They stood there for a moment, gazing at each other as bodies wheeled around them through the lane. Moses Malone of the Philadelphia 76ers cradled the ball in his relatively tiny hands, and as he looked into the goggled eyes of the Los Angeles Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, it was as if both centers knew that what was about to happen in the Inglewood Forum would somehow change the existing order.
L.A. had just cut the Sixers' lead to 90-84 with 4:40 to play in Sunday's third game of the NBA championship series, and now victory was in danger of slipping away. Philadelphia had faced these moments before, having been to the finals in 1977, 1980 and 1982 without winning a title. Even in 1977 with a 2-0 lead in games, just as they had now, the 76ers had found a way to lose.
Now Malone slowly moved to his right, gathering speed as he attempted to pass Abdul-Jabbar and reach the basket. "We're just like a little train," Malone would say later, describing the new Sixers. "Once we get our motor going, we just get more aggressive."
Malone, now under a full head of steam, chugged by Abdul-Jabbar, who was forced to foul as Malone canned the shot. The resulting three-point play gave Philadelphia a 93-84 lead. A minute and a half later, Malone went rumbling past Abdul-Jabbar for another three-point play, and on the 76ers' next possession he converted on a five-foot scoop shot. Malone had made all eight of his team's points when the Sixers needed them most; his spurt preserved the victory—the final score was 111-94—that gave Philadelphia a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 lead in the series.
In the most important game in the team's recent history, Malone not only carried the 76ers with 28 points and 19 rebounds, but he also removed any doubt that may have lingered about who the league's dominant center is. For a span of 31 minutes and 32 seconds, from late in the first quarter until deep into the fourth, Malone pushed and shoved and clawed at Abdul-Jabbar, who is perhaps the best offensive player in the sport's history, and kept him from scoring a field goal. It was an astounding display of muscle and will, qualities the 76ers had always seemed to lack. By going on to win the championship trophy for the first time in 16 years—and no NBA club has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series—the Sixers could surely claim to be one of the best teams ever.
When Philly signed Malone last summer, he was expected to end all those years of frustration. But, of course, he was never part of all that and never cared much for the questions asked him about the 76ers' past disappointments. It was the veterans of the previous campaigns—starting with the devastating loss to Portland in Julius Erving's first season with the Sixers, 1976-77—that Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham was thinking about last week. "They've been knocked down a few times, but I think it shows great character that they've always been able to pick themselves up and come back," he said of his players. "In business you can be No. 2 and still be considered pretty successful. Look at Avis; it has built its whole advertising campaign around being second. But in sports, winning is everything, and sometimes it can get a little cruel."
Past failures were never far from the 76ers' minds this season, and sometimes that seemed cruel, too. They won 65 games in the regular season, the fourth-best record ever, but they weren't able to enjoy the ride. "We didn't want to feel we'd achieved anything," Cunningham said. "All we wanted was to be back in a position to win the championship." When Erving was asked Sunday how it felt to finally be on the verge of the championship he has chased for seven years, his response was typical. "I don't think it's appropriate to talk about it now, because it hasn't happened yet," he said. "I mean, I may leave here and get hit by a truck or something."
It was the Lakers who felt they'd been run over by something last week, and the destruction typically occurred in the second half. In the three games they were outscored 173-130 after halftime. "If you don't get us early," Cunningham said, "you're in trouble. The second half has been ours."
If the Lakers were alarmed at being down two games to none after two losses in Philadelphia, they had good reason, because the 76ers had yet to put together an exceptional game of their own. Philly had controlled crucial stretches of the first two games on the boards and with its defense, but until Sunday the Sixers were never able to get their offensive game cranked up. "We're not playing as fluidly as we did earlier in the year," acknowledged Reserve Guard Clint Richardson after a 103-93 76er victory in Game 2. "I really don't think we've reached our peak yet." Most of the Sixers seemed to concur with that on Saturday as they prepared for the next day's Game 3. "We haven't played a full game yet," Point Guard Maurice Cheeks said, "but we've been able to come up with the big plays at big times. Out here we may have to play a full 48 minutes."
Going into the series, the Lakers thought the 76ers would find a way to self-destruct, as they'd done in playoffs past. This was the third championship match between the two teams in four years, and especially in 1982 the Sixers had allowed themselves to be bullied in the backcourt. The 76ers suffered from inexperience and lack of depth at guard, and the Lakers made them pay. A year ago it was a scythelike trapping zone that prevented Philadelphia from getting into its offense. "They've always had the confidence, the arrogance when they've played us," Richardson says. "I think some of their guys in the backcourt are a little surprised now when they push us and we push back."