Of all the objects besides a basketball that might find their way into the immense hands of Julius Erving and Larry Bird, consider for a moment a hatchet and a torch.
Happily, the hatchet has been buried. As for the torch, posterity may come to recognize Dec. 12, when the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Boston Celtics 110-107, as the night Dr. J passed it on. Intramurally, it may have been vouchsafed to an irrepressible rookie forward named Charles Barkley, who served notice that he will be a lead character in Philly-Boston dramas long after the Doctor retires. And in the grander scheme of pro basketball's grandest players, Erving offered, with a disarming pregame act of sportsmanship, to pass to Bird the torch of noblesse oblige.
Ever since Nov. 9, when Erving and Bird were thumbed from the Celtics' 130-119 rout of the Sixers in Boston Garden for fighting with each other, the NBA had been buzzing about the confrontation between the captains of its two best teams. And after the league office announced fines totaling $30,500, covering 18 participants in the melee and including levies of $7,500 each for the two principals, attention quickly shifted to the teams' next game. Would Bird and Erving shake hands? Smile? Kiss and make up? Be ebony and ivory? Or oil and water? The league office feigned disinterest by scheduling its Christmas party for that evening and assigning referee Tommy Nunez, who's known around the league as Mascara because of his penchant for whistling makeup calls, to work the game. "It's like a high school dance," someone said during the suspenseful few hours before tip-off. "Everyone's watching to see who's talking to whom."
At 6:10 p.m., 90 minutes before the opening tip, a ball boy emerged from the Celtics' locker room. Doc had just been in there, he said, and had actually put his arm around Bird, drawing him into conversation. "I wanted to take the initiative with Larry," Erving would say later.
By 6:20, four players—Sixers Leon Wood and Erving, Celtics Scott Wedman and Bird—were taking warmup shots at the Spectrum's west basket. Bird stood under the hoop for one stretch, doing the rebounding stint that's obligatory in playground protocol. At least seven times he flicked the Doctor's shots back out to him.
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."
"It's over," said Erving. "These teams have to play each other four more times and probably in the playoffs. And they want to play—not gang war, fight or do the things that have made good copy. Boston doesn't need motivation to play Philly. And Philly doesn't need it to play Boston. It's behind me. Behind us."
"Thank goodness!" said Celtic forward Cedric Maxwell. "[NBA Commissioner David] Stern would have had a heart attack if they'd fought again. Those two are the role models."
Unfortunately, all the attention accorded the fight has obscured the marvelous seasons both Erving and Bird are having. The off-season was ominous for the Doc. Early in the summer his sister died of cancer, and his stepfather and father-in-law passed away, too. Then the 76ers actually listened for more than a minute to the Los Angeles Clippers when they called offering to trade Terry Cummings for Erving.