NBA

Larry Bird’s Heated Brawl with Julius Erving in 1984 Began Innocently Enough

The Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers rivalry goes back to when the Sixers were the Syracuse Nationals. It’s a long-standing rivalry that hit a peak in the 1980s when the Celtics had Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish, while the 76ers had Julius Erving, a rookie named Charles Barkley, and Moses Malone. In 1984, the two stars – Bird and Erving – got tangled up on the court and it turned into an all-out melee.

The Celtics vs. Sixers rivalry

BOSTON, MA – MAY 14: Boston Celtics’ Larry Bird is guarded by Philadelphia’s Julius Erving during Game Two of the third round of the 1985 NBA playoffs between the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers at the Boston Garden on May 14, 1985. (Photo by Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

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The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers have the most playoff meetings in the history of the NBA, playing each other in 20 different series. The Celtics hold a 13-7 edge in series victories. things heated up between the two teams when the Sixers acquired Julius Erving, known as Dr. J, in 1977 and Larry Bird joined the Celtics for the 1979-80 season.

Bird and Erving faced off against each other first the first time in the playoffs in Bird’s rookie season. The Sixers defeated the Celtics in five games. Things got heated down the road between the two teams, leading to numerous on-court fights. During an exhibition game in 1983, Red Auerbach, the Celtics president and GM, was fined after running onto the court during one of three fights that broke out during the game. There were four fines assessed in the game with Auerbach’s being the largest, according to The New York Times.

While on the court, Auerbach taunted Sixers center Moses Malone, saying “Hit me. Go ahead, I’m not big. Hit me.” Malone and Cedric Maxwell had gone at it early. Bird and Marc Iavaroni also got into a skirmish. Gerald Henderson also got fined for throwing a punch at Sixers rookie Sedale Threatt.

Bird and Erving go at it

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On Nov. 9, 1984, the Philadelphia 76ers visited their rival Boston Celtics in an early-season meeting. Despite the game being played in the first full month of the season, it had a playoff-like atmosphere. Larry Bird was torching the Sixers to the tune of 42 points on 17-for-23 shooting in 30 minutes. He also had pulled down seven rebounds. Erving had just six points. Then things got pretty ugly.

With 1:38 left in the third quarter, Bird and Julius Erving got tangled up with Bird getting called for an offensive foul. Before the next possession began, Bird and Erving were going at it on the court. At one point, Bird was held by a Sixers player while Erving punched Bird in the face. The fight erupted into a melee at mid-court. Bird and Erving were each fined $7,500 which was the second-highest for player conduct at the time.

Referee Dick Bavetta was forced to referee much of the game by himself as his partner Jack Madden went down with a broken left, according to NESN. Thirty years after the game, Bavetta said the game was still fresh in his memory bank. “It turned out to be the game where Bird and Erving decided to start choking each other,” he said.

Erving offers his version of the fight

In an ESPN episode of Get Up! in 2018, Julius Erving explained how the fight went down. “So the fight, actually, there was an offensive foul called on Larry,” he said. “He didn’t like the call so he was really mad at the referee. And he came down court and he was kind of like stomping. He was in front of his bench, and it looked like a moment in which he was going to take a swing.

“It was very uncharacteristic because, you know, we did Converse commercials together, we did Spalding commercials together, so we were kind of cool. But I thought something was going to happen because he was definitely mad – but he was mad at the referee, he wasn’t mad at me.

“I just extended my arm to hold him back, and it ended up sliding up to his neck. Then it was on. So it was really inadvertent. I didn’t really mean to grab him by the neck. I pushed him in the chest, hand slid up, got to his neck, he reaches for my neck… Next thing I know, it’s a melee. That was it.”