Happy 80th birthday to Billy Cunningham, born June 3, 1943, and here’s a piece first published in 2018.
By Theodore N. Beitchman
Billy Cunningham, the son of a fireman and child of Flatbush, landed in Philly for good in 1965.
Lucky for Philly.
In case you began following the Sixers nine years ago with “Trust the Process,” trust this:
Cunningham is the second-most-important player in team history after Philly-born Wilt Chamberlain, who is hands-down the greatest player in the 76 years of the NBA, notwithstanding Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
If you’re a young stat-head who never saw him play, just check Wilt’s numbers. Case closed.
Billy C. is the link between the Sixers’ only two championship teams that played before the Internet was invented and today’s social media darlings like Joel Embiid.
He wasn’t as flashy as Julius Erving or as rambunctious as Charles Barkley or Allen Iverson, or as dominating as Moses Malone.
But he had an other-worldly first step, he was a clutch and big-time scorer, a prodigious rebounder and shot-blocker and the glue that produced the Sixers’ only NBA titles.
He’s a Florida snowbird but he is a Philly guy through and through who never blows his own horn.
And Sixers fans loved him.
Here’s what he’s accomplished:
An All-American playing for the great Dean Smith at North Carolina, was drafted by the Sixers and voted into the Hall of Fame in 1986.
Surpassing sixth man on the 1966-67 Sixers voted the greatest NBA team of all-time and he coached the 1982-83 super 65-17 Sixers.
Made his bones as a CBS announcer, NBA team owner, businessman, investor and philanthropist.
Most importantly, he is the keeper of the Sixers flame. But more about that later.
He squeezed an hour out of his busy schedule for eggs and a chat at Hymie’s in Merion to talk about his life, his wife Sondra whom he met at Carolina, his daughters Stephanie and Heather. And let’s not forget his grandson, William, who is now 21.
Still slim and razor sharp at 75, Cunningham scrunched his freckled 6-6 into a booth and immediately attracted well-wishers who said hi.
He lives nearby and is treated like a regular.
Which is not a coincidence.
Because the born-to-be-blue-collar Cunningham who has become wildly successful is still a regular guy — he’s never gone uptown.
Chalk that up to his father.
“I was All-City when I played at Erasmus Hall,” he says about his high school, “and I guess I could have gone to college anywhere but my father told me: ‘You can go to any Catholic college you want to or you can go play for Frank McGuire.’ ”
McGuire’s dad was a New York City cop and his sister lived around the corner from the Cunninghams.
Frank had coached St. John’s from Queens into the national title game against Kansas in 1952. And then he was hired at North Carolina, where his Tar Heels upset Wilt and Kansas in three overtimes to win the 1957 title.
McGuire did come a-calling on the Cunninghams in Brooklyn, and Billy signed to go south. But by the time he arrived McGuire had left to coach the Philadelphia Warriors and Wilt.
“So I showed up in Carolina and the new coach, Dean Smith, didn’t know anything about me,” he says. “It was a different time in the south than it is now. Segregation was still the law, and truly football was king. Not basketball.”
Unlike the Irish Catholic McGuire, Smith was a strict Kansas Baptist endowed by his basketball coach father and his faith with high standards and an open heart. He and Cunningham arrived in Chapel Hill in September 1961 to find the Heels’ athletic program voluntarily deemphasized because of a gambling scandal earlier that year that involved two Carolina players.
For the next five years, UNC basketball teams could each have only two out-of-state scholarships, and McGuire had left the cupboard nearly bare.
Cunningham couldn’t play for the varsity until the fall of ’62 because of NCAA rules that barred freshman from playing. Smith’s first year ended at 8-9 with future Sixers coach Larry Brown the leading scorer. The Heels improved to 15-6 the next year with Billy C. leading the team with 22.7 PPG and 16.1 RPG. He upped that to 26 and 15.8 the next year and finished at Chapel Hill with 25.4 and 14.3 as a senior as the team went 15-9.
It would take Smith another two seasons and a full recruiting class to make the first of his 11 Final Fours, but Billy C. helped lay that foundation.
Cunningham’s character was on full display after the Heels came back from a road loss one night in 1965.
Carolina’s team bus returned from Wake Forest, and about 100 students were gathered, which seemed odd since this was a big loss. Turned out the students had been gazing at a dummy hung on a tree with Smith’s name on it.
Remember this was the south in 1965, and real lynchings weren’t unheard of.
As described by ESPN.com:
“After speaking to his team about that day’s upcoming practice, Smith walks to his car. His players are furious. Billy Cunningham, North Carolina’s star player, and Billy Galantai bolt from the bus and rip down the dummy. ‘I remember the team was just very hurt by this because we realized it wasn’t Coach Smith’s fault,’ Cunningham will recall. ‘It was our fault. It was the players’ fault.’ ”
The keeper of the flame.
He grabbed 27 rebounds and scored 48 points in a single game for the Heels, he was 1965 ACC Player of the Year and All-ACC three years running, with a couple of All-American selections to boot. Cunningham was also selected as one of the 50 best players in ACC history in 2002.
For a first-person report on Cunningham in Carolina, we turn to Curry Kirkpatrick, who covered him for the Daily Tar Heel before going on to become one of the greatest Sports Illustrated’s writers in a pantheon that included Frank Deford, Dan Jenkins and Bill Nack.
“I got to know Billy a lot better after he went to the pros,” Kirkpatrick, who covered pro and college hoops and tennis for SI, emailed from his home in Hilton Head, S.C.
“As I recall, academic difficulties cost him second semester of freshman year when he astounded crowds with his leaping ability. The old Woollen Gym was full to capacity for freshman games just to see him. Then he was ineligible second semester.
“So excitement reigned in 1962-63 when he finally got on varsity and started jumping to the moon.
“I don’t think I nicknamed him Kangaroo Kid but I should have.
“Even early on he showed fierce leadership qualities. Larry Brown was a senior and captain and undeniable leader of team. But I recall on court Billy was very vocal, directing traffic, ordering placements, etc. He reminded me of Bill Walton [later] controlling offense and defense. He was always so smart on court; his future coaching prowess no surprise.
“Fondest memory is that Christmas 1962 road trip when he totally outclassed the Van Arsdale twins [Dick and Tom at Indiana] and Kentucky’s Cotton Nash who all were huge deals then.
“Cunningham really was a Revelation.
“This was way before scouting reports, breaking down tape and everybody knowing each other. All those other stars seemed astounded at how good Billy was– especially his jumping ability, the foundation for all those outrageous rebounds. He averaged 16 rebounds a game as sophomore. The opposition just wasn’t prepared.
“That Kentucky upset — 68-66 —was enormous for Dean—- not to mention Larry and Billy.
“Kentucky was the game Dean unveiled his slowdown, keep-away Four Corners offense with Brown dribbling the clock down, inevitably getting the ball to Billy inside.
“Dean always kidded me afterward that game tape shows me on press row jumping up and down at the final buzzer.
“I do remember that night Billy and couple of older players corralling me to go to a post game-party at some frat in Lexington and getting me drunker than I’ve ever been before or since.
“Though his success in the pros was no surprise to those who watched him since swaddling clothes — the longevity, Top 50 rankings and general brilliance against bigger foes for so long was stunning.
“And he’s one of the best people, ever!”
Cunningham was chosen 5th overall by the Sixers in the 1965 draft — after Fred Hetzel, Rick Barry, Dave Stallworth and Jerry Sloan, and just ahead of Villanova’s Jim Washington.
“And I spent the whole summer negotiating with Ike Richman,” he remembers, referring to the Sixers co-owner. “He offered $12,000 and I wanted $12,500. I won. In those days that was a lot of money.”
(In fact, $12,500 in 1965 is worth about $100,000 in today’s dollars, factoring for inflation — the NBA minimum today is $838,464.)
Cunningham turned out to be a money player for the Sixers, who four months earlier had endured an excruciating seventh-game 110-109 loss to the dreaded Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.
Does “Havlicek Stole the Ball” ring a bell?
Even though he was a forward for Smith at Carolina, Sixers coach Dolph Schayes tried him at guard in exhibition games, but Boston’s K. C. Jones showed that was folly when he stripped the ball from Billy a handful of times.
So it was as a sub forward he would play behind Luke Jackson and Chet Walker, two of the best in the NBA. Oh, yeah, there was also Wilt at center, Hal Greer and an aging Larry Costello at starting guard.
Billy quickly proved he was worth the $12,500, averaging 14.3 PPG and 7.5 RPG off the bench as the Sixers won the East with 55 wins but lost in the playoffs once again to the Celts in five games.
He upped his scoring to 18.5 PPG the next season, in which the Sixers started 46-4, finished 68-13, beat Cincy in the first round of the playoffs and knocked off the Celtics to win the East in five, with an astounding 24 straight points in the third quarter in the game 5 140-116 win.
As Wally Jones hit four straight deep-dish jumpers, the Convention Hall crowd went nuts, screaming, “Boston Is Dead!”
The NBA finals against the San Francisco Warriors was an anti-climactic six-game win made especially sweeter since the Warriors had moved from Philly five years earlier.
How good was the 7-2, 275-pound Wilt? Really?
Listen to Cunningham, as quoted in the 1992 Terry Pluto-written book “Tall Tales”:
“The greatest play I’ve ever seen was one of the last games of the 1966-67 season and we were playing Baltimore. We were going for the best record in NBA history.
“There was a play earlier in the game where Gus Johnson had dunked one over Wilt. Gus was a very strong player. I weighed 220 pounds, and with one hand Gus could push me out of the lane.
“The man was a physical specimen [6-6, 230 pounds], all muscle. He loved to dunk and was a very colorful player.
“When he slammed it on Wilt, he really threw it down, and you could tell that Wilt didn’t like it one bit.
“Gus cupped the ball and took off–he had a perfect angle for a slam.
“Wilt went up and with one hand he grabbed the ball–cleanly! Then he took the ball and shoved it right back into Gus, drilling Gus into the floor with the basketball.
“Gus was flattened and they carried him out. It turned out that Gus Johnson was the only player in NBA history to suffer a dislocated shoulder from a blocked shot.”
The Sixers should have and would have won another title in 1967-68 after they won 60 games with the same cast.
But in a playoff series with the New York Knicks, Cunningham took a fall, breaking his wrist on the hard Palestra court and was out for the remainder of the postseason.
The Sixers were still good enough to beat the Knicks but they lost in 7 to the Celtics after going up three games to one.
The rest is history:
Wilt demanded a trade because he claimed Ike Richman had promised him 5 percent ownership before he died; co-owner Irv Kosloff knew nothing about the deal so he was forced to trade him to the Lakers, giving Chamberlain the big stage of Los Angeles to end his career.
Luke Jackson was moved to center, Billy C. took his place at power forward and his stats reflected the starter’s minutes: 24.8PPG, 12.8 RPG. The Sixers won 55 games but lost again to the Celts in the playoffs.
Cunningham’s averages improved again the next three seasons as the Sixers fell into mediocrity.
He jumped to the Carolina Cougars of the ABA, but not before the NBA sued. Billy won in court and signed for $100,000 the first season, $110,000 the second season, $125,000 the third season and a $125,000 bonus. He only played two with the Cougars and jumped back to Philly for the last two seasons of his career, which ended when he blew out his knee after 20 games of the 1975-76 season.
CBS snapped him up to pair him with Brent Musberger on NBA telecasts, and Billy and Sondra kept their Main Line home. Which came in handy when, after six games in November 1977, Sixers GM Pat Williams fired coach Gene Shue and called Billy C. to replace him.
“When Pat called,” he remembers, “I was shocked when he asked me to coach.”
The Sixers had a high-wire act of Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Caldwell Jones, Darryl Dawkins and World B. Free, which won the first two games of the 1977 NBA finals against the Trail Blazers before dropping the next four.
It was a very talented team that had no discipline and a weak coach in Shue.
“First thing I did was call Chuck Daly,” Billy says, referring to his friend who had coached Penn for six seasons. “Chuck was a great coach, he emphasized defense and I needed his experience.”
Then, Cunningham points out, his new assistant Daly hired the first analytics guy in the NBA — Stu Suss, who had been a wizard at stats for Daly at Penn and was hired to do the same for the Sixers.
Cunningham was never known as a lock-down defender in the NBA, more of a shot-blocker who averaged two a game for the Sixers and Cougars (they only started keeping that official stat in 1972-73) who played the passing lanes to get steals.
But he became a defensive-minded coach and convinced his team of its importance.
“If you’re a good defensive team, you’re always in the game,” he says.
It took six more years and the addition of Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney and Moses Malone plus defensive whiz Bobby Jones to reach the Promised Land — a romp to the 1982-83 NBA title.
Like the 1967 champs, they ran away and hid, racking up a 50-7 record before finishing 65-17 and knocking off the Knicks, Bucks and Lakers one game short of Malone’s famous “Fo, Fo, Fo” prediction.
Cunningham coached two more seasons and finished with an eight-year record of 454-196, a winning percentage of .699, third best in NBA history behind Steve Kerr and Phil Jackson.
Not bad for a kid from Flatbush who never thought about coaching.
He’s been an investor in teams, banks, real estate, but not sports bars:
“I owned the real estate in Conshohocken and a couple of guys wanted to open a bar, so that became Billy Cunningham’s Clubhouse for about 18-19 years.”
An old friend from Brooklyn, Lew Schaffel, had been COO of the New Jersey Nets, and he called Billy one day in 1986.
“Lew and I went to kindergarten together,” Billy says. “He had an idea: ‘Why don’t we start an expansion team?’
“Miami was the largest TV market that didn’t have an NBA franchise, says Cunningham, who has a winter home in Miami. “So we called David Stern [NBA commissioner] and he gave us his blessing.
Cunningham and Schaffel had 40 percent ownership, with other investors including Ted Arison making up the rest when the Heat started play in 1987. Billy and Schaffel sold their interest to Ted’s son Mickey in 1995, making a tidy profit — they paid $32 million to join the NBA in 1987 and sold for $68 million eight years later.
That’s a good example of Cunningham’s business success— almost everything he touches turns to gold.
“I’ll never retire,” he says at Hymie’s as he cuts the interview to an hour because he’s headed into town to meet with Steve Cozen, a great lawyer who started Cozen O’Connor in 1964.
“I met Steve through his partner, Pat O’Connor,” Billy says, “and we hit it off.”
Steve’s dad Sam had been Wilt’s coach at Overbrook High before turning Drexel’s team into a national small college power.
“Wilt’s championship warm-up from the 1967 Sixers champs is in my closet in my office,” Steve Cozen says with great pride and joy.
“And Billy loved my dad Sam.”
After Wilt died at the age of 63 in 1999, Billy and Steve decided that he deserved a statue at the South Philly sports complex.
“I found the guy who did the Michael Jordan statue in Chicago,” Cozen says. “It was fabricated in Bethlehem. Paul Arizin [Wilt’s teammate on the Philly Warriors] and Wilt’s childhood best friend Vince Miller were there at the ceremony for the statue unveiling, and we all decided to do something more to honor Wilt and keep his name alive in his hometown.”
“What people didn’t know about Wilt was how generous he was with his money,” Cunningham says. “He literally gave millions away to needy causes including Project Smile, which he started [and funded] to help kids participate in track and field. Jackie Joyner-Kersey said she never would have gotten anywhere without Wilt’s help. And Wilt did this without seeking any fanfare or publicity for himself.”
After Chamberlain passed away, Cunningham and Cozen took the baton.
“Steve and I met with Wilt’s sister, Barbara Lewis, who told us about the Wilt Foundation,” Billy says. “She suggested that we call Sy Goldberg, who was Wilt’s long-time L. A. lawyer. He told us, ‘Wilt left the money — approximately $1.5 million — to help inner-city kids get ahead.’ ”
“I’m very proud of what we’re doing”, says Cunningham. “We have kids at MIT, Duke and Yale.
“Steve and I went to the Sixers and met with Amy Hever [executive director of Sixers Social Responsibility], and now the team runs the Wilt Chamberlain Memorial Fund. We told Amy and Scott O’Neil, the Sixers CEO, ‘We want to give you the money and do a joint venture.’ They loved the idea.”
“Barbara and Sonny Hill and John Cheney all got involved. It’s a great Philadelphia story.”
So is William John Cunningham, who came to town 58 years ago and is still here, having made Sixers fans proud on the court, on the sidelines and now as a booster of the greatest athlete this great old sports town ever produced.
He’s the keeper of the Philly flame.