The Lowdown: Billy Cunningham

Years Active: 1966 – 1976

Career Stats: 21.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.8 spg, 0.5 bpg,  45.2% FG, 73.0% FT

Accolades:  ABA MVP (1973), 4x NBA All-Star (1969-’72), ABA All-Star (1973), 3x All-NBA 1st Team (1969-’71), All-NBA 2nd Team (1972),  All-ABA 1st Team (1973), NBA All-Rookie 1st Team (1966), NBA Champion (1967 Philadelphia 76ers)

There are three distinct Billy Cunninghams. For the first three years of his career, he was the 6th Man for the 76ers entering games and delivering a hot dose of instant offense. For the next several years after that, he was perhaps the best forward in all of basketball. His game flourished beyond scoring and encompassed tremendous rebounding and deft passing. However, the last three years of his career were filled with frustrating injuries that eroded a unique and sparkling talent.

Before his hotshot pro career, Cunningham grew up in New York City and then headed down south to attend the University of North Carolina. In his 4 years at Chapel Hill, Cunningham  averaged 24 points and 15 rebounds. At the conclusion of his senior year, 1965, he was named ACC Player of the Year. With such play, it’s unsurprising the Philadelphia 76ers made him the 5th overall pick in the 1965 Draft and back north Billy headed and was immediately injected into one of the great rivalries in the NBA.

The 76ers the previous year had swung a blockbuster trade for Wilt Chamberlain midway through the season. Finishing with a ho-hum 40-40 record, they nonetheless managed to push the Boston Celtics to a 7th game in the 1965 Eastern Division Finals. The Celtics barely won that game thanks to John Havlicek stealing the ball.

Adding Cunningham was yet another substantial boost for Philly in its arms race with Boston. Featuring super shooting guard Hal Greer and Wali Jones in the backcourt and a frontline of Chamberlain, Chet Walker and Luke Jackson, there was nowhere for Cunningham to find a spot, except on the bench. The rookie made the most of it though.

In 27 minutes a night, Cunningham would check in and proceed to slash and drive his way mercilessly to the hoop, either off the dribble or receiving passes from Wilt. He finished his 1st season averaging 14 points and would jump to 18.5 and 19 the next two seasons while still fulfilling the 6th Man role in 27 or 28 minutes a game.

The Sixers improved to 55 wins in the 1965-66 season, but were soundly trounced by the Celtics, 4 games to 1, in the Eastern Division Finals. Red Auerbach made it a point for his defense to hound not Greer, Jones or Wilt, but the rookie Cunningham. 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 talented veteran would assume Billy’s off-the-bench minutes.

Red was right. Cunningham saw only 17 minutes a night as Schayes quickly lost faith in him. Billy never had a chance to truly show his stuff in the series, averaging a lowly 5 points on 16% shooting.

1966-67 would see Schayes replaced as coach by Alex Hannum. Hannum gained the respect of the team that Schayes never commanded and convinced Wilt to embrace a more well-rounded game. His scoring dropped to a then-career low 24 ppg while his rebounding remained high and assists reached a new career-high of 7.8 per game. The rest of the Sixers fell into line in a well-oiled machine and they ripped off a record 68 regular season victories.

This time in the playoffs, Cunningham had the backing of his coach and maintained his role on the team with 15 points and 6 rebounds in 22 minutes a game. The Sixers decimated the Celtics in 5 games in the Eastern Division Finals and then took down the San Francisco Warriors in the Finals, breaking up the Celtics dynasty or so it seemed.

The 1968 Sixers again finished with the best record in the NBA (62 wins), but their edge from the previous season was lost amid Chamberlain’s quest for another record to conquer. Having set a record in team wins the previous year, Wilt was now less enthused with repeating that feat than with becoming the first center to lead the league in assists.  This disrupted the team’s offense and his growing rumblings for a bigger contract further poisoned the Sixers’ chemistry.

In the playoffs, the Sixers would be downed by the Celtics in 7 games as the Sixers’ morale collapsed in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination midway through the series and how it was handled by management. The ensuing shake up saw Chamberlain shipped to California, Hannum replaced with Jack Ramsay and Billy Cunningham assume the role of franchise player.

The 6’6″ Cunningham was a waif at only 210 lbs. Despite this, he was now pressed into service as a PF on numerous occasions and even in some harrowing moments as center. 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. Ramsay, sensing the distinct lack of size the team possessed, particularly following PF Luke Jackson’s season-ending knee injury after 25 games, instituted a small ball offense and a monstrous pressing defense.

The Sixers surprisingly won 55 games despite losing the services of Chamberlain. In the playoffs, they once again met the Celtics. Cunningham maintained his season averages against Boston but Philly lost the series 4-1.

The Sixers thereafter fell into an unfortunate rut as Greer (well into his 30s) began to fade and Luke Jackson never returned to his pre-injury form. In 1970 they won a disappointing 42 games. The Sixers recovered with 47 wins in 1971. In the postseason, they roared back from a 3-1 series deficit against Baltimore to force a Game 7 and in that seventh game they mounted a furious 4th quarter comeback after being down by 20 points. But it was too little, too late as they lost the game and series.

In 1972, the team stunk it up with just 30 wins. By this point, Cunningham was frustrated. His individual play had never been finer or more dependable over the previous 4 seasons: 24 points, 12.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 39 minutes a night. He was an All-Star every one of those seasons (3 times a starter). He was an All-NBA member every year (3 times on the 1st Team).

But the losing, it was getting to him and he jumped at the chance to return to Carolina now that it had an ABA franchise:

“If anything, I’m younger this year,” declared Cunningham. “Last year was the kind of season that ages a man. I was on a loser for the first time in my life. I couldn’t wait for the buzzer to end the game and the 76ers’ season.

“Everything feels great when you win,” he added. “You may get tired, but you still feel great.”

Indeed, the jump for Cunningham proved quite successful, if only for one year.

The Cougars had finished a mediocre 35-49 the previous season. With holdover Joe Caldwell the addition of Cunningham along with Mack Calvin and Steve “Snapper” Jones created a powerhouse team. Coached by Larry Brown, the Cougars pummeled the opposition to a league-best 57-27 record.

For Cunningham, it may have been his finest individual season: 24 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists and 2.5 steals a game while shooting a career-high 49% from the field. And lest you think the the ABA competition (or lack thereof) inflated the numbers, the Cougars went 5-1 against NBA teams during an exhibition slate that year.

The Kangaroo Kid, now aged 29, was voted the Most Valuable Player of the ABA that year and the Cougars smoked the New York Nets in the opening round of the playoffs (4-1). Their next opponent was perennial contender Kentucky led by Dan Issel, Artis Gilmore and Louie Dampier. The Colonels had finished just a game behind Carolina in the regular season standings and sure enough this series was just as tight.

After going down 2-1, the pendulum swung back in Carolina’s favor and they were able to take a series lead at 3 games to 2. The 6th game in Louisville turned into a rout as the Colonels forced a 7th game back in Carolina. The Colonels proceeded to thump the Cougars in Charlotte. Trailing by as much as 17, the Cougars’ guards couldn’t make a shot and the bricks fired up the Kentucky fastbreak leading to a final score of 107-96.

It was a devastating loss, but Carolina’s fortunes worsened the next year as Cunningham missed all but 32 games with a kidney ailment and the Cougars fell back to 47 wins. Returning in time for the postseason, Cunningham disappointed mustering only 7 points and 5 rebounds a game in 20 minutes a night. The Colonels swept the Cougars and Cunningham had played his last game for Carolina.

Finally finished with his ABA contract, which he charged had been breached some time ago, Billy returned to the NBA and the 76ers. During his absence the team had fallen on incredibly hard times. While he was winning MVP and 57 games in the ABA in 1973, the Sixers had collapsed to 9-73, the worst record in NBA history. The next season in ’74 was hardly better as the squad managed 25 wins.

Cunningham had a bounce back season after his kidney problems (20 points, 9 rebounds, 5.5 assists) and the Sixers had drafted Doug Collins who was quickly developing into an all-star guard, but the team was still rebuilding and not good enough for a postseason appearance finishing 35-47.

Now 32 years old, Cunningham was the sage veteran on the Sixers and the rebuild looked complete in 1976. His minutes fell below 35 a game for the first time since 1968 when he was a 6th Man. But the drop was welcomed since the Sixers had signed George McGinnis and drafted World B. Free. Along with Collins, Cunningham and Fred Carter this was a team to be reckoned with.

They jumped out to a sizzling 13-6 start and Cunningham easily cut back on his scoring (13.7 ppg) while still maintaining his zeal for rebounding (7.4 rpg) and passing (5.1 apg). However, the feel good story of the 76ers being revitalized in America’s bicentennial year was marred in the 20th game that season. Billy blew his knee out against the Knicks and would never play again. On pace for 57 wins, the Sixers instead won only 46 that season and were defeated by the Buffalo Braves in the playoffs.

Cunningham would take over as coach for the Sixers in 1978 and would lead them to 5 Eastern Conference Finals, 3 NBA Finals and one championship in 1983 making him apart of both of the 76ers’ two titles.

The Kangaroo Kid was simply spectacular as a player. One of the quickest forwards of his era able to slash and dash to the rim with impunity. His leaping and his ability to contort and squirm while in the air made him even more dangerous. For his career he took 7 free throw attempts a game as opponents hacked away as the only resort to stop him.

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, Cunningham would average 5 assists per game, good enough to finish 1st or 2nd on his teams in the category.

He wasn’t all flash, though. Despite his size, he regularly threw his body down low and mixed it up on the boards averaging 10 rebounds a game for his career. Elgin Baylor and Charles Barkley are the only players shorter than Cunningham to have averaged 10 boards a game for their career.

Combining all these skills into one package, you’ll see that few players in the NBA/ABA history have been able to do what Cunningham has. The list of 20/10/4 players goes like this: Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird and Billy Cunningham.

Not bad company to be in.

(as usual, the wonderful Remember The ABA provided excellent material as did Basketball Reference.)

Seth Carstens