NBA

Julius Erving Says His Legendary Fight With Larry Bird Happened Because of the Refs

The NBA has always had its share of bad blood and rivalries, whether between franchises or individual players. Sometimes tensions have grown so high that they cross the line from competitive drive to outright fighting. Even the best players have given in to aggression on occasion — just as Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley, who got in a fight in a 1999 game.

Yet perhaps the most legendary player-on-player fight occurred in 1984, when Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird got into it with Philadelphia 76ers superstar Julius Erving. A couple of years ago, Erving himself broke down just what happened.

A classic rivalry

The Celtics and 76ers have long had one of the fiercest rivalries in basketball. The two teams hold a playoff record, having met up 20 times in the postseason, according to Sporting News. In fact, the rivalry goes even farther back than the 76ers themselves, to a time when the franchise was known as the Syracuse Nationals.

After losing several championships to the Nationals, the Celtics swung the tide by acquiring legendary center Bill Russell. The newly minted 76ers soon retaliated by trading for Wilt Chamberlain.

The two teams squared off in the Eastern Conference Finals on numerous occasions, with the upper hand swinging back and forth. Finally, the 76ers went into a slump after trading Chamberlain to the Los Angeles Lakers.

The rivalry picked up new steam when the 76ers acquired Erving. Erving’s presence alone ensured that Philadelphia would become a perennial contender. In his very first season with the team, the 76ers knocked off the Celtics in a seven-game Eastern Conference semifinals. The following year, the Celtics drafted Bird and the rivalry took on a whole new dimension.

The circumstances of Bird vs Erving

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By the time the Erving-Bird fight went down in November 1984, there was already plenty of bad blood between the two teams. Three separate fights had broken out in the course of one single game in the previous season. At the time of the Erving-Bird fight, both teams were off to a hot start: the Celtics being 4-0 and the 76ers 5-0.

The fight occurred toward the end of the tightly contested game. Up to that point, the two superstars had turned in very different performances. Bird had put up a masterful 42 points, whereas Erving had just six points. The fight occurred shortly after Bird was called for an offensive foul for appearing to throw an elbow at Erving.

During the course of the fight, Erving takes several swings while one of his 76ers teammates restricted Bird with an arm around the throat. In the video, you can also make out a young Charles Barkley getting involved. While his role is unclear, Barkley has been adamant in subsequent years that he was only trying to break the fight up, not escalate it.

Erving claims refs caused the fight

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Erving recounted his side of the story during a 2018 appearance on ESPN’s Get Up! There he countered the widely held belief that the fight broke out because ill-will between the two superstars. As Erving recalled it, he and Bird were actually “kind of cool,” having done sneaker commercials together in the past.

Instead, Erving claimed, Bird was irate with the referees for calling an offensive foul on him. Apparently Erving thought that Bird might even take his frustration out by swinging at the ref — and so he stepped in to try and hold Bird back. Instead, his hands accidentally slid up toward Bird’s neck, provoking the already hot Celtics star.

What followed was a fight that got both players ejected from the game and ultimately fined $7,500 a piece. Yet remarkably, neither of them received a suspension, which is almost certainly what would happen if such a fight broke out in today’s NBA.