The Ultimate 76er: Billy Cunningham

We talk about who the greatest players are for teams. While Billy Cunningham wasn’t the greatest player to play for the 76ers, he’s one of my favorite winners in team history. In case you didn’t know, Cunningham is one of a few people who won an NBA championship as a player and coach. But here’s the coolest part: He won as a player and coach for the 76ers.

In fact, he spent his whole NBA playing and coaching career with the 76ers. So yeah, I feel he’s the ultimate 76er.

The Player

The Kangaroo Kid, as he was known because of his leaping ability, came on a 76ers team that was saying goodbye to one of their original stars in Dolph Schayes, but had recently said hello to Wilt Chamberlain. A player who always played hard and intense, he came off the bench the 1966-1967 season. The Sixers won the championship that year in what was considered one of the greatest teams in NBA basketball.

He averaged 18.5 points on 46 percent shooting. He, thanks to his leaping ability, grabbed 7.3 rebounds. Oh yeah, it was his second year in the league. A HOF coming off the bench. Not because they wanted to have him on the bench. No, the team was that good.

He averaged a double-double with 20.8 points and 10.1 rebounds for his NBA career. He was selected to five All-Star games, three All-NBA First Team’s and second team once. Cunningham also made the All-Rookie NBA First Team and has his championship ring.

Once Wilt left Philly, this team really became Billy’s. But, the Sixers weren’t doing well during his prime. So, in a sense, his best years were wasted in the NBA. He was constantly in the top 10 in league scoring from 1968-1969 season to 1971-1972. Then he moved to the ABA. Before we talk about what happened to the 76ers because of Cunningham leaving, let’s dive into why he went to the ABA in the first place and his career there.

Linked from this interesting historical site:

In August, 1969 the Carolina Cougars of the ABA signed Billy Cunningham, who was under contract with Philadelphia for the 1969-70 season, to a three-year, $455,000 contract to take effect after Cunningham played out his option year (1970-71) with Philadelphia.  Included in the contract was a provision that if Cunningham played the season with Philadelphia for a salary less than $100,000 Carolina would make up the difference no later than May 15.  In January, 1971 Cunningham orally agreed to sign a five-year, $1.175 million contract with Philadelphia, but the contract was not signed while insurance was being arranged.  In the meantime Cunningham, who was playing for $225,000, filed for payment of the agreement with Carolina.  When Carolina refused to make the payment, Cunningham notified the Cougars that he considered the contract breached, and then signing the contract with Philadelphia.  Carolina then filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Cunningham to prevent him from playing for any team other than Carolina, but the court ruled that Carolina had “unclean hands” and had breached their contract with Cunningham.  On appeal the court ruled that Carolina did not have “unclean hands” and that any breach of the contract was to unsubstantial to justify denying an injunction and issue an injunction for the duration of the contract, and that the contention that Cunningham’s contract was not assignable was meritless.  Cunningham then went on to play from 1971-72 to 1973-74, returning to Philadelphia in 1974-75.

So, as you can see, there were some legal issues involved in Billy leaving the 76ers. In any case, Cunningham was the man there. In his first season, he was named ABA MVP while leading the Cougars to their best record 57-27. The Cougars’ last season went alongside Cunningham’s last season there and Billy returned to the 76ers. As 76ers fan sadly know, the 72-73 season was a league worst 9-73. Jesus. And then the Sixers drafted Doug Collins, now current coach.

Anyway, Billy returned and Philly was fine with the whole thing. Cunningham played a very good first season back.

And then it happened.

The most recent injury I can relate this to is how Derrick Rose injured himself in the playoffs. Cunningham had just snared a defensive rebound and was dribbling to the Sixers’ free-throw line. No one touched Cunningham. He said his knee “exploded”. And that was that. A simple play. Those types of injuries make you wonder what modern medicine would’ve been able to accomplish. Billy Cunningham was 32.

The 75-76 season was the last he would play for the 76ers. But, his time with the team wasn’t done yet.

The Coach

Indeed, Cunningham was a winner. He started coaching for the 1977-1978 season and never coached a losing season. His career winning percentage was .698 and twice he led the Sixers to the NBA Finals but they were knocked off. That happened in 79-80 and 81-82. Then, in 82-83, the team grabbed their savior in Moses Malone and they made it to the promise land and won the NBA championship. Cunningham coached two more seasons after that.

Cunningham guided the 76ers for eight years, reaching the 200- and 300-victory levels faster than any coach before him. In those eight seasons, the team posted a 454-196 record. His winning percentage ranks as the best in 76ers’ history and 3 in the entire NBA. Not bad.

Yes, he made a career out of being a Philadelphia 76er The 76ers drafted him too. No other NBA team was graced with his skill set as a player or coach. He’s a true 76er if I ever saw one. He may even be my favorite all time player.

One honorable mention is Dolph Schayes. He was a player and coach for this team. He won as a player and although he coached the team, his deteriorated relationship with Wilt got him fired right before the 76ers went to win the championship in 1967. Just poor unfortunate timing. He won the coach of the year in his last year with the team so, again, it’s not like he performed badly. Also, he coached another team in the 70’s. He spent his entire playing career with the 76ers though. He played for them when they were the Nationals and then came to Philly with them for his last year as player. He’ll always be remembered as not only the 76ers’ first star, but one of the first NBA stars.

Who is your ultimate 76er?

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