Yo, Philly: Remember The 1966-67 Sixers?
The 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers didn’t have multimillion-dollar contracts, or limos to ferry them to airports, or personal assistants to tend to their every whim. But they did have each other, and if you think that reads like the beginning of a blurb on the back of a Disney movie — or worse yet, alternate lyrics to a Bon Jovi song — hang on for a minute.
The NBA, and the sports world as a whole, was a vastly different place back then. The league had a mere 10 teams. Three-point shots wouldn’t be added to the action for another 13 years. Most players had to find work in the offseason to make ends meet. ESPN wasn’t around to show off highlights from every game, and no one was yelling about trading a slumping player on sports-talk radio.
“You basically just had the one coach and a trainer, and 10 or 11 players,” says Matt Guokas, 72, the Mayfair native who starred as shooting guard and small forward on his hometown team. And that close-knit group of guys made history, ending the Boston Celtics’ hated dynasty en route to winning the Sixers’ first NBA title since the franchise relocated to Philly from Syracuse in 1964. The NBA would later name that Sixers squad the greatest of all time during the league’s 35th anniversary in 1980. (Cue loud arguments about other teams that deserve that recognition.)
Tonight, the organization will honor the 50th anniversary of the championship during a halftime ceremony at the Wells Fargo Center, where the Sixers will take on — you guessed it — the Celtics. Guokas, who went on to coach the Sixers in the 1980s, will be joined by a handful of surviving members of the team: Billy Cunningham, Chet Walker, Hal Greer, Wali Jones, Dave Gambee and Bill Melchionni.
“When you get to a certain age, it’s good to be remembered,” says Jones, 74, the former point guard and shooting guard who played alongside other legendary big men like Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. “A lot of people don’t remember our team. Their memories of the game only go back as far as Magic [Johnson] and [Larry] Bird. But that was such a historic team, and such a historic time in our society.”
The Sixers won 55 games during the 1965-66 season, only to get knocked out during the Eastern Division Finals by a Celtics team that was in the middle of a staggering run of 10 consecutive titles. The team that returned in 1966 was stacked with talent — Wilt Chamberlain was in his prime, a year removed from having won his second MVP award after leading the league in scoring, and he was surrounded by future Hall of Famers in Cunningham, Walker and Greer. Veteran All-Star point guard Larry Costello was also coaxed out of retirement to join the mix.
“There was a lot of confidence,” Guokas says, “but it was not one of those things where people were starting to talk about winning a championship or making up for last year. For players back then, it was just their job. They came everyday in a professional, business-like fashion.”
But Philadelphians were still warming up to the team. College basketball was a bigger deal in the city — there are probably people who will argue it still is, to some degree — and Guokas said the Sixers’ hopes of growing their fan base was muddled when the Inquirer briefly refused to cover the team as the result of a spat between the paper and the organization.
None of that mattered to the players, who were on board with head coach Alex Hannum’s desire for them to build a strong camaraderie. “We called him ‘Sarge,’ and he treated everybody equally,” says Jones, an Overbrook High School and Villanova University alum. “After games, he’d have us go to restaurants as a team and celebrate holidays together. He made us become a family.”
The dynamic carried over into games. “We had the pieces to fit around Wilt, so he didn’t feel like he had to score 50 points every game,” Jones says. The team got off to 46-4 start and never looked back, finishing the season with a then-league-record 68 wins. They toppled the Celtics in the Eastern Division Finals before going on to beat the San Francisco Warriors in the NBA Finals.
Winning a title was sweet; upsetting Boston might have been sweeter. “I can’t tell you how many players on opposing teams called us, because they were so glad someone stopped [Boston’s] dynasty,” Jones laughs. “Everyone was so tired of losing to them.”
Guokas remembers getting a nice reception from fans when the team returned to Philadelphia, but there was no delirious parade down Broad Street. He’s happy to be back here now, happy to reminisce about a moment of triumph in a city that’s had precious few of them through the decades. The last 50 years flew by, he says. “I don’t know where the time went. But as you get older, it gets faster and faster.”
Jones, who remains a relentless supporter of the Sixers — “Oh, I love his game,” he says of electric center Joel Embiid — has a small request for fans who might be seeing him and the other remaining members of the 66-67 team for the first time: “Just Google me. Google the team, so you can see what we did.”
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