Both teams were yet undefeated in the early season, and Philly was trying to win back supremacy after being knocked out in the first round by the New Jersey Nets in the previous season’s playoffs, after sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers for the NBA championship in 1983.
The game was close through the half, as the Celts led 62-51. Larry Bird was having a great game for the Celtics though, and he ended up with 42 points on 17 of 23 shots from the floor, while his bitter foe Julius “Dr J” Erving, only had 8 points, as Boston was ahead by 20 points 95-75, near the end of the third quarter. The tension was high, and the two had clashed roughly throughout the game, but an offensive foul call on Bird after retaliating on a Dr J grab as they both headed down the court made him lose it.
As Erving walked back in the other direction, Bird eventually met up with him, the two exchanged words, and eventually got up in each others’ grill. This led to shoving, then punching, and finally, both players trying to choke each other out. The two grappled, and eventually tumbled down to the parquet floor, helped by Philadelphia big man Moses Malone, who took Bird down and put him in a headlock to protect his star forward.
Boston head coach K.C. Jones then pulled Malone off of the dogpile, and Moses was immediately confronted by M.L. Carr of the Celtics. The two put up their dukes, and Malone got in a left jab before the two were separated. As Bird regained his feet, he still wanted a piece of the doctor, and had to be held back by several teammates and staff, while still barking over at the 76er.
Both players were eventually ejected after the riot, and the Green went on to win the game without the two star centerpieces, 130-119. Erving and Bird were fined 7,500 dollars apiece, the second-highest fine levied against players at that time. The moment was immortalized in a famous photo taken by the Boston Globe’s Ted Gartland, and the freeze-frame summarizes the tough, brawling, no-holds-barred spirit in the NBA of the late 70s and 1980s. Both teams would eventually meet in the Eastern conference finals, with Boston besting Philly 4 games to 1, on their way to losing in the NBA Finals to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and the Lakers in 6 games.
Although fierce, the fracas may seem quaint after seeing the “Malice at the Palace” riot between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons 20 years later. In that one, Pacer forward Ron Artest went into the stands chasing a fan who had thrown a drink at him, inciting an all-out melee between fans and players of both teams. Julius Erving and Larry Bird were both friends off the court, but once on, they put their fraternity aside for all out enmity. Life and limb were of little concern when these two hall of fame cagers faced off.