose, in an early November game. Buck Williams and Lonnie Shelton took swings at each other during an early-season game in New Jersey.

Maurice Lucas and Tom Chambers had it out as they battled for position at the foul line. According to Sports Illustrated, it got to the point where people were calling the NBA the National Boxing Association.

“There’s no doubt that we’ve been hurt by the fight issue,” said Scotty Stirling, the NBA’s vice president of operations. “We have a problem with game control. But individually, it’s hard to lay altercations off on the replacements.”

Chambers disagreed that the replacement refs weren’t partially to blame.

“They’re not watching off the ball.” Chambers said. “They’re keeping their eyes on it and away from the ball someone’s getting hit in the head.”

The regular referees were back in action by December.

While referees always find themselves getting blasted by players or fans, Bird came to their rescue. The Celtics star said that whatever the referees were asking during negotiations wasn’t enough.

“You’ve gotta have good refs to play good games,” Bird said. “I don’t think they’re asking for enough, and I guess I’ve always been a union man. I mean, I respect the substitute officials, but I have a helluva lot more respect for the other ones walking outside with families and mouths to feed.”


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