Billy Cunningham | Spirit of The Champion

Billy Cunningham

By Curtis Harris

During the All-Star break in 1965, the Philadelphia 76ers traded for the awesome talent of Wilt Chamberlain. Although the team finished the season with a 40-40 record, they pushed the defending champion Boston Celtics to a seventh game in the Eastern Division Finals. That seventh game came right down to the wire.

With the score 110-109 in Boston’s favor, Philadelphia was inbounding the ball with just moments left. Hal Greer tossed the ball in toward Chet Walker when Boston’s super Sixth Man, John Havlicek, intercepted the pass and batted it toward Sam Jones.

With that, Havlicek stole the ball and Philadelphia lost the series.

The 76ers starting lineup was as impressive as Boston’s, but what gave Boston the slight edge was their bench, exemplified by Havlicek. Maybe, if Philly could get a Sixth Man of that caliber, they might finally end Boston’s stranglehold on the title.

Billy Cunningham driving past Bill Russell.

Sure enough, with the 5th pick in the 1965 draft, the 76ers selected Billy Cunningham. Despite standing 6’6”, the “Kangaroo Kid” had averaged 24 points and 15 rebounds during his career at the University of North Carolina thanks. But with Luke Jackson and Chet Walker manning the forward spots in Philly, Cunningham was destined to be the Sixers’ Sixth Man answer for the Boston Celtics.

In 27 minutes a night his rookie season, Cunningham produced 14 points a game thanks to his slashing style on offense, whether off the dribble or receiving passes from Wilt in the post. Cunningham was also a terrific passer and splendid rebounder for his size. Even more important, he never sat still on offense keeping the defense moving, unsettled, and always guessing.

The Sixers improved to 55 wins in Cunningham’s rookie season (1965-66), the best in the entire NBA. Nonetheless, they were unexpectedly trounced by the Celtics, 4-games-to-1, in the Eastern Division Finals.

Celtics coach Red Auerbach had noticed Cunningham’s regular season contributions and made it a point for his defense to mercilessly hound not Greer, Walker, or Wilt, but the Sixth Man rookie. Red figured, if the Celtics could harass the Kangaroo Kid into poor enough shooting, Sixers coach Dolph Schayes would overreact and glue Cunningham to the bench, giving the Celtics a decisive edge since a less troublesome veteran would assume Billy’s off-the-bench minutes.

The tactic worked. Cunningham saw only 17 minutes a night as 76ers coach Dolph Schayes indeed glued him to the bench. Cunningham no action whatsoever in Game 3 of the series During his limited time on the court, Boston’s defense savagely harassed the Billy C into averaging a lowly 5 points on 16% shooting. The experience had been harrowing, but provided valuable experience for Cunningham.

The 1966-67 season would see Schayes replaced as coach by Alex Hannum, one of the best tacticians and motivators in league history. With unvarnished faith from Hannum and another year in the league, Cunningham upped his scoring average to 18.5 points. Pretty admirable given that he played just 27 minutes a game. He also hauled down just over 7 boards a contest.

The Kangaroo Kid hiding behind a Big Dipper screen for the jump shot.

The 68 regular season victories for Philly was breathtaking, but all knew that beating Boston would be the real test. Although Cunningham’s scoring average fell to 12 points against Boston in the East Finals, he remained an integral part of the team. In fact, the beauty of the Sixers that year was that when one player had an off night, someone else was there ready to step into the breach.

That’s how Cunningham could have a rough Game 4 with zero points and then explode in Game 5 with 21 points and 8 rebounds to close out Boston in the East Finals.

Then in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Cunningham uncorked a much needed 26 points in an overtime 141-135 win over San Francisco. Ultimately, keeping the faith in Cunningham as Sixth Man, helped deliver the Sixers a 4-2 series win over the Warriors for the 1967 NBA title.

The 1968 Sixers again finished with the best record in the NBA (62 wins), but their hopes to repeat as champions were severely hampered when Cunningham broke his wrist in the opening playoff round series versus the New York Knicks. Even without Cunningham, the 76ers defeated up-and-coming New York and had Boston down 3-1 in the Eastern Division Finals.

And then Boston came roaring back to win the series in seven games. The final score of Game 7 was 100-96 in favor of the Celtics.

The what-if game is a dangerous one to play, but if the 76ers had Cunningham, it’s doubtful Boston would have upended Philadelphia. Having Cunningham’s offensive punch off the bench could have made up for another player’s off night and sent the Sixers on another trip back to the NBA Finals.

Unfortunately, those are the breaks of the game. With that 1968 loss, Wilt was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers and Alex Hannum departed as coach. In the void left by Chamberlain, the Sixth Man Cunningham became the team’s go-to star the next season.

The undersized Cunningham fighting for a rebound versus the Milwaukee Bucks.

Typically a small forward, Cunningham was pressed into service as a power forward on numerous occasions in the 1968-69 season especially after Luke Jackson was lost to a knee injury. Nevertheless, he responded with a spectacular season: 25 PPG and 12.5 RPG while playing 41 minutes a night on a team that needed every second.

With Cunningham’s inspired play and the addition of Archie Clark via the Chamberlain trade, the Sixers surprisingly won 55 games, Cunningham finished third in MVP voting, and was named to the All-NBA 1st Team. In the playoffs, the Sixers once again met the Boston Celtics. Cunningham maintained his season averages against the archrival, but Philly lost the series 4-1 as the Celtics went on to capture their 11th and final title of the Russell years.

The Sixers thereafter slowly declined as the last members of the title team departed or aged. The timeless Hal Greer finally began to wear down as his brilliant career came to a close. Big Luke Jackson never returned to his pre-injury form. Chet Walker was traded away to the Chicago Bulls.

Cunningham attacking the basket versus the Lakers in the early 1970s.

With the roster turnover the 1970 Sixers won a disappointing 42 games, but behind Cunningham’s continued brilliance and All-NBA play, they recovered with 47 wins in 1971. In the ’71 postseason, they roared back from a 3-1 series deficit against the Baltimore Bullets to force a Game 7. But it was too little, too late as they lost the game 128-120 and thus the series. The Bullets would go on to the NBA Finals after beating the Knicks; for the Sixers it would be their final title push during Cunningham’s playing career.

In 1972, the 76ers missed the playoffs entirely and Cunningham bolted for the ABA’s Carolina Cougars for the 1973 and 1974 seasons. While in the ABA, Cunningham jump started the Cougars to an ABA-best 57-27 record in 1973 and he was named that league’s MVP averaging 24 points, 12 rebounds, and 6 assists per game. An ABA title, however, eluded Cunningham as his Cougars lost in the playoffs to the powerful Kentucky Colonels of Dan Issel, Louie Dampier, and Artis Gilmore in yet another hard-fought seven-game series in an Eastern Division Final.

At age 32, Cunningham returned to the NBA and the 76ers for the 1974-75 season. Instead of the Kangaroo Kid, he was the sage veteran on a Sixers team that was now on the verge of contending once again. The 1976 squad featured George McGinnis (MVP of the ABA in 1975) and young draftees in Lloyd (soon to be World B.) Free and Darryl Dawkins. Teaming these new arrivals with All-Star guard Doug Collins, All-Star forward Steve Mix and scoring ace Fred Carter, this was indeed a team to be reckoned with.

Cunningham leading the Sixers fast break in the mid-1970s.

The 1976 edition of the 76ers jumped out to a sizzling 13-6 start as Cunningham dramatically cut back on his scoring average (13.7 PPG) to make room for the younger players while still maintaining his zeal for rebounding (7.4 RPG) and playmaking (5.1 APG). However, the feel good story of the 76ers being revitalized in America’s bicentennial year was marred in that seaon’s 20th game. Billy blew his knee out against the Knicks (yet another ill-timed injury for him against that club) and he would never play again. On pace for 57 wins before Cunningham’s injury, the Sixers instead won only 46 that season and were defeated by the Buffalo Braves in the playoffs.

Despite the untimely end to his playing career, Cunningham wasn’t done just yet with the Sixers. He would take over as a stomping, fiery coach for the team in 1978 leading them to five Eastern Conference Finals appearances, three NBA Finals trips and one championship in 1983. When he retired as coach after the 1986 season, Cunningham had spent the better part of two decades with the Sixers helping them capture both of their NBA titles in the process.

Cunningham coaching the Sixers in the early 1980s.

With that said, let’s cut to the chase: Billy Cunningham was simply spectacular as a player. One of the quickest forwards of his era, he was able to slash and dash to the rim with impunity. His quick leaping and ability to contort and squirm while in the air made him even more dangerous while attacking the basket.

Cunningham still had enough sizzle left over from scoring to find open teammates and work some magic as a point forward. After becoming a full-time starter in 1969, Cunningham would average 5 assists per game over the rest of his career; good enough to finish 1st or 2nd on his team in the category every season.

He wasn’t all flash, though. Despite his size, he regularly threw his body down low and mixed it up on the boards averaging a robust 10 rebounds a game for his career.

To sum up the agility, completeness, and utility of Cunningham’s game, let’s take a look at all the players to have averaged over 20 PPG, 10 RPG and 4 APG for an entire career.

Here’s the list:

  • 1. Wilt Chamberlain
  • 2. Elgin Baylor
  • 3. Larry Bird
  • 4. Billy Cunningham

Not bad company for the Kangaroo Kid.