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Ex-76er Toney now fights pain, bitterness

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was never a matter of memorizing dead spots on the parquet or the way the lip of the south rim bent ever so slightly. The lighting? Nothing out of the ordinary, Andrew Toney reports. In fact, said the former Philadelphia 76ers guard, the only thing special about the creaky court on 150 Causeway Street was that it served as the stage for his most famous role: the Boston Strangler.

"My first step out of the locker room, I was in range," Toney says. "It was easy. I have no explanation for it. It was just easy for me to score at Boston Garden."

The ease with which Andrew Toney would loft 20-foot daggers into the hearts of Celtics teams became legendary during the early '80s, when Philadelphia and Boston were the true Bad Boys of the East, and their rivalry was one of the fiercest in professional sports.

Andrew Toney has not been in uniform since Feb. 27, 1988, when he played 17 minutes and scored three points in his final National Basketball Association game. A pair of ravaged feet forced him into retirement at 30.

The Boston Strangler may be gone, but he is hardly forgotten. The mere mention of Andrew Toney's name still sends shivers up the spine of many a Celtics veteran, and a smile to those Sixers who remember when.

"Andrew Toney is the best player I ever played with," asserts Charles Barkley. "When I first got to Philadelphia, everyone kept asking me, 'How's Dr. J? What's Moses like? How about Maurice Cheeks?'

"I told them, 'They're all fine, but wait until you see Andrew.' "

Danny Ainge remembers the first time he saw the Strangler. Ainge was a rookie with Boston, and Toney welcomed him to the NBA by raining jump shots on his head.

"He was the toughest guy I ever guarded," says Ainge. "I still talk about him all the time. I was telling the guys in Portland about him last week.

"I still wake up in the middle of the night screaming his name."

Remember how No. 22 sized up a double-team, smiled ever so slightly, then busted both defenders with a fadeaway? How he lined up for the long ball, forcing the defense to play him tight, then whirled and drove to the hole, leaving a frustrated Celtic in his wake? How he snickered as they overplayed him to his left, because he could go either way with the same lethal results?

"You say that name to me, and it messes up my day, even after all those years," says former Celtic M. L. Carr. "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. There was only one way I ever found to stop him. You got him away from the ball, made sure no referee was looking, then laid a forearm to his face."

The Celtics feared Toney so much that they traded for a defensive stopper by the name of Dennis Johnson in 1983, just to find a way to curb the Strangler's assault.

When Toney says he was unstoppable, it's without a trace of bravado; it's more like an accountant ticking off his business assets.

"I was a road warrior," says Toney. "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."

That is not what Andrew Toney does now. A pair of stress fractures that went undetected for a long time caused his decline, which included an ugly battle with owner Harold Katz that left both parties bloodied and muddied. In fact, since Toney left the Sixers, he has not set foot inside the Spectrum. He also has not spoken with any Philadelphia reporters.

But more than emotional scars remain.

"My feet are still a problem," he says. "You know how it is. You play one night, and you start to heat up, and the more you're in, the more you want to go.

"Then I go home, and I'm back in the same old agony and pain again. It's unbearable sometimes, and I want to be past that stage. I probably shouldn't play at all."

In the three years since he last appeared in an NBA game, Toney has tried to come to grips with the abrupt and controversial ending of his career. Those who were there still wince when asked about the demise of an All-Star.

"The whole city was divided over what happened to Andrew Toney," says former Sixers coach Billy Cunningham. "It was a sad, sad ending to a great career."

Financially, Toney is still tied to the Sixers. They will pay him roughly $700,000 this season, just as they have the previous two. His contract runs through 1991-92, and next season he will make about $460,000.

In the meantime, Toney is a part-time scout for Cunningham's Miami Heat, and spends his time "watching a lot of exciting players."

"I don't dwell on what happened to me anymore," he says. "It has passed. I had an opportunity to show my talent, and I did that."

Toney has seen Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson and others, but they aren't the same, he says.

"To be honest, I haven't seen anyone in the game with the confidence I had," he says. "I had a really tough conscience. I would pull up and take the shot any time, anywhere, in any situation.

"And you know what? They went in."

On May 23, 1982, there was absolutely nothing wrong with Andrew Toney's feet. It was Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, and the Celtics had come roaring back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the series and force a rubber game in Boston Garden.

The Sixers had Julius Erving, Bobby Jones, Moses Malone, Mo Cheeks and the Boston Strangler, but they also had a history of being unable to finish the job in postseason.

They walked into the Garden under tremendous pressure.

"Everyone left us for dead," says Matt Guokas, who was an assistant to Cunningham that year. "The media was questioning our character. They said we were losers. We weren't exactly confident marching into Boston Garden."

Up to that point in the postseason, Toney had averaged 23.6 points and shot 52 percent. But in the Game 5 loss, he shot 6 of 20; in Game 6, he was 1 of 11 with 4 turnovers.

Could it be the Strangler was choking himself?

"Our strategy was to play him straight up," says Bill Fitch, the Celtics' coach. "Then we made him play some defense, to tire him out. We kept running guys at him, attacking him, because he was foul-prone."

The night after Game 6, Toney remembers being unable to sleep. Did his bad outing bother him that much?

"Oh, no," he says. "I couldn't sleep because I was so excited to get to Boston Garden.

"Everyone was talking about how it was do or die for us. Not me. I was thinking, 'Show and tell, baby.' "

The Garden was packed, the seats full of green people. All of basketball was certain the ghosts of the past would haunt Philly again. Fans draped in white sheets roamed the corridors. Toney and his teammates momentarily mistook them for Ku Klux Klan members.

"Billy pointed at those sheets and told us, 'There, boys, that's your pep talk,' " says Toney.

The Celtics had a reputation for sabotaging opponents; there were stories of everything from no heat in the visitors' locker room to setting off fire alarms in the their hotel the night before.

"But it was the ball boys in Boston that really got me fired up," says Toney. "One time they brought me a gas cap, with the idea I had run out of gas in the last game. Other times they slipped notes into my locker, talking down my game.

"People always talked about the flags and Red Auerbach and all that. Well, I never looked at those flags, and the only time I ever saw Red during a game was the time he ran on the floor to fight with Billy.

"It was the ball boys that ticked me off. They always played mind games that just never worked at all. If they hadn't done the things they did, I might have just had so-so games there."

Ainge claims the worst thing you could do to Andrew Toney was present him with a challenge.

"When I first came into the league, Bill Fitch told me to be physical with Andrew," Ainge says. "He told me to push him, bump him, follow him everywhere. It took me a couple of years to realize that's exactly what you don't do.

"The key was to pretend he wasn't there, to let him go wherever he wanted. If you offered no challenge at all, he'd get bored and pass the ball to someone else. But if you challenged him, he'd take you apart."

Toney shredded the Celtics and the ghosts in Game 7, shooting 14 of 23 from the floor and finishing with 34 points. His clutch, falling 17-footer with Cedric Maxwell along for the ride in the fourth quarter proved to be the final blow, enabling Philly to break open the game and pull away to a 119-94 victory.

Toney and Erving were so impressive that Garden fans found themselves chanting the now-famous "Beat LA" cheer.

After the game, Erving announced, "There is no legal way to stop Andrew Toney."

The Sixers lost to the Lakers in the Finals, but came back in 1982-83 to win the championship. Toney averaged 19.7 points and shot 50 percent in the title season. In the championship series against LA, he averaged 22 points a game. Philly swept, 4-0, and accepted its hardware in front of a solemn Forum crowd.

"There is nothing like silence on the road," says Cunningham. TC "It's the greatest applause, and Andrew knew just what it sounded like."

In the middle of the 1984-85 season, Toney began experiencing pain in his feet. He missed the final four games of the regular season, but played in 13 playoff games.

"My feet are killing me," he said when it was over. Yet the Sixers' medical team could not pinpoint the problem. It wasn't until the following November, after Toney played six games in excruciating pain, that he was diagnosed with double stress fractures.

He missed the rest of the season. In 1986-87, he played 52 games, averaging 20 minutes and 10 points, but his relationship with the franchise was deteriorating steadily. The Sixers felt Toney could play. Toney insisted his injuries prevented him from doing so. Eventually, he was activated and told he'd be fined if he refused to cooperate.

Bill Walton, who suffered through a similar situation, went public with his outrage. The talk shows in Philadelphia debated nothing else. The players and front office backed different versions of the story.

Meanwhile, the Strangler was a shadow of himself.

"No one guard in the league could stop me," he lamented. "Now they all can."

Toney believes the recurring pain is a result of pushing the original stress fractures to the limit.

"It was a case of playing too long on injured feet," he says. "I didn't have any swelling, and the tendency is to convince yourself nothing is wrong. I played on them too long that way, and it caught up with me."

In January 1987, the Sixers put Toney on the injured list, saying he had become a negative influence on the team. He was instructed not to appear in the locker room. He was not to attend practice. He was forbidden to sit on the bench during games. Said general manager John Nash, "His demeanor has been a source of distraction."

Toney acknowledges that the stress of the controversy affected him. He felt he could trust no one. One afternoon, when reporters approached him for an interview, he reached back into his locker, pulled out a tape recorder, then turned on a homemade tape -- complete with background music -- stating his position.

"I didn't want people manipulating my thoughts anymore," he says. "I figured they couldn't change what was on the tape. Besides, I wanted to throw them off-balance."

By that time, the war of words between Toney and Katz had escalated. The team was in turmoil, and morale was low.

"He was hurt and they didn't believe him," says Barkley, who arrived in 1984. "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. I have one stress fracture right now, and I can't imagine what it's like to have two.

"The bad thing was they made it a question of honor, and that was too much for Andrew."

Toney said the Sixers even asked him to submit to a drug test, which he passed. A former team official confirmed this.

Katz finally told Toney he would be paid if he retired. The deal was struck, but the damage was long done.

"An organization will always throw all types of stones so they can find out which ones hurt," says Toney. "I was in a tough situation with Harold. When you are criticized publicly as a player, then you come back in defense, and it gets kind of dirty. Both sides did a lot of firing off at the mouth.

"I don't have any hang-ups about the decisions Harold made, or the ones I made. There's no reason to point fingers. It's over.

"I was not going to let anyone determine things for me. I stood up for the decision I made. I can live very comfortably knowing I did that."

Katz declined to be interviewed for this story. Whenever the Sixers come to town, the Celtics start reminiscing. Images of Andrew Toney come rushing back; first there's a rush of fear, then a wave of sadness.

"It never should have happened like this," says Carr. "Andrew should have had a 12-year career, should have been a Hall of Famer."

He will likely have to settle for a place in the Celtic Hall of Fame -- as the single most terrifying opponent they ever faced.

"It wasn't fear, it just seemed that way because he scored so many points," says Larry Bird. "We did just about everything we could to stop him, but we usually didn't."

Could anyone stop Andrew Toney?

"The only guy that really put the clamps on me was T. R. Dunn," says Toney, "and the only reason he could do that was because he grew up in Birmingham with me, and we played together year in and year out.

"DJ was a good defender, but I thought he was a little too slow for me. The guy that played me the best on the Celtics was Gerald Henderson. He was good at reading my moods and playing me that way. But that's not to say he stopped me. I don't think anyone could really stop me."

Toney says he hasn't been to Boston Garden since he retired. He doesn't think much about the flags, or Red, or the creaky floor.

"But I do miss those ball boys," says the Boston Strangler. "Tell them I said hello."

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