Professional basketball is, by and large, a nomadic occupation.
Even if a player, coach or executive has a prolonged stint in a city, there’s persistent movement from place to place. You win in New York, then ship up to Boston. Lose in Boston, then catch some sleep on a flight to Los Angeles. You wake up and try your best, yet again, to perform well for a few hours. There are a lot of business trips that blend together.
Billy Cunningham, a Brooklyn native, was not exempt from this life of perpetual motion, but it’s easy to feel like he was. The “Kangaroo Kid” was a fixture of the Sixers organization, a figure who overlapped eras and stood for excellence and competitiveness. He leaped high for rebounds, paced up and down the sidelines and won a lot of basketball games.
“I was blessed to have been involved in the Russell-Chamberlain era and then the Bird-Erving era,” Cunningham told NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Marc Zumoff in a recent interview. “Just two great eras of the game of basketball.”
In the nine seasons Cunningham was with the Sixers as a player, the team went 439-296. The season after he left for the ABA — he won 57 games in 1972-73 with the Carolina Cougars in Larry Brown’s first year as a professional head coach and took home the league's MVP award — the Sixers went 9-73. As a head coach, Cunningham’s record was 454-196. That’s a .698 winning percentage, the fourth-best in NBA history.
Shifting from playing success to coaching success is not always easy. Intelligence is inevitably one part of a great player's arsenal, but instinct usually is, too. There are exceptions, but evidence of deliberate thought on the court often coincides with inaction and slowness. You also can’t teach how to block shots like Wilt Chamberlain or dunk like Julius Erving.
An NBA champion as a 23-year-old player in the 1966-67 season and as a 39-year-old coach in 1982-83, Cunningham was clearly cut out for both jobs. The memories of his playing days weren’t too distant. As his Sixers were attempting not to squander another 3-1 series lead to Boston in the 1982 playoffs, Cunningham thought back to 14 years earlier, when he’d watched glumly as Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Chet Walker and company lost three straight games for the first time all season at the worst possible moment.
“That’s right there with winning the championship,” Cunningham told Zumoff of the Sixers’ Game 7 win over the Celtics. “I sat on the bench in the ’67-68 season — I’d broken my wrist against the Knickerbockers in the playoffs. We were up 3-1 and lose, and then the Celtics go on to beat the Lakers. Then I experience [losing after being up] 3-1 in [1980-81], when the Celtics came back and beat us. And here we are.
“The media was questioning everyone’s heritage the day before. … It was just one of those games where we played flawless basketball. It was just a beautiful game from a coaching standpoint — every button you pressed, it worked.”
The Sixers fell to the Lakers in the Finals that season but returned the next year and, thanks in no small part to MVP Moses Malone, pulled off a sweep. (NBC Sports Philadelphia is re-airing that series this weekend.) They haven’t won a championship in the 37 years since, of course, and Cunningham regrets that he couldn’t personally deliver another one.
“One thing I’ve always been a little disappointed with myself about," he said, "is I couldn’t find a way to get us back to that level of playing that we did in . … Every button and anything I tried to do, I wasn’t able to get them back there mentally, more than physically, to the level we were the previous year.”
The Sixers franchise has three titles in 71 years. With Cunningham involved, they had two championships in 17 seasons.
Even though he traversed the country on many occasions, Cunningham will be remembered as a Sixer, Brooklyn accent and all. That sure seems fair enough.
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