Billy Cunningham

The 5 best reserves in Sixers history

The 5 best reserves in Sixers history

We all remember the greats like Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving and Allen Iverson. 

But sometimes, the guys coming off the bench are remembered just as vividly.

With that in mind, we look back on the five greatest reserves in Sixers history:

5. World B. Free

Free’s name is so identifiable with the Sixers that it’s almost strange to think about the fact that he only played four seasons here. The team drafted him in the second round in 1975 out of Guilford College. He spent three seasons here during his first stint, averaging 13.6 points a game as a reserve. He was a key bench scorer for the 1976-77 team that took a 2-0 series lead on the Trail Blazers before ultimately losing in the Finals.

After the team traded him to the Clippers in 1978, Free became an All-Star and one of the best scorers in the league over the next decade. The trade worked out just fine for the Sixers, though. They used the first-round pick they acquired to draft Charles Barkley in 1984.

4. Lou Williams

Drafted in the second round out of high school, Williams’ career started off slow. He averaged just 9.2 minutes a game for the Sixers during his first two seasons. Williams then spent the next five seasons as a dynamic scorer off the bench, averaging 13.3 points a game. He was part of the “Show Ya Luv” Sixers that miraculously took the Celtics to seven games in the second round in 2011-12.

Since departing from the Sixers, Williams has become one of the best bench scorers in the NBA, capturing the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award three times. When his career is over, Williams will likely be regarded as one of the best reserves in NBA history.

3. Aaron McKie

Arguably the greatest Allen Iverson sidekick, the Philly native and Temple grad was acquired as part of the Jerry Stackhouse trade in 1997. The 17th overall pick in 1994, McKie bounced around during the early part of his career. The Sixers were his third team in four seasons ... but boy, did he take advantage of his homecoming. McKie spent parts of eight seasons with the Sixers, winning Sixth Man of the Year during the memorable 2000-01 season.

McKie retired in 2007 and is now the head coach at Temple. Iverson has talked on more than one occasion about the impact McKie had on his Hall of Fame career. 

2. Billy Cunningham

“The Kangaroo Kid” was taken fifth overall out of North Carolina and joined a loaded Sixers team in 1965. Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer and Chet Walker were already in the mix. Because of that, Cunningham spent his first couple seasons as a reserve. He helped the team win a title 1966-67, averaging 18.5 points a game in the regular season and 19.7 in the Finals.

By 1968-69, Cunningham made his first All-Star team on his way to a Hall of Fame career. He’s also arguably the greatest coach in Sixers history, leading the team to its last title in 1983.

1. Bobby Jones

After making three All-Star teams in Denver, Jones was part of the trade that sent fellow All-Star George McGinnis to the Nuggets. “The Secretary of Defense” was a starter the next four seasons, helping the team reach the Finals twice in that span. In 1982-83, Jones agreed to come off the bench and the rest is history. Jones took home the NBA’s first ever Sixth Man of the Year award that season.

An 11-time All-Defensive Team pick, Jones retired as a Sixer in 1986 and was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019. The team has retired Jones’ No. 24.

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Julius Erving, Billy Cunningham and members of 1982-83 Sixers share lessons from path to championship

Julius Erving, Billy Cunningham and members of 1982-83 Sixers share lessons from path to championship

Outside of immense talent, there are nuances of championship teams which might be challenging for an outsider to grasp.

Staying awake and alert for film sessions is not one of them.

In recalling how the Sixers’ NBA Finals defeats in 1977, 1980 and 1982 helped the 1983 team overcome the Lakers, Julius Erving had this to say in a recent interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Marc Zumoff: 

Well, you couldn’t take anything for granted. I remember in ’77, we had a two-game lead over Portland. … After some of the video sessions, I look around and see some guys yawning and rubbing their eyes and whatever. I say, ‘Oh no. This is not good. This is not good.’ I think the group that we had (in 1982-83) and me being the leader, just encouraged guys to stay with it all the way — 3-0 doesn’t mean anything, 2-0 doesn’t mean anything, 1-0 doesn’t mean anything — four. Four wins. And Moses (Malone) said it best, ‘Fo’, Fo’, Fo.’

Clint Richardson, a key reserve guard on the 1982-83 champions who Erving called his “little brother,” wasn’t one of those dozing off, since he was playing at Seattle University when the Sixers were squandering their 2-0 series edge to Bill Walton and the Trail Blazers. He’d experienced disappointment twice in the Finals before the Sixers’ sweep of the Lakers, though, and came away believing there’s nothing wrong with being loose — to a certain point, of course.

“They just need to relax,” he told Zumoff of what the current Sixers can learn from the champions 37 years ago. “I think they need to trust each other a little bit more and have more confidence in each other. But that happens … I think sometimes there’s a tendency to panic and second-guess. I think they just need to relax and play and enjoy what they’re doing. And enjoy Philadelphia. Because the people of Philadelphia, they’re patient enough to wait. They waited for us and we finally came through for them. They just need to embrace that.”

It would be a stretch to draw direct parallels between the last Sixers team to win a title and the current roster. Erving played alongside future Hall of Famers Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones and Malone. Andrew Toney may have been on a Hall of Fame trajectory if not for injuries. One tempting comparison, however, is between the late Malone, a three-time MVP, and Joel Embiid. 

Billy Cunningham, the winningest head coach in Sixers history, thinks there’s one trait Malone had that Embiid should emulate. 

The ingredient I would love to see (Embiid) have … Moses’ philosophy,” he said. “He just believed he’d wear people down. And when he got to the fourth quarter, he was relentless on the offensive boards. I’m sure if you go to statistics, nobody had more offensive rebounds. And Moses couldn’t jump over a piece of paper. It wasn’t like he was someone that’s going to be touching the top of the square or anything like that. 

“If Embiid took that little quality of just being relentless, he is gifted, there’s nothing in the game that he cannot do. He should dominate at the defensive end of the court. No one should even think of going to the lane. When I say that, it’s just admiration for his skill level. I don’t know if there’s many players playing that position that have ever had more skill than he has. And now he needs to say, ‘OK, I’m taking control of this. This is my team, and I’m going to dominate, No. 1, on the defensive end of the court.’ 

One of Malone’s backups, Earl Cureton, admired his diligent, no-nonsense approach. Unlike Embiid, Malone was not an active trash talker. 

“His work ethic, the way he approached the game,” Cureton said. “Moses didn’t do a whole lot of talking; he showed with his actions out on the basketball court. Moses didn’t have to say much. He went out and approached it, every single game, every single practice was relentless. It was incredible the way he played, the consistency. … And also being able to sacrifice, putting everything else aside to be a great teammate. 

“You talk about him being an MVP and a superstar, but Moses was just one of the guys. You would see Moses hanging out with anybody on the team ... treated everyone the same way. A lot of times, things that you do off the court mean as much as what you do on the court, in terms of team.”

After missing his first two seasons because of injury, Embiid has played 202 games in the regular season and 19 in the playoffs. Malone had 544 NBA regular-season games and 45 playoff games under his belt before the Sixers tore through the Knicks, Bucks and Lakers in 1983. He’s one of many examples in NBA history of great players needing to be surrounded by the right complementary pieces to win. And, though it might be a dreary reality to acknowledge, sometimes other teams are simply better.

All those factors contribute to Richardson’s stance that the Sixers should try to savor the journey, whatever form it takes. 

“I think they have a lot of potential,” he said. “I think they may have a little too much added pressure on them, just because it’s been long and because there are some unrealistic expectations. I think they just need to relax and be comfortable, and let everything fall into place the way it’s supposed to fall into place.

"Sometimes I see some things being forced … I think when the whole organization relaxes and enjoys what they’ve got, I think that’s when things will happen.”

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The greatness and reclusiveness of Andrew Toney

The greatness and reclusiveness of Andrew Toney

Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar got all the headlines for the “Showtime” Lakers, but Michael Cooper was their defensive stalwart. An eight-time All-Defensive Team pick, he was to L.A. what Bobby Jones was to the Sixers.

Most opponents wanted no part of Cooper. Andrew Toney wasn’t most players.

On March 7, 1982, in a game that featured six Hall of Famers, Toney owned the Spectrum floor.

“I always remember them saying Michael Cooper was a defensive specialist,” former Sixer Earl Cureton told NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Marc Zumoff. “Andrew used to ask me, what was that. They say they got a guy that’s a stopper. And he went out on national TV and scored 46 on him one night. After the game he said, ‘Who’s the guy that’s supposed to be the defensive specialist? Who was he?’”

Toney was fearless. He didn’t sweat his opponents, even if they were All-Stars or Hall of Famers. He wasn’t afraid to give it to his teammates in practice or defy his head coach from time to time.

While we reflect back on the greatness of the last Sixers team to capture a championship, it’s impossible not to think about Toney and the complicated legacy and relationship he has with Philadelphia.

To hear those that saw Toney at the peak of his powers, he was almost a mythical figure — and was on a path to something special.

‘Andrew!’

The eighth overall pick in 1980 out of Louisiana-Lafayette, Toney joined a team that was loaded with talent and coming off a loss in the Finals to the Lakers.

He was about to share the practice floor with larger-than-life figures like Julius Erving and Darryl Dawkins. That didn’t phase the rookie one bit.

“The initial day at practice over at Widener [University],” Erving said to Zumoff, “he literally came over half court — about four feet past the half court line — and he pulled up and shot a jump shot. Everybody in the gym was just like, ‘Woah.’ And [head coach] Billy [Cunningham] was saying, ‘Andrew!’ and we heard that all six years that we were together.”

That fearless approach may have caused his head coach to yell his name from time to time, but Cunningham gladly took the trade off because of how special Toney was on the court.

“I remember a game, we’re playing the Lakers during the season,” Cunningham said to Zumoff, “in the Spectrum, I think it’s overtime. I call a play to inbound the ball to Maurice Cheeks and then get the ball to Andrew. Andrew just kinda runs and grabs the ball. …

“I’m going, ‘Andrew!’ and he just kind of waves me off. He takes the ball, and two or three Lakers come at him and he shoots the ball over them, banks it in and there I am as the coach, saying, ‘What are you gonna do?’”

Unlike the understated Erving or Cheeks, Toney was brash. With the equal amounts of fear and respect he garnered, he seemed to have a right to be.

‘He definitely had a Hall of Fame career’

The 1982-83 Sixers were loaded. They featured four Hall of Famers — Erving, Moses Malone, Cheeks and Jones. They were led by a Hall of Fame player and coach in Cunningham.

But ask anyone around that time and they have to bring up the name Andrew Toney. “The Boston Strangler” was a two-time All-Star in his own right. 

“Hall of Fame. There’s no question about it,” Cunningham said.

“He definitely had a Hall of Fame career,” Erving said.

“He’d have been a Hall of Famer. Hands down,” Cureton said.

Charles Barkley on more than one occasion has said Toney is the best player he ever played with. Larry Bird said Toney “was one of the best guys I ever played against.

Unfortunately, during the 1984-85 season, Toney began experiencing pain in his feet. This led to conflict with then-Sixers owner Harold Katz, who questioned whether Toney was actually hurt. The team had just awarded Toney with a lucrative contract after his second straight All-Star season in 1983-84.

After an ugly public dispute, it was found that Toney had stress fractures in the navicular bones in both his feet. He played just 87 games his last three seasons.

And just like that, a career that seemed destined to end with Hall of Fame enshrinement ended not long after his 30th birthday.

“I remember Andrew telling me after he [retired],” Cunningham said, “and he’s down in Atlanta and he went to a YMCA or some place to play a little pick-up basketball, and he couldn’t walk after trying to play. He was in such pain with his feet.”

If not for the injuries, there seems to be a consensus from those that watched Toney closely that he’d be right there with his enshrined teammates from 1982-83.

“Andrew dominated,” Cureton said. “If no injuries or nothing happened to him, he was going to be a Hall of Famer. Look where everybody [from that team] is at. Bobby’s in the Hall of Fame, Moses in the Hall of Fame, Doc in the Hall of Fame, Maurice just went into the Hall of Fame. Andrew Toney, rightfully, should be right there with them.”

Giving Toney his due

These days, Toney lives down in Atlanta. Erving also lives in the area and the two play golf from time to time. Erving said Toney takes his golf game just as seriously as he once did his game on the court.

During the 1982-83 season, Erving was 32 years old and still looking for his first NBA championship after capturing two titles in the ABA. He wasn’t in his prime but was still a star. As the playoffs came around, Erving took on a lesser offensive role.

While Malone, who was the league’s MVP for a second straight season, was the focal point, Toney was just as important to the team’s offense.

“[In the Finals against L.A.], it was Moses inside, Andrew outside,” Erving said. “You look at the footage of those plays, we were probably calling as many plays for him as we did for Moses. ... You could never tell how many plays were called for him based on his statistics because he just created his own statistics. Coming down and trying to set something up you’re always looking for some type of advantage, and Andrew was the main guy in that regard.”

Though Toney had bravado — and the scoring ability to back it up — he was by no means a selfish player. He wanted to win.

And he proved that, often taking a backseat to other stars on the team and backing up Cheeks as the team’s point guard throughout their time together.

“He just had unlimited abilities,” Cunningham said. “Of all the players on that team, Andrew Toney sacrificed more than anyone. Winning was the most important thing to him so therefore he would do whatever was necessary.”

But what about his relationship with the organization?

Toney and Katz have made up after all these years. Toney was even at a game a few years ago when the Sixers were celebrating the anniversary of the 1982-83 team — though he didn’t speak to reporters or take part in a pregame ceremony.

“Andrew was a tremendous player,” former Sixer Clint Richardson told Zumoff, “and I’m just praying that at some point Andrew will get his recognition in the organization that he deserves. I’m not sure how it’s going to happen. 

“I’m trying to facilitate some things with him, but he definitely needs to be recognized as one of the top players in the Sixers organization. I think it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of the right time and the right connection with Andrew and him feeling comfortable. I think it’s gonna happen.”

Should No. 22 hang in the rafters at the Wells Fargo Center next to Nos. 2, 6, 10 and 24? Maybe then we’d get to see “The Boston Strangler” ring the bell before a key matchup against the Celtics.

If you ask those that watched him play, the answer would seem to be yes.

For those of us that didn’t, he still feels like a mythical character.

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