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But when training camp opened the Sixers initiated talks with Erving's agent, Irwin Weiner, about re-signing Dr. J, who'll be 35 in February, after his contract runs out next spring. And the play of Barkley, the 6'6", 260-pound Round Mound of Rebound from Auburn, who finally earned a starting spot on Nov. 30, has allowed the Doctor to operate with more room. He's taking more jumpers and fewer shots off post-up power moves and getting his assists by dumping the ball into center Moses Malone and The Promised Land Mass. "The idea is to get the guy [normally Barkley] with the weaker defensive player on him down low," says Erving. "If I can score 20 points a game [he was averaging 21.2 at week's end] and not spend as much physically to do it, it can prolong my career."
Meanwhile Bird, at 28, is having the finest of his six pro seasons. As of Sunday he was getting 28.7 points a game, over four more than his previous best. "If you'd have told me at the end of last season that he could play better, I'd have been amazed," says Jan Volk, general manager of the Celtics, whom Bird led to a pulsating four-games-to-three victory over the L.A. Lakers in last spring's NBA finals. "But he has played better." Perhaps it's because of the time he spent last summer running up hills in southern Indiana, or the extra half-hour he puts in shooting alone before games, or the simple fact that his teammates are looking for him more. Bird was shooting 53.6%, with a league-leading 48.5% (16-for-33) from three-point range, which is remarkable, because he's a career 49% field-goal shooter overall. "He's just playing with more confidence," says Maxwell. "Then again, if you're MVP of the league, it's not hard to have confidence."
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.
Of course, Philly-Boston fisticuffs have a hoary tradition, dating back to the days when Philadelphia's NBA team was the Warriors. Before the set-tos of the last few years ( Malone vs. Celtics president Red Auerbach, Malone vs. Maxwell, former Celtic Gerald Henderson vs. Sixer Sedale Threatt, Bird vs. Marc Iavaroni and Sixers coach Billy Cunningham vs. his sport coat), there were such notable bouts as the Warriors' Tom Meschery vs. the Celtics' Tom Heinsohn and Philly's Wilt Chamberlain vs. Boston's Jim Loscutoff, and who can ever forget the night Sam Jones went after Wilt with a stool?
But none of the theories fully accounts for two superstars risking their reputations, their priceless hands—Bird already has a badly bent right index finger as a result of a Softball injury—and the mugs that pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in endorsement deals, including the plugs for Converse, in which they appear together. 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.) The NBA also upbraided Erving for "escalating an already serious situation." Both have appealed their fines.
Meanwhile, boxing promoter Don King sent Bird and Erving telegrams, asking them to fight under his auspices. This sort of thing left Erving, who ripped up King's wire and threw it away, embarrassed. "We need a better image than that as athletes and as gentlemen of the sport," he said. "It was really a bad scene, a night when there must have been a full moon."
Wednesday night's moon was in its last quarter, which is when the game was decided. The first period was Erving's. He scored eight points in nine minutes, stuffing two of his own shots and snuffing three others, including one by Bird, whom he held to a single basket as the Sixers went out to a 37-23 lead. Bird atoned in the second. With the Spectrum crowd—17,921, a sellout—booing every time he touched the ball, Bird threw in three jumpers, including one that closed Philly's halftime lead to 59-56.
In the fateful fourth quarter, Sixers guard Andrew Toney outdid both Doc and Bird, nailing a jumper, darting down the lane and passing off for a Malone dunk and stroking in another J. Then, with 1:27 left, his 23-footer put Philly ahead 108-107. "The Boston Strangler strikes again," Maxwell moaned after the game. "The FBI should put him on their Most Wanted list."
Celtic center Robert Parish, one of the few noncombatants in November—"I couldn't afford the $500," he said, though he earns $650,000 a year—muffed a pair of free throws at :35 and a turnaround jumper after a subsequent rebound. McHale was forced to foul Barkley intentionally with 11 seconds remaining. "I hope you miss," Barkley says Celtic guard Danny Ainge told him. The rookie, who was fined $1,000 for holding Bird while Erving pummeled him on fight night, drained both shots the way the veteran Parish hadn't, to all but clinch the victory.
Erving had sat on the bench for most of the last four minutes, while Bobby Jones hounded Bird and Barkley—who finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds—threw his weight around the lane. "Bobby and Charles were playing so well," Cunningham said. "We had a six-point turnaround and I wasn't going to make any changes."