"People are going to remember this one for a long time." And I do. The quote was uttered by my friend after it was over. We were at the old Boston Garden and saw it happen. The fight was over quickly and so was the anger. It was a heat-of-the-moment thing that got out of hand.
I remember the incident warmly, not because of the fight itself, but the way it all worked out. At the time, it was vicious. Charles Barkley and Moses Malone holding Larry Bird while Julius Irving wailed away at Larry was tough to watch. For the few fans that never watched it, here is the video below:
Why did it happen? It frankly was a comedy of errors. Doctor J was having a bad game, and Bird was on a roll. We will always love Larry, but he was one, major trash-talker. And there was only one referee. Here is what SI's Alexander Wolff had to say:
How did Bird and Erving allow themselves to sink into a common street fight? One theory holds that a knee injury that forced referee Jack Madden from the Nov. 9 game early in the third quarter and left his partner, Dick Bavetta, alone, contributed to a situation in which physical contact got out of hand. Bavetta had to go it alone, and, wrote Dan Shaughnessy in The Boston Globe, "It was like leaving Barney Fife in charge of Hill Street Precinct." Another view has it that Erving, having been Dr. Do-Little for the game—he'd scored but six points while Bird had gone for 42, most of them against the Doc—was frustrated.
You just saw it. Two beloved, iconic NBA superstars brawling on the parquet floor in front of thousands of spectators. I certainly can not believe that Moses Malone and Charles Barkley held Bird to allow Julius to throw punches at him. They seemed to be trying to break the fracas up. Erving seemed to just lose it. But his career was on the downside while Bird's was soaring. Julius had six points to Larry's 42. And don't think for a minute that Bird wasn't taunting Doctor J.
After viewing tapes and conducting interviews, the league office issued a statement calling Bird "clearly the aggressor, the instigator of the melee." (According to eyewitnesses, Bird seemed to say something that touched off the incident, but if he did say anything, neither Bird nor Erving will say what.)
"Take two and call me in the morning" was one possible Bird quote after he launched another successful jumper over Erving. That was broached by Author Gordon Jones in his book 100 things 76ers fans should know and do before they die. Kind of sounds like Larry, doesn't it? As far as Julius- bad game, career fading, taunts from a foe on the rise. You might see how he could lose it.
The above photo became almost as iconic as the two stars captured in it. Here is the New York Times' Jane Gross' assessment of the photo's popularity at a shop in Boston's Faneuil Hall district:
The basement shop is graced with black-and-white and sepia photos of the city's historic moments - Albert Einstein visiting Harvard University in 1935, Harry Truman campaigning with John Kennedy in 1950, Carl Yastrzemski bidding goodbye to Fenway Park in 1983 - but none of these attracted as much interest as the gallery's latest acquisition: a photograph of Julius Erving and Larry Bird, hands around each other's throats, during their bench-clearing fight Nov. 9 at Boston Garden.
There is a great ending to this story. The next game between the two rival teams took place on December 12, 1984. SI's Alexander Wolff tells it best:
And at 7:30, just before the pregame intros would begin, Bird and Erving were at midcourt, brought together by Nunez and his partner, Jess Kersey. The two players shook hands and seemed to be enjoying a reunion. "The referee might have cracked a joke," Dr. J said later. "I might have told him [Bird] that his great season was good for the league. And he might have said, 'You're having a good season, too.' " And they shook hands warmly again.
"I fought my brothers all my life," Bird would say after the game, "and I like them."
There is nothing I can add to that. Two classy superstars leaving an adrenaline-fueled brawl behind them. Unfortunately, a fight did break out during the game. According to Wolff, "a fan dressed in a Santa suit had obstructed the view of a patron in a $60 seat, and they mixed it up." Sounds like the Garden to me. Merry Fighting Christmas!