Alumni: Billy Cunningham
With 15 of his 17 years in professional basketball split between playing and coaching with the 76ers, Billy Cunningham remains an integral part of the organization’s family and history. Cunningham’s illustrious career in Philadelphia saw him deliver two NBA titles to the Sixers, one as a player and one as a coach.
His first championship came playing alongside Wilt Chamberlain as a member of the 1966-67 team that many feel was the best ever assembled.
“The feeling of accomplishment was truly special,” notes Cunningham. “It was Wilt’s first championship, which added to it as well. The road to that championship went through Boston, and they had won 10 or 11 straight championships, so that was quite an achievement. And then we beat a great team, the Golden State Warriors, in the Finals.” After racking up four NBA All-Star appearances and the aforementioned title, Cunningham suffered a career-ending injury in 1976. Just over a season later, the crafty player known as the “Kangaroo Kid” evolved into a cunning coach when he succeeded Gene Shue as head coach of the Sixers in 1977.
“Well, it was a learning experience,” remarks Cunningham. “I think the smart thing I did was I hired very successful people in the coaching profession that had been around for many years. Jack McMahon, who happened to have been an assistant coach with the 76ers, then Chuck Daly joined me out of the University of Pennsylvania. I had great respect for both men.”
Wasting no time getting into his role, Cunningham piloted the 76ers to 53 regular season wins and a playoff appearance in his first season. But it wasn’t until taking a few lumps at the hands of longtime rival and Eastern Conference power Boston that Cunningham won his championship as a coach in 1983. Still, it was the long road to winning a championship that ranks as one of Cunningham’s fondest memories.
“My greatest memories might surprise people,” states Cunningham. “I’d say there’s a 1 and a 1-A, and you can put them in any order you’d like. They (his greatest memories) would be winning the world championship in 1983, and also a couple years before that. See we had been up 3-1 to the Celtics and then lost the Eastern Conference Finals in 1981. And then the following year we were in the same position, up 3-1 on Boston, then it went to 3-3 and we had to go up there for a seventh game.
“To say the media and the people were a little down on us is a bit of an understatement. But we were able to win that game and go on to play the Lakers in the world championship, which we weren’t able to achieve, but that was a great victory for that team and part of the building process.”
Cunningham proved to be part of the foundation on which the Sixers last two championships were built, forever cementing his legacy with the team.
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