Exclusive interview with Earl Cureton - 8/17/2011
Earl Cureton was drafted by the Sixers in 1980 at 58 overall and played a reserve role at power forward for them from 1980-83, coming off the bench during Philadelphia's storied championship run. He played professionally until 1997 and enjoyed a career that included two stints in Italy, another in France and a second ring with the Houston Rockets in 1994. We recently sat down with "The Twirl" to talk about his long career, the many stars he's played alongside, and his life after basketball.
Sixers.com: Back in May, you completed your college degree more than 32 years after leaving school to play basketball. How did that come about?
Earl Cureton It was just a void that I had to fill after all these years. I always promised [his mother] to get it. As the years went by, I was playing in Europe and the NBA but it stayed in the back of my mind, especially when youíre talking to young kids about the importance of education. I wanted to fulfill that for myself and also to honest to the kids. Iíve done three camps this summer and it felt a lot better giving that message about education knowing that I completed my degree.
S.C: Where does getting your degree rank in comparison to winning two NBA Championships?
EC: Like I tell the kids, it ranks up top. BasketballÖ that comes and goes but your education is always going to be with you for the rest of your life. It was something that should have been done a long time ago but it was never too late to finish.
S.C: In addition to working camps and speaking to kids, what else have you been involved with since your playing days ended?
EC: Iím trying to get involved in any aspect that I can. Iíve done minor league basketball; I had an ABA team out in L.A. for a few yearsÖ I did the CBA. I did some scouting up in New York and I had a stint coaching in the WNBA with Detroit and in Charlotte. I did radio down in Charlotte and up in Toronto. I would love to get back into the NBA in some aspect whether itís broadcasting or coaching.
S.C: What was your mindset coming into the NBA from a small college and playing for a Sixers team that had just made the Finals in 1980?
EC: I knew it was a great team and at that particular time, there were only 23 teams in the league. My mindset was that I might as well try out for the best team in the league. I came in with a non-guaranteed contract but at least if I couldnít make it there, I got released by the best team; that was better than getting released by like Cleveland or somebody like that! I wasnít afraid of the situation. I knew that if I came in and played as hard as I could that I would give myself an opportunity.
S.C: Was it tough only playing a few minutes a game as a rookie?
EC: I stayed positive about it. I grew up idolizing Dr. J and here I had the opportunity to play with him and be in the same locker room. To me, it was just a great experience. I was humble with that situation but at the same time, I wasnít content. I wanted to work at finding a way to get minutes. I didnít play a whole lot in Philadelphia but I had the opportunity to play some key minutes and have a role with the team.
S.C: As a rookie, you were teammates with Doug Collins before injuries ended his career and then ending up playing for him in his first season as head coach of Chicago. What was he like as a teammate and a coach?
EC: Doug was a great teammate. It was unfortunate with his injury. He was only there for a short period of time, but I learned a lot from him coming in as a young player about how to survive and what to do in the league. Iíve had some great coaches over the years, but Doug had to be one of the best xís and oís guys that Iíve ever played for. Thatís saying a lot because I played for Chuck Daley, Billy Cunningham and Rudy Tomjanovich. Iíve always said Doug is a mastermind when it comes to xíing and oíing. He makes things so clear and so understandable that you canít help but to go out there and run things right. Heís a great communicator.
S.C: Obviously adding Moses Malone in the summer of í82 was a huge boost for the team, but were you guys also motivated to bounce back from the Finals loss to the Lakers?
EC: It was true perseverance for us. That was put on our ring. My first year, we were up 3-1 vs. Boston and they came back to take that away from us. Then coming back the following year and getting to Game 6 of the Finals; we felt our time was coming. To add Moses to that team, that was just awesome. I remember calling Andrew [Toney] and saying Ďthis is it right hereÖ this is going to be our year.í With him [Moses] and Doc together, that just brought great chemistry to our team.
S.C: Thereís a lot of talk these days about superstars playing together and having to find a way to make it work, but Dr. J and Moses seemed to integrate pretty seamlessly. Why was that?
EC: Moses knew it was Docís team; he had no problem with thatÖ Moses just wanted to win. I never met a guy who played as hard as Moses Malone and competed as hard as he did. He came in and accepted his role; there were no egos. They just had common goals and that was to win an NBA championship. They meshed well together and we just had a good team. It was probably the happiest team I played on. Everybody knew what their roles were, accepted them and was ready to do whatever it took to win basketball games.
S.C: Members of the í83 team always speak about the bond they had, especially amongst the bench players. Do you think that was because you had so many guys around the same age and from similar backgrounds of coming from smaller schools?
EC: I think thatís really important. Itís not necessarily the most talented teams who win championships but itís teams who know their roles and know how to play together and really like each other. We genuinely liked each other on and off the court. To this day, we all communicate. We knew who we were and knew what we wanted to accomplish and I think that played a big role in us being able to win an NBA Championship.
S.C: One of the reasons why the í83 team is held in such high regard is the way you guys steamrolled through the playoffs. Was it especially sweet to be able to sweep the Lakers for the title after losing to them in the Finals the previous year?
EC: We came out after so many disappointments and didnít take anything for granted. Each year, the focus got a little bit stronger. We knew we had to bring more and more each year to try and reach that goal; thatís what made it so special. When you go through as many disappointments as we did and then have the opportunityÖ you donít want it to slip through your hands.
S.C: Itís kind of become a bit of an urban legend over the yearsÖ but do you remember any instances of Moses padding his offensive rebound numbers?
EC: Itís kind of gotten overblown. Moses worked so hard. If the shot was going in or if he missed it, he was going after it anyway. There could have been some occasions where he might have laid it up there and grabbed an extra rebound but he went after every rebound. Every time the ball went up, he was somewhere around. He was like a magnet going towards the basketball. I donít think you can take anything away from him rebounding the way that he did and the effort he put in each night.
S.C: Youíre one of the few players who got to play with Dr. J and a young Michael Jordan. What kind of characteristics did they share?
EC: They were extremely competitive and extremely professional. I just liked their work ethic. Michael was so competitive in practice and DocÖ I canít recall him missing practice; he was always there. Both of those guys approached the game in the same manner.
S.C: In 1994, you joined the Rockets very late in the season after being out of the NBA for a while and helped Houston during its title run. How did that come about?
EC: I was playing with Magic [Johnson] and his travelling team. We were playing everywhere. We had a stint where we played against several CBA teams. I had a scout come down and see me named Joe Ash, who was a scout when I was playing in Philly. Joe watched the game and Houston was looking for a big guy at that particular time. He knew I had playoff experience and was a guy who could come in and not cause a problem because the Rockets were a close-knit team. Joe asked me if I would be interested in coming in and there was no question about it.
S.C: Having played with both Moses Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon, who was the more dominant player?
EC: I always tell people when they ask thatÖ Moses taught Hakeem. He was the guy who taught him how to play. Hakeem turned out to be a great player. Theyíre just two great centers. I watched the Dream have an amazing year. Itís the same thing with Moses. Thatís a tough comparison between those two. The only thing I can say about that is his teacher was Moses Malone [laughs].
S.C: In 1996-97, you had another brief comeback at the age of 39. When you entered the league in 1980, did you ever think you would still be around for nearly two decades?
EC: I was fortunate enough to go to the Raptors. That was more of a mentoring type thing. Isiah [Thomas] had a really young team. We had a bunch of young players that Isiah was concerned about and wanted a couple veterans around them to teach them what it was all about. I still stay in contact with a lot of those guys to this day. Damon Stoudamire and I used to sit up at night and I used to tell him stories about the Philadelphia series and how we had to persevere to win the championship. Ten or so years later, he told me how he went through a similar situation in Portland and all that stuff played back in his mind when they blew a series against the Lakers.