Friday, January 6, 2012
Game 6: Wells Fargo Center
Sixers 96, Pistons 73
PHILADELPHIA — Call it a throwback night. Or better yet, a way back night. In opening the home schedule for the 2011-12 season, the brand-new owners of the Philadelphia 76ers decided to call on some of the heroes from the franchise’s best era of extended glory.
More specifically, it was the players from the 1983 NBA Championship team that were summoned to a building that none of them ever played in. Earl Cureton, the bench player whose job was to give the MVP frontline players a break and to grab a few rebounds, was there. So too was Bobby Jones, the reed thin forward who was known for his ability to play defense and fill the lanes on the fast break.
In fact, Jones was so good a defender that he was nicknamed, “The Secretary of Defense.” In the early 1980s, the shoe company Nike put out posters of Jones that depicted him behind a big, oak desk as if he were some sort of military giant. It was an interesting look for Jones, knowing that he was (and is) a devout Christian.
Moses Malone and Julius Erving made it back, too. Frankly, the Sixers can’t reasonably have a reunion of former players without the inclusion of Moses and Doc. What would be the point? Not only were they the catalysts behind the championship team, but unarguably the two most popular players, too.
Certainly there isn’t very much we can add here to further the legends of Moses and Doc.
No, the real legend in the building that night chose not to participate in the public celebration of the championship, though he was shown on the video board above the arena.
Indeed, Andrew Toney had finally returned to the basketball arena in South Philly.
Reportedly back at a Sixers game for the first time since his playing career ended prematurely because of a foot injury, Toney seemingly has buried the decades long grudge against the organization that was spurred on by the poor treatment he reportedly received from former owner Harold Katz.
Toney had it all. He was a shooting guard, but built like a forward. He played with a mean streak and was fearless with the basketball in his hands. It didn’t matter who was guarding him because Toney wasn’t going to back down.
To the folks who were too young to see Toney play, I described him as Allen Iverson with a jumper and the ability to play in a team structure. He could pass it almost as well as he could shoot it…
And boy could he shoot it.
In his first five seasons with the Sixers, Toney averaged more than 20 points per game, made two all-star teams, got to the Eastern Conference Finals three times and the NBA Finals twice. He was rewarded with a big contract (for the time) before his sixth season because it would have been stupid not to keep him in town. Not only was Toney good, but also he was popular. Ask any kid born in the early 1970s who their favorite Sixers player was and undoubtedly the answer would be Andrew Toney.
I know he was my favorite Sixers player ever. Living so close to Franklin & Marshall College where the team held its preseason training camp, I was lucky enough to see Toney play from close up. Better yet, as the resident gym rat of F&M’s Mayser Center, I often rebounded shots for Toney when he remained after practice to shoot jumpers. The farther he went out on the court, the softer the ball seemed to float as it would nestle itself into the net only to be returned and fired up there again.
Truth is I saw Toney’s shooting technique so much from so close that his method became mine. Going up against the competition in the CYO league, my jumper started with a half step of my right foot before rising up to let it fly.
Believe it or not, the result didn’t change all that much from idol to fan.
For those lucky enough to have seen Toney in his prime, they know that he was The Truth. Called the Boston Strangler for the way he wrecked the Celtics during the postseason as well as the Silent Assassin, Toney was on the way to a Hall of Fame career until the injuries came. He was the second-leading scorer on the Sixers the year they won the championship, but the most-feared player on the team.
Larry Bird said Toney was the best clutch player he had ever seen and Charles Barkley claimed he was the best teammate he ever had.
Malone doesn’t disagree, either.
“Andrew was tough, man,” Moses said. “He had a way to get it done. He played with a lot of heart and he loved the game. If you’re like that you’ll be the best.”
But Toney’s career ended abruptly and with controversy that no man should endure. After he got that big contract, Toney appeared in just six games during the 1985-86 season because of stress fractures in his foot. The problem never got much better and Toney played two more abbreviated seasons before he packed it in at age 30.
Before that he was derided and belittled by the owner Katz, who aside from being cheap when it came to running his ballclub, didn’t believe Toney was really injured. Katz forced Toney to take drug tests and questioned his fortitude in public because he couldn’t take the floor. Reportedly, Katz even went so far as to hire private investigators to find out if his well-paid but injured All-Star had a nefarious side.
So when his playing days in Philadelphia ended, Toney never looked back and never stepped foot at another Sixers’ game…
Until Friday night home opener.
Toney did not take part in the brief, pregame ceremony, nor did he show up for the media availability with his old teammates, either. But Toney, who these days works as an elementary school teacher in suburban Atlanta, was introduced to the crowd during the second quarter of the game.
Obviously, the crowd went crazy.
“Andrew finally made his mind that he had to come back and see the fans,” Malone said. “He knows they love him.”
And the elusive great one finally returned, too. If you blinked, though, you missed it…
Kind of like Andrew Toney’s entire career.