What’s your favorite NBA nickname of all time?
Magic? King James? The Doctor? Air Jordan? The Round Mound of Rebound? The Dream? The Big Fundamental? The Pearl? Muggsy? The Answer?
Next question, who was the best closer and shooter you ever saw with the game on the line?
Kobe? Mike? Larry Bird? Ray Allen? Robert Horry?
Whenever the conference finals roll around, I’m often reminded that my answer to both of those questions is the same guy, The Boston Strangler. Without reservation, I can easily say that there was no greater nickname than the one bestowed upon the great, yet criminally underappreciated Philadelphia 76’ers shooting guard of the 1980’s, Andrew Toney.
And when it comes to him being the best clutch shooter, you don’t have to take my word for it. You can simply ask some of his biggest rivals.
“I still wake up in the middle of the night screaming his name,” current Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge told The Boston Globe’s Jackie MacMullen in 1991. “He was the toughest guy I ever guarded.”
“You say that name to me, and it messes up my day, even after all those years," former Celtic M. L. Carr told MacMullen. “He was the best when it came to undressing a defensive player. It was a waste of time trying to guard him, because he could pass the ball, too.”
“Do I remember Andrew Toney?” Celtic legend Larry Bird once said. “The Boston Strangler? Yeah, I remember him. I wish we would've had him. He was a killer. We called him the Boston Strangler because every time he got a hold of the ball we knew he was going to score. He was the absolute best I've ever seen at shooting the ball at crucial times. We had nobody who could come close to stopping him. Nobody.”
In fact, Toney was so dominant against the Celtics in the early 1980’s that the franchise acquired Dennis Johnson in a trade with the Phoenix Suns for the sole purpose of trying to contain him.
Before he played in the NBA, Toney, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, was a devastating scorer and remarkable player in the Southland Conference, where he suited up for Southwestern Louisiana, the school that is known today as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
In 1973, the school’s basketball program had been placed on probation due to over 100 prior NCAA violations, but Toney helped resurrect the program, leading them to the Southland Conference title and the quarterfinals of the N.I.T. during his senior season in 1979-80.
He was the model of consistency in college, where he averaged 21.0, 24.5, 23.3 and 26.1 points per game over his stellar four-year career. He might have been an unknown quantity to people who were only familiar with the top players at big name schools, like Joe Barry Carroll at Purdue, Kevin McHale at the University of Minnesota, Mike O’Koren at North Carolina, Mike Gminski at Duke, Kiki Vandeweghe at UCLA and Darrell Griffith at Louisville.
But NBA scouts were intimately familiar with his work. The summer before his senior year, he led the United States team in scoring at the 1979 World University Games and at Russia’s version of the Olympics, the Spartakiade.
“He's a definite first-round pick, with everything you look for,” Dick McGuire, the former coach of the Knicks told Sports Illustrated in 1980. “He's quick and can shoot. But it doesn't take a genius to figure this kid out. You could go up into the stands and ask anyone to pick out the best player on the floor, and they would choose him.”
While Toney was finishing up his senior year in college, Sports Illustrated scribe Anthony Cotton wrote, “At first sight, though, Toney is hardly overwhelming. Weighing only 178 pounds, he looks frail and spindly. His jump shot is not a thing of beauty. Toney rises from the ground stiffly, as if he were being pushed against his will, and holds the ball close to his head while the upper half of his body almost jackknifes toward the defender. The shot looks as if it should be easy to block, but more often than not it is a basket, with Toney then going to the free-throw line to complete a three-point play.”
But perhaps his biggest statement came away from the court, and in a game that he did not play in. He completed his degree requirements and graduated a semester early. The accomplishment was so important to him that he returned to campus in the middle of his team’s west coast road trip to attend his graduation ceremonies, missing the team’s one-point loss to Portland State.
“I was sorry that the team lost, but coming back for graduation meant so much to me after working so hard,” he told Cotton. “My parents had come all the way from Birmingham and I had to be there. Accepting the degree in the mail would not have been right.”
During his first pro season, he instantly became an enemy in the city of Boston when the Sixers and Celtics, both with identical 62-20 records, met up in the Eastern Conference Finals. During the first three games of the series, Toney averaged just under 27 points per game off the bench.
After Game 1, which he won for the Sixers with his end-game free throws, Sports Illustrated’s John Papanek wrote, “Most of the damage was done by Toney, a 23-year-old rookie reserve out of Southwestern Louisiana, who lit up the Garden for 26 points, mostly on odd-looking jumpers that he seemed to squeeze two-handed from behind his head, as though he were shooting giant watermelon seeds. Toney instantly became a certified Boston villain…”
In game 2, he was lustily booed every time he touched the ball en route to scoring 35 points. The Celtics went on to defeat the Sixers in that series despite being down 3 games to 1, capturing Larry Bird’s first ring when they beat Moses Malone’s Houston Rockets 4-2 in the Finals.
Philly got their revenge in the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals, beating the Celtics in seven games. Toney led the Sixers with a 22-point scoring average for the series. But he saved his best work for the decisive Game 7 in Boston. He connected on 14 of his 23 shots en route to 34 points, leading the way in Philly’s dominating 119-94 victory. The Celtic fans, in full appreciation, admiration and respect, started chanting “Beat L.A.!” when the game was obviously out of hand.
After his amazing performance in Game 7, Sixers legend Julius Erving said, “There is no legal way to stop Andrew Toney.”
In the Finals against the Lakers, Toney proved to be much more than a scorer, dishing out 19 assists in the first two games against Norm Nixon, Jamaal Wilkes, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Magic Johnson.
In game 3, he spontaneously combusted for 36 points, and followed that scintillating performance with 28 and 31 points in the next two games. The Lakers would capture the championship in six games, but Andrew Toney captured the imagination of the basketball-loving world with his amazing performances.
The next year in 1983, when Moses Malone joined the team, the Sixers won their elusive NBA title in dominating fashion. They went 12-1 throughout the playoffs, posting the best winning percentage in NBA postseason history.
To this day, that ’83 team is considered, along with the ’96 Bulls, the ’87 Lakers and the ’86 Celtics, as one of the greatest teams in NBA history
Toney was officially given his nickname by Boston’s sportswriters, a respectful nod to his play against the Celtics, and especially in the old Boston Garden, which had a reputation for being unkind to visiting superstars.
While many people complained about the dead spots on the old parquet and other factors that made the visiting arena such a tough place to play, Toney had no qualms.
“My first step out of the locker room, I was in range," Toney told The Globe’s MacMullen. “It was easy. I have no explanation for it. It was just easy for me to score at Boston Garden.”
If you had the privilege of watching him work, especially against the Celtics in a time when Boston vs. Philly was the NBA’s best rivalry, it’s hard to forget The Boston Strangler’s vicious fade-away jump shot, the way he looked like he was pulling up for his jumper before driving to the hole and drawing a foul, or the way he smiled when a double-team came his way.
“I was a road warrior,” Toney told MacMullen. “Lots of guys could step up at home, but very few could do it consistently in someone else's building. I was one of those players. If you needed something on the road, you came to me, and I delivered.”
Sadly, just as he was building a Hall of Fame resume, Toney began experiencing excruciating pain in his feet during the ’84-’85 season. He tried his best to fight through it, but the pain became unbearable. The more time he missed due to the stress fractures in his feet, the more 76’ers owner Harold Katz questioned if he was faking his injuries. He played three more years, but was never again the same otherworldly player.
“He was hurt and they didn't believe him,” Charles Barkley told MacMullen. “It didn't show up on the X-rays right away, and they had some questions. But I can tell you, he was hurt. I saw how painful it was for him to take even one step. The bad thing was they made it a question of honor, and that was too much for Andrew.”
For those who saw him at his best, we’ll never forget the mercurial force of nature he was, before his foot injuries conspired to end the career of one of the most remarkable talents the game has ever seen.
Yeah, Doctor J ushered in a new era of flight, Moses Malone was one of the greatest big men the game has ever seen, Maurice Cheeks was a phenomenal point guard, but on that 1983 Championship Sixers team, Andrew Toney might just have been that team’s best player.
I know that longevity counts when debating the game’s best players of all time. But if you isolate players within a four year window, I’m including Andrew Toney with Michael Jordan, Jerry West, Kobe, John Havlicek, Dwyane Wade and George Gervin as the best shooting guards to ever play.
And in the fourth quarter, with the game on the line, on the road? In the Boston garden against the great Celtics teams of the '80s?
Man, it’s hard to pick against Jordan. But if forced to choose anyone else, I’m taking the Boston Strangler.