NBA 75th Anniversary Season

Archive 75: Billy Cunningham

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Billy Cunningham

There is a lot of talk these days about “efficiency,” an analytics-based trait that touts players who get their results without a lot of wasted movements, scattered energy or squandered possessions.
Billy Cunningham was nothing if not efficient.

And we’re not talking only about the advanced metric of “player efficiency rating,” which has the 6-foot-6 Hall of Fame small forward of the Philadelphia 76ers ranked 80th all-time. Cunningham’s 20.04 PER puts him ahead of other NBA 75 legends such as Kevin McHale, Steve Nash, Bob Cousy, Walt Frazier, Grant Hill, Bill Russell and a whole lot of other NBA stars.

We’re also talking efficient in terms of Cunningham’s ability to get in, get busy, get the job done and get out. He was an All-Rookie selection in his first year, an NBA champion in his second, a four-time All-Star by 28, the ABA’s Most Valuable Player in his first season (1972-73) after switching leagues.

Cunningham was done as a player at age 32 and, one year later, he took over as the Sixers’ coach at 34. He became the fastest coach to reach 200 victories to that point, then the fastest to 400. Along the way, he led Philadelphia to The Finals in his third and fifth seasons, then helped Julius Erving, Moses Malone and the rest in 1983 snag the franchise’s most recent NBA championship.

By 1985, still only 42, Cunningham was done, stepping down from the Sixers post. A year later, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. From there, he spent time as a top NBA broadcaster and, in 1988, partnered in upper management with the expansion Miami Heat.

It’s amazing what Cunningham crammed into such a short time, nearly half his lifetime ago.

Cunningham’s sense of timing wasn’t always so ideal: When the Brooklyn native was recruited by the University of North Carolina, the Tar Heels’ coaches switched — from Frank McGuire to Dean Smith — before he arrived on campus.

The lean, springy leaper, who earned the nickname “Kangaroo Kid,” became a collegiate star in the days before Smith’s program was a national powerhouse. As such, Cunningham became the first UNC player to be enshrined in the Springfield HOF, but he also was a rare Tar Heels star who played in neither the NCAA tournament nor the NIT.

That didn’t stop Cunningham from being selected seventh overall in the 1965 Draft and stepping into a Philadelphia team about to make a serious championship push. The Sixers had acquired legendary big man Wilt Chamberlain the season before and had stars such as Hal Greer and Chet Walker and solid performers like Luke Jackson and Wali Jones.

The Kid? He was used in Sixth Man spot, first man off Philadelphia’s bench for coach Dolph Schayes as an instant-office ignitor.

The Sixers jumped kangaroo-like themselves in Cunningham’s rookie season from 40 victories to 55. The leap in Year 2 was even more impressive, to a nosebleed-level 68-13 — the best regular-season record in NBA history to that point.

All the ingredients came together: Schayes was replaced as coach after the disappointing 1966 playoff elimination by Boston. His successor, Alex Hannum, was big, confident and, most of all, a master in dealing with the temperamental Chamberlain.

Hannum convinced the big man — the NBA’s leading and most dominant scorer in each of his first seven seasons in the league — that he no longer had to carry the offensive burden. With teammates such as Cunningham, Walker and Greer, the Sixers had enough firepower. They brought in aging point guard Larry Costello to direct the attack, but persuaded Chamberlain to focus on rebounding, defense, shot-blocking and assists.

Billy CunninghamThe prideful Chamberlain, eager to win after slamming annually into the wall of the Boston Celtics dynasty, agreed to Hannum’s plan. His scoring average dropped from 33.5 to 24.1 ppg, but Chamberlain led the team with 7.8 assists and made a heady 68.3% of his shots. Cunningham, like the rest, benefited from their center’s deft passing out of the high post, which opened the paint for cutters and layups.

Cunningham’s personal style was both unorthodox and creative. He wasn’t a classic jump shooter, mixing in finger rolls and a variety of double-pumps and ball fakes to get his points. His scoring average bumped from 14.3 to 18.5 in his second season, while still playing fewer than 27 minutes nightly.

Philadelphia closed out its marvelous regular season by tearing through Cincinnati, Boston and San Francisco in the playoffs, going 11-4 overall in the three series. Wisely, the Sixers exhaled only briefly after eliminating the dreaded Celtics, locking back in to topple the Warriors. Cunningham averaged 19.7 in The Finals, outscoring Chamberlain (17.7) and helping to counter Rick Barry’s 40.8 contributions to the Warriors.

 

The Sixers seemed to have everything they needed to repeat as champions after the 1967-68 season. They were strong again in the regular season (62-20), finishing first in the Eastern Division while leading the NBA in scoring (122.6 ppg) and ranking fourth in defense (114.0). Cunningham continued to provide that spark in reserve and, even with a coaching change from Hannum to Jack Ramsay, the formula kept working.

Two things happened that derailed Philly’s title hopes in the spring. First, Cunningham fell and broke his right wrist in the semifinals against New York. Then — as Cunningham shared years later — the league and America at large were rocked by the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968. Coming on the eve of the Sixers’ series against Boston, both teams were rattled and uncertain whether they should play. The Celtics faltered early, falling behind 3-1 in the division finals, but the Sixers faltered last by dropping the final three games.

Boston outscored Philadelphia, 788-771, in the seven-game series. Chances are, Cunningham could have made up those 17 points.

 

That Sixers team began to unravel. Ramsay’s style didn’t indulge Chamberlain’s talents or demeanor, so the big man lobbied and got a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers. Others such as Greer and Walker were aging or soon gone.

Cunningham’s role burgeoned. He became a full-time starter, earned his first All-Star appearance, averaged 24.8 points on 21.2 shots and filled the rebounding void left by Chamberlain by grabbing 12.8 boards per game. In fact, the forward hit double figures in rebounding for six consecutive seasons, while averaging between 20 to 26 points each year.

While Cunningham was springing up, the Sixers were slipping down, from 55 victories in 1968-69 to 42 the next year, then to 30-52 in 1971-72. Meanwhile, a rival league — the American Basketball Association — was making headlines by throwing big-money contracts at top college recruits and established NBA stars. When one franchise moved from Houston to North Carolina, it set its sights on Cunningham for his Tar Heel popularity.

The Carolina Cougars went so far as to sign Cunningham before his Philadelphia contract had even run out.
“The reason I made a decision to go to the ABA was simple: I was going to go from $45,000 to $300,000 a year,” he told author Terry Pluto for his 1990 book “Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association.”

Playing for another UNC product, coach Larry Brown, Cunningham was everything the Cougars wanted. At 29, he averaged 24.1 points and 12.0 rebounds, led the league in steals, helped them to a 57-27 record and was named the ABA’s 1973 Most Valuable Player.

Said Brown: “Billy had a career year. In fact, I’ve never had a player who has had as good an all-around season as Billy did with the Cougars. I loved everything about the guy.”

Injuries and the ABA’s financial issues clipped Cunningham’s 1973-74 season short, so he returned to the Sixers for 1974-75. The team still was digging out from its historically bad 9-73 record two years earlier, finishing 34-48.

The next season was no better for Cunningham. It ended after just 20 games when he blew out a knee against New York. At 32, he knew his playing days were done.

Billy Cunningham coaching the Sixers

A spot next to Gene Shue on Philadelphia’s bench, however, turned into an opportunity just two year later. Cunningham meshed with a roster of stars including Erving, Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney and eventually Malone to lead an East powerhouse that clashed year after year with Boston and Milwaukee. That Sixers squad broke through for its one ring in 1982-83, Cunningham lighting up the sort of cigar old rival Red Auerbach used to flaunt.

Even when he moved on to CBS, then Miami, then to a diverse group of business ventures, Cunningham also maintained his appreciation of the game.

“When you look at basketball, it’s poetry, it’s an art,” he once said. “When you watch Julius or [Michael] Jordan or LeBron James, some of the things they do, it’s like a ballet. Their movements — there’s only a couple people on the face of the earth that can do these things.”

Cunningham at least had the hang time. And while he was at it, a great time.

More on Billy Cunningham

+ 75th Anniversary Team player page

+ 75 Stories: Billy Cunningham

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