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.
"When you think about Billy's life, it is amazing," former Philadelphia 76er executive and 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."
In the Philadelphia Daily News, the Boston Celtics' John Havlicek recalled the night he lit up Cunningham for about 25 points. Cunningham finally grabbed Havlicek's shorts as he was trying to come off a screen. "Billy wasn't going to let me beat him again," Havlicek said.
Billy Cunningham received a basketball for his fifth birthday. He ran out of his house to the nearest 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 head 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 to come play for the Tar Heels, which left Smith with a prize recruit he had never seen. When Cunningham got off the bus in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 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-Atlantic Coast Conference selection three times and a two-time All-American. The Philadelphia 76ers selected Cunningham in the first round of the 1965 NBA Draft. The Sixers figured that Cunningham, 6-6, bony and mobile, 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 rebounds per game, scored 14.3 points per contest 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.
The following season Philadelphia won 62 games and the regular-season Eastern Division title, but the Celtics upset the 76ers in the playoffs. Cunningham hit for 18.9 points per game and garnered 7.6 rebounds per contest during the regular season. In 1968-69, Chamberlain had departed via a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers and Jones was slowed by an injury, which allowed Cunningham to break loose. He scored 24.8 points per game and yanked down 12.8 rebounds per contest. His performance earned him the 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 points per game. Philadelphia went 47-35 on the year, second in the newly formed Atlantic Division, but was ousted again in the first round of the playoffs. The next season, the club plummeted to 30-52 and missed the postseason entirely. Cunningham (23.3 ppg, 12.2 rpg) was in the last of his four NBA 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 the 1971-72 season, Cunningham jumped from the NBA to the American Basketball Association to join 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 points (fourth best in the league) and 6.3 assists (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 Finals, but Cunningham's regular-season performance earned him the ABA Most Valuable Player Award.
Injuries limited Cunningham to only 32 games in 1973-74, but he still averaged 20.5 points. 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 points per game in 1974-75. Still, the Sixers finished 34-48, only the second losing season of Cunningham's professional career.
Then his career ended on one play. In a contest only 20 games into 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 the NBA Finals three times and captured a championship in 1983. A fiery coach, Cunningham stalked the sidelines with the best of them.
As one writer remarked, "He whipsawed them, stomped his feet at them, goaded them, drove them and together they had a memorable eight-year run."
The Philadelphia team Cunningham inherited was loaded with talent, including 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 with one of the most exciting teams filled with 12 players who could start on many teams had reached the NBA Finals only to fall to the Portland Trail Blazers.
In Cunningham's debut year the team went 55-27 to take the Atlantic Division title but fell to the Washington Bullets, the eventual NBA champs, in the Eastern Conference Finals in six games. In 1978-79, Philadelphia went 47-35 and lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the conference semifinals.
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 NBA Finals, however, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes, and the Lakers were too much.
Boston kept Philadelphia out of the NBA Finals for the 1980-81 season by winning the Eastern Conference Finals in seven games. The Sixers roared back to the NBA Finals in 1981-82 but fell to the Lakers again. The Philadelphia organization then put together a juggernaut for 1982-83. 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).
With Malone in the middle, and Julius Erving, Bobby Jones, Maurice Cheeks, and Andrew Toney all playing key roles, the 76ers blew through the Atlantic Division with a 65-17 record. They then crushed the New York Knicks in four games in the conference semifinals and Milwaukee in five games in the Eastern Conference Finals. In the NBA Finals, Philadelphia blanked the Lakers in four to win the crown. Malone outrebounded Abdul-Jabbar, 72-30, in the series. "Let's not make believe," Cunningham said. "The difference from last year was Moses."
The following season, the Sixers finished behind Boston in the regular-season standings and were upset by the New Jersey Nets in the first round of the playoffs. The 1984-85 season was Cunningham's last as coach. Charles Barkley came to the team, and the 76ers advanced to the Eastern Conference 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 Division and posted a career record of 454-196 for a winning percentage of .698. The following year, in 1986, he was elected to the Hall of Fame.
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. Thus the Miami Heat was born. The team won at a respectable rate for an expansion club and drew wide interest in southern Florida. The Heat made the playoffs in 1991-92, becoming the first of the then four recent expansion teams to so. The group included the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Minnesota Timberwolves.
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