Dr. J brings Charles Barkley and Moses Malone to a fist fight. Larry Bird takes them on, anyway. And it’s all caught on video.May 2nd, 2010
So here’s the story: Up until the 1978-79 season, the NBA used two referees to officiate each game. In 78-79 they upped the quotient to three referees per game, but that change only lasted for one season, and the NBA returned to having two referees officiating each game for the 1979-80 season.
On November 9, 1984, one of the first games of the regular season, the Philadelphia 76ers, led by Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks, Marc Iavaroni, and rookie Charles Barkley, visited Boston Gardens to play the Celtics, led by Larry Bird, Cedric Maxwell, Robert Parish, Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson, and Kevin McHale.
The Celtics were the reigning NBA Champions. They had won 62 games the previous season, and Larry Bird had taken home the MVP award in both the regular season and the Finals, after Boston defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in seven epic games.
The 76ers, in contrast, were coming off a disappointing season which found them eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, but only after a 1982-83 campaign the previous year which saw Moses Malone win the MVP award and the team win the NBA Championship in a four-game sweep of the LA Lakers.
So this early season game between Boston and Philadelphia was really a match-up of the two previous NBA Champions and the two previous NBA MVPs.
Both teams came into this game undefeated – Philly was 5-0 and Boston was 4-0 – and the game was Boston’s 176th consecutive sell-out, the nearly 15,000 fans stoked to see Bird, their superstar, take down Erving, Philly’s legend.
The foundation had been laid for a roundball classic, and Mr. Bird did not disappoint. He scored 9 points in the game’s first 5:34, and with 1:38 remaining in the third period he had already tallied 42 points on 17-23 shooting, along with 7 rebounds, in 30 minutes of gameplay.
Erving’s production, on the other hand, was much more disappointing. Perhaps all the jawing that Bird was doing all game threw him off, but by the same point in the 3rd period, Dr. J had only managed to score 6 points on 3-13 shooting in 23 minutes of action.
The events that followed might have unfolded differently if the NBA had used some common sense in 1979, but after referee Jack Madden went down with an injured leg in the game’s third quarter, referee Dick Bavetta was forced to officiate the remainder of the game on his own, running baseline to baseline on each and every play, without the luxury of a substitution if he needed it or a cup of ice cold Gatorade if he so desired.
The game immediately became more physical, and when Dr. J gave Larry Bird a hard foul with 1:38 to go in the third quarter, Bird decided to retaliate.
Bavetta, busy dealing with an irate coach after he made the foul call and having to report the call himself to the scorer’s table, didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late.
What broke out was a full-scale brawl, the lowlight of which was Moses Malone and Charles Barkley choke-holding Larry Bird so Dr. J could pummel him repeatedly in the face – and not just with Carmelo Anthony punches. No, these were the real deal. It’s amazing Bird was still walking afterward. One of the commentators said it best: “I’d like to think J has more class than that, but it was pretty bush, what you just saw.”
Now I don’t know what “bush” means, and I’m not certain if it has racial undertones or not, but it certainly doesn’t make Dr. J’s actions sound as if they’re anything less than savage.
Once the League reviewed the brawl, the following punishments were doled out:
In the aftermath, the NBA Office handed out a grand total of $30,500 worth of fines. The two prime combatants, Bird and Erving were each assessed a pink slip of $7,500 each. M. L. Carr and Moses Malone each drew a $3,000 fine, Charles Barkley $1,000 for fighting and Bill Cunningham a $2,500 setback for post game comments. 12 other players (six from each team) each drew a fine of $500 for leaving their respective bench during the melee.
Dr. J ended up apologizing to Bird after the fact, but the video of the fight shows what the NBA could be like today if it had fewer referees at each game, or if it had fewer players who punch like Carmelo Anthony.
The NBA made a permanent move to 3 officials per game for the 1988-89 season, and they now have a system in place where a backup referee also accompanies the officiating crew to each game on the off chance a referee gets injured and can’t continue officiating. It increases costs for each game, sure, but it also reduces the likelihood that a Larry Bird or Michael Jordan or Lebron James gets hurt so bad that it hurts the league as a result, a reality that occurred to them in 1978, but which somehow became a non-issue for them in 1979.