Billy Cunningham played fiercely, coached intensely, and won frequently. And he made it to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame with a career that reads like a how-to book for legends.
As a player and then a coach for the Philadelphia 76ers, he was part of two NBA championship teams. Among his numerous career achievements, he was named to the 1966 All-Rookie Team and three All-NBA First Teams. In 1972-73, he was named the Most Valuable Player of the American Basketball Association and he scored 18 points in the ABA All-Star Game.
His list of honors continued in 1986 when he was elected to the Hall of Fame, in 1990 when he was one of the 10 initial inductees to the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame and in 1996, he was named to the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time Team. He also became an NBA broadcaster on national television and later a part-owner of the Miami Heat.
"When you think about Billy's life, it is amazing," former Philadelphia 76er executive and then-Orlando Magic senior executive vice president Pat Williams told New Miami magazine in 1992. "He was a high school superstar. Then he went to North Carolina and was an All-American. He was a No. 1 draft choice. Then an All-Star. Then he goes into coaching and, percentage-wise, becomes one of the best ever. He rises to the highest level of broadcasting. Then he enters into the [NBA] expansion pursuit and gets it. It's unbelievable. I don't know anything he has done that hasn't worked. It's a remarkable life."
"He was a competitor," said Lewis Schaffel, one of Cunningham's partners in the Miami Heat who grew up with him in Brooklyn. "He would find a way to beat you."
Billy Cunningham discovered the game after receiving a basketball for his fifth birthday. He ran out of his house and to the hoop at St. Rose of Lima grammar school, three blocks away. "I lived there that summer," he later recalled. "I can't put my finger on it exactly, but there was just something about the game. I loved it instantly."
And he played it constantly. Cunningham became a playground regular, a gym rat, and a high school star, leading Erasmus Hall to the New York City Championship in 1961. He was called "the Kangaroo Kid" for his prodigious leaping ability.
Dean Smith, the new coach at the University of North Carolina, was not as impressed, at least not immediately. The school's former coach, Frank McGuire, was the one who had recruited Cunningham, which left Smith with a prize recruit he had never seen. When Cunningham got off the bus in Chapel Hill in the fall of 1961, he was all skin and bones, a freckle-faced redhead with a clumsy, pigeon-toed gait.
"Oh my God," Smith recalled thinking. "How in the world can this kid play ball? He can't even walk."
Not only could he walk, but he was also an All-ACC selection three times and a two-time All-American. The Philadelphia 76ers selected Cunningham in the first round of the 1965 NBA Draft, figuring the 6-foot-6 bony and mobile player would be a guard. In the exhibition season he was assigned to bring the ball up the court against Boston's K.C. Jones, a noted defensive terror. "It looked like the half-court line was around a mile and a half away," Cunningham said.
Philadelphia switched Cunningham to small forward, a position that allowed him to use his tenacity and jumping ability around the boards. As a rookie in 1965-66, he pulled down 7.5 rpg, scored 14.3 ppg and was named to the NBA All-Rookie Team.
As Cunningham was adjusting to the professional game, the 76ers were becoming a powerhouse. Midway through the previous season the club had acquired Wilt Chamberlain from the San Francisco Warriors, and in his first full campaign with the Sixers, he helped them to the Eastern Division title. In the division finals, however, Philadelphia fell to Boston.
In 1966-67, the 76ers dominated the NBA. They annihilated the opposition all season and finished with a 68-13 record. Then they took out Boston in the Eastern Division finals San Francisco in the NBA Finals. That Sixers team has since been hailed as the greatest ever assembled. It was so good that Cunningham, a future Hall of Famer, came off the bench. As a rebounder and jump shooter he averaged 18.5 ppg and 7.3 rpg.
Philadelphia won 62 games the next season, but the Celtics upset the 76ers in the playoffs. Cunningham hit for 18.9 ppg and 7.6 rpg. In 1968-69, Cunningham broke loose, scoring 24.8 ppg and recording 12.8 rpg while earning his first of four consecutive All-Star appearances and the first of three successive berths on the All-NBA First Team.
In 1969-70, Cunningham averaged a career-best 26.1 points, fourth-highest in the league behind Jerry West, Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Elvin Hayes. But while Cunningham was reaching his peak, the 76ers were beginning to crumble. The team finished 42-40 and was bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Milwaukee Bucks.
Cunningham again led the team in scoring in 1970-71, ranking ninth in the NBA with 23.0 ppg. Philadelphia went 47-35, second in the newly formed Atlantic Division, but was ousted again in the first round of the playoffs. The next season, Philly plummeted to 30-52 and missed the postseason and Cunningham (23.3 ppg, 12.2 rpg) was in the last of his four All-Star years. He and Hal Greer were the only key players from the 1967 championship team still playing vital roles. Soon Greer would be alone.
After that season, Cunningham jumped from the NBA to the ABA with the Carolina Cougars. His departure had a disastrous effect on the 76ers, who posted a 9-73 record in 1972-73, the worst mark in NBA history.
Cunningham, though, tore up the ABA. He averaged 24.1 ppg (fourth best in the league) and 6.3 apg (fifth best), leading the Cougars to a 57-27 record, tops in the ABA's Eastern Division. Carolina lost to the Kentucky Colonels in the Eastern Division rinals, but Cunningham's regular-season performance earned him the ABA MVP.
Injuries limited Cunningham to only 32 games in 1973-74, but he still averaged 20.5 ppg. The following season, with the ABA's future in jeopardy, Cunningham returned to the 76ers. Philadelphia fans showed surprisingly little bitterness toward Cunningham, who rewarded them with 19.5 ppg in 1974-75. Still, the Sixers finished 34-48, only the second losing season of Cunningham's career.
His playing days ended on one play in the 1975-76 season. Cunningham had just snared a defensive rebound and was dribbling to the Sixers' free-throw line when, as he later recounted, his knee "just exploded." No one had touched him, although Alfred "Butch" Beard was given a foul on the play. Cunningham would never play again.
"In a way the injury made things easy for me," he added. "I never had to agonize over that decision all athletes face."
But the winning wasn't over. Cunningham began his second basketball career on Nov. 4, 1977, when he was hired to replace Gene Shue at the Sixers' helm. Although he had never coached, he was popular in Philadelphia, and his competitiveness, toughness and intelligence seemed right for the job.
Cunningham guided the 76ers for eight years, reaching the 200- and 300-victory levels faster than any coach before him. In those eight seasons, the team posted a 454-196 record, reached three NBA Finals and captured a championship in 1983. A fiery coach, Cunningham stalked the sidelines with the best of them.
The Philadelphia team Cunningham inherited featured Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Doug Collins, Lloyd B. Free, Darryl Dawkins and Bobby Jones. In 1976-77, the season before Cunningham took the helm, the Sixers reached The Finals, only to fall to the Portland Trail Blazers.
In Cunningham's debut year the team went 55-27 and won the Atlantic Division before losing to eventual-champion Washington in the Eastern Conference finals. The next season, Phily finished 47-35, but lost to the Spurs in the conference semis.
Philadelphia then became a member of the league's elite. With Maurice Cheeks and Lionel Hollins adding vitality to the backcourt, the Sixers roared to a 59-23 record in the 1979-80 regular season and then defeated favored Boston with rookie sensation Larry Bird in the Eastern Conference finals. In The Finals, however, Abdul-Jabbar, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes and the Lakers were too much.
Boston kept Philadelphia out of The 1981 Finals, but the Sixers roared back to the 1982 before falling to the Lakers again. Realizing they needed a dominant big man to contain Abdul-Jabbar, Philadelphia acquired the two-time MVP (1979 and '82) Moses Malone from the Houston Rockets (Malone would win a third MVP as a Sixer in that first season in Philadelphia) before the 1982-83 season.
With Malone in the middle, and Erving, Bobby Jones, Cheeks and Andrew Toney all playing key roles, the 76ers went 65-17 and blew through the Atlantic Division. They swept the Knicks in the conference semis and topped the Bucks in five games to reach another Finals, where they swept longtime nemesis L.A. for the championship.
The following season, the Sixers finished behind Boston in the standings and were upset by the New Jersey Nets in the first round. The 1984-85 season, Cunningham's last as coach, featured the addition of rookie Charles Barkley to the team. Those Sixers advanced to the East finals before losing in five games to the Celtics.
Weary of the NBA lifestyle, Cunningham retired. He coached eight years with 76ers, never finishing lower than second place in the Atlantic and posted a career record of 454-196 (.698). He was elected to the Hall of Fame the following year.
Cunningham became a top analyst for CBS's broadcasts of NBA games. One day he received a call from Zev Buffman, who needed a well-known basketball personality to help secure an NBA franchise for Miami. Buffman and Cunningham decided to team up in the venture, and they brought in Lewis Schaffel and Ted Arison.
In 1987, the NBA Board of Governors awarded the group an expansion franchise to begin play in 1988-89 and thus the Miami Heat was born.