Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar got all the headlines for the “Showtime” Lakers, but Michael Cooper was their defensive stalwart. An eight-time All-Defensive Team pick, he was to L.A. what Bobby Jones was to the Sixers.
Most opponents wanted no part of Cooper. Andrew Toney wasn’t most players.
On March 7, 1982, in a game that featured six Hall of Famers, Toney owned the Spectrum floor.
“I always remember them saying Michael Cooper was a defensive specialist,” former Sixer Earl Cureton told NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Marc Zumoff. “Andrew used to ask me, what was that. They say they got a guy that’s a stopper. And he went out on national TV and scored 46 on him one night. After the game he said, ‘Who’s the guy that’s supposed to be the defensive specialist? Who was he?’”
Toney was fearless. He didn’t sweat his opponents, even if they were All-Stars or Hall of Famers. He wasn’t afraid to give it to his teammates in practice or defy his head coach from time to time.
While we reflect back on the greatness of the last Sixers team to capture a championship, it’s impossible not to think about Toney and the complicated legacy and relationship he has with Philadelphia.
To hear those that saw Toney at the peak of his powers, he was almost a mythical figure — and was on a path to something special.
The eighth overall pick in 1980 out of Louisiana-Lafayette, Toney joined a team that was loaded with talent and coming off a loss in the Finals to the Lakers.
He was about to share the practice floor with larger-than-life figures like Julius Erving and Darryl Dawkins. That didn’t phase the rookie one bit.
“The initial day at practice over at Widener [University],” Erving said to Zumoff, “he literally came over half court — about four feet past the half court line — and he pulled up and shot a jump shot. Everybody in the gym was just like, ‘Woah.’ And [head coach] Billy [Cunningham] was saying, ‘Andrew!’ and we heard that all six years that we were together.”
That fearless approach may have caused his head coach to yell his name from time to time, but Cunningham gladly took the trade off because of how special Toney was on the court.
“I remember a game, we’re playing the Lakers during the season,” Cunningham said to Zumoff, “in the Spectrum, I think it’s overtime. I call a play to inbound the ball to Maurice Cheeks and then get the ball to Andrew. Andrew just kinda runs and grabs the ball. …
“I’m going, ‘Andrew!’ and he just kind of waves me off. He takes the ball, and two or three Lakers come at him and he shoots the ball over them, banks it in and there I am as the coach, saying, ‘What are you gonna do?’”
Unlike the understated Erving or Cheeks, Toney was brash. With the equal amounts of fear and respect he garnered, he seemed to have a right to be.
‘He definitely had a Hall of Fame career’
The 1982-83 Sixers were loaded. They featured four Hall of Famers — Erving, Moses Malone, Cheeks and Jones. They were led by a Hall of Fame player and coach in Cunningham.
But ask anyone around that time and they have to bring up the name Andrew Toney. “The Boston Strangler” was a two-time All-Star in his own right.
“Hall of Fame. There’s no question about it,” Cunningham said.
“He definitely had a Hall of Fame career,” Erving said.
“He’d have been a Hall of Famer. Hands down,” Cureton said.
Unfortunately, during the 1984-85 season, Toney began experiencing pain in his feet. This led to conflict with then-Sixers owner Harold Katz, who questioned whether Toney was actually hurt. The team had just awarded Toney with a lucrative contract after his second straight All-Star season in 1983-84.
After an ugly public dispute, it was found that Toney had stress fractures in the navicular bones in both his feet. He played just 87 games his last three seasons.
And just like that, a career that seemed destined to end with Hall of Fame enshrinement ended not long after his 30th birthday.
“I remember Andrew telling me after he [retired],” Cunningham said, “and he’s down in Atlanta and he went to a YMCA or some place to play a little pick-up basketball, and he couldn’t walk after trying to play. He was in such pain with his feet.”
If not for the injuries, there seems to be a consensus from those that watched Toney closely that he’d be right there with his enshrined teammates from 1982-83.
“Andrew dominated,” Cureton said. “If no injuries or nothing happened to him, he was going to be a Hall of Famer. Look where everybody [from that team] is at. Bobby’s in the Hall of Fame, Moses in the Hall of Fame, Doc in the Hall of Fame, Maurice just went into the Hall of Fame. Andrew Toney, rightfully, should be right there with them.”
Giving Toney his due
These days, Toney lives down in Atlanta. Erving also lives in the area and the two play golf from time to time. Erving said Toney takes his golf game just as seriously as he once did his game on the court.
During the 1982-83 season, Erving was 32 years old and still looking for his first NBA championship after capturing two titles in the ABA. He wasn’t in his prime but was still a star. As the playoffs came around, Erving took on a lesser offensive role.
While Malone, who was the league’s MVP for a second straight season, was the focal point, Toney was just as important to the team’s offense.
“[In the Finals against L.A.], it was Moses inside, Andrew outside,” Erving said. “You look at the footage of those plays, we were probably calling as many plays for him as we did for Moses. ... You could never tell how many plays were called for him based on his statistics because he just created his own statistics. Coming down and trying to set something up you’re always looking for some type of advantage, and Andrew was the main guy in that regard.”
Though Toney had bravado — and the scoring ability to back it up — he was by no means a selfish player. He wanted to win.
And he proved that, often taking a backseat to other stars on the team and backing up Cheeks as the team’s point guard throughout their time together.
“He just had unlimited abilities,” Cunningham said. “Of all the players on that team, Andrew Toney sacrificed more than anyone. Winning was the most important thing to him so therefore he would do whatever was necessary.”
But what about his relationship with the organization?
Toney and Katz have made up after all these years. Toney was even at a game a few years ago when the Sixers were celebrating the anniversary of the 1982-83 team — though he didn’t speak to reporters or take part in a pregame ceremony.
“Andrew was a tremendous player,” former Sixer Clint Richardson told Zumoff, “and I’m just praying that at some point Andrew will get his recognition in the organization that he deserves. I’m not sure how it’s going to happen.
“I’m trying to facilitate some things with him, but he definitely needs to be recognized as one of the top players in the Sixers organization. I think it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of the right time and the right connection with Andrew and him feeling comfortable. I think it’s gonna happen.”
Should No. 22 hang in the rafters at the Wells Fargo Center next to Nos. 2, 6, 10 and 24? Maybe then we’d get to see “The Boston Strangler” ring the bell before a key matchup against the Celtics.
If you ask those that watched him play, the answer would seem to be yes.
For those of us that didn’t, he still feels like a mythical character.
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