Noah Levick

Don't overlook Billy Cunningham when debating all-time Sixers greats

Don't overlook Billy Cunningham when debating all-time Sixers greats

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 [1983]. … 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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Ranking the 10 most important members of the 1982-83 Sixers

AP Images/Getty Images/USA Today Images

Ranking the 10 most important members of the 1982-83 Sixers

Thirty-seven years ago, the Sixers had a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals and were two wins in Los Angeles away from a championship. 

NBC Sports Philadelphia will be re-airing that series this weekend, showing Game 1 on Friday night, Game 2 Saturday and Games 3 and 4 Sunday. 

We’ll have stories to come on that team, which won 65 games in the regular season and came one game away from a perfect postseason. We begin today with a ranking of the 1982-83 Sixers’ 10 most important members. 

10. Earl Cureton 
Cureton didn’t play heavy minutes in 1982-83 as a backup to league MVP Moses Malone. In the playoffs, he played even less. But he did step up in a big spot when the Sixers needed him. With Malone in foul trouble in Game 2, Cureton was forced into action. Though it doesn’t look like much on a score sheet, he got the Sixers through 17 minutes without Malone that night in a 103-93 win.

9. Clemon Johnson 
The Sixers picked up Johnson in a February trade with the Pacers, and he was a solid backup big man. Malone had played a league-high 42 minutes per game the previous season with the Rockets, but he was able to average "only" 36.6 minutes after Johnson’s arrival and be sharp for the playoffs. 

8. Marc Iavaroni 
Bobby Jones may have been the Hall of Famer, but it was Iavoroni who actually started in 1982-83. The 26-year-old rookie had just finished four years playing overseas after his college career ended. On a team loaded with All-Stars, Iavoroni was a glue guy. He wasn’t afraid to get physical and do the little things his team needed. While the stats won’t wow you, make no mistake, Iavoroni was a big part of that championship run.

7. Clint Richardson 
Richardson was valuable as the team’s primary guard off the bench. He stepped up in the Sixers’ Game 1 Finals win when Maurice Cheeks got into foul trouble, playing 31 minutes and recording 15 points, four steals and three assists. 

6. Billy Cunningham 
You have to show some love for the man running the show. Though 1982-83 was Cunningham’s only title with the team, he’s easily the best coach in Sixers history. He coached and won more games and has the highest winning percentage and most playoff wins of any coach in franchise history. Cunningham was also a Hall of Fame player for the Sixers, helping capture a title in 1966-67.

5. Bobby Jones 
“The Secretary of Defense” earned the NBA’s inaugural Sixth Man of the Year award in 1983 after starting 73 games in 1981-82. As always, he was one of the league’s better defenders and finished the season third in defensive box plus-minus. Jones had 13 points on 6 for 7 shooting, four steals and two blocks in the Finals clincher. 

4. Andrew Toney 
While Toney is often looked at as a “what if” story, the healthy version of the guard was a crucial part of the 1982-83 team. He made the first of his two All-Star teams that season, averaging 19.7 points and 4.5 assists a game. He was just as critical in the playoffs, averaging 22.1 points in the Eastern Conference and NBA Finals. “The Boston Strangler” appeared to be destined for the Hall of Fame before serious foot issues derailed his career.

3. Maurice Cheeks 
Cheeks made his first of four career All-Star Games in 1982-1983, and it was a well-deserved selection. He was a reliable presence, starting 79 regular-season games and all 13 playoff contests, and an excellent defender and distributor. Cheeks posted 12.5 points, 6.9 assists and 2.3 steals per game. Most importantly, he got the stars the ball when and where they needed it and conducted the team with ample poise and intelligence. 

2. Julius Erving 
For most of his Sixers career, Dr. J would probably be No. 1 on a list like this. Though he wasn’t quite at the peak of his powers at age 32, Erving was still an unreal athlete and an All-Star. He averaged 21.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.6 steals in the regular season. While his scoring numbers were down slightly during the playoff run, his defense was on another level. He averaged 2.1 blocks a game that postseason, including 11 in four NBA Finals games. Erving needed a boost from Malone to get him over the top, but it was still a 1 and 1A type of situation with the pair of Hall of Famers.

1. Moses Malone 
It’s difficult to exaggerate how good Malone was in his prime. After being traded from Houston to Philadelphia, he won a second consecutive MVP award, led the league in rebounding for a third straight season and helped the Sixers finally overcome the Lakers. He also was a clear choice for Finals MVP, averaging 25.8 points and 18 rebounds in the series. Even if the Sixers didn't pull it off, fans will always remember his bold "fo', fo' fo'" prediction and how he nearly backed it up with his play. GM Pat Williams' deal to add Malone is one of the best trades in Sixers history, and the 1986 trade that sent him to the Bullets is one of the worst

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Sixers will begin phased reopening of practice facility Wednesday

Sixers will begin phased reopening of practice facility Wednesday

The Sixers will begin a phased reopening of their practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, on Wednesday for voluntary, individual workouts, the team announced.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced Tuesday that professional sports teams in New Jersey are now permitted to resume training and competition, which opened the door for the Sixers.

NBA teams had been allowed to hold individual workouts for players beginning on May 8 with strict restrictions in place. Because of coronavirus-related restrictions imposed in New Jersey, the Sixers hadn’t been among the teams holding workouts. However, general manager Elton Brand did say that Ben Simmons had been allowed to use the team’s practice facility to do rehab work for a nerve impingement in his lower back.

“Ben and others have been given permission to use our facility,” Brand said on May 5. “It’s essential that they have the proper equipment to workout and rehab, so he’s been doing that ever since the first week. We were able to get him access there. Joel Embiid’s been working out. He’s conditioning, he’s focused, he’s asking about when his trainer can come in, when he can get on the court.

"So I wouldn’t bet against him. He’s going to be ready and ramped up. Tobias [Harris] is a similar situation. He’s been getting treatment on and off. Most of our players are in market, by the way. Tobias is in market and he’s been getting treatment also.”

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe reported last week that teams expect the league to issue guidelines around June 1 on recalling players who have left their markets, and for workouts to expand around the same time.

The NBA announced Saturday that it is engaged in “exploratory conversations” about resuming the 2019-20 season at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, in late July. The season has been suspended since March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

On May 15, head coach Brett Brown said he thought a three-week ramp-up period would likely be sufficient before returning to play. 

“The notion of how the players come in influences kind of everything,” Brown said. “The three-week thing I think can be achieved as long as the fitness base of the players coming in is at the standard that I’m saying,” he said. “With that … I feel comfortable that we could go play basketball again.”

Though the team's facility reopening for individual workouts is not a massive step, it does appear that the NBA is moving toward a resumption. Wojnarowski has reported that, "barring something unforeseen," the widespread expectation is that commissioner Adam Silver will clear a return in June. 

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