Nov. 4, 1977: Sixers coach fired six games into season after making NBA Finals. Replacement never coached before
For the first time in nine years, the 76ers made the NBA Finals in the 1976-77 season. They blew a 2-0 series lead and fell to the Bill Walton-led Portland Trail Blazers (coached by former Sixers coach Jack Ramsay) in the championship round, but the future looked bright.
Led by superstars Julius (Dr. J) Erving, George McGinniss and Doug Collins, the Sixers were so deep, they were able to trade their 12th player, rookie Terry Furlow, for TWO No. 1 draft picks at the end of the season.
Coach Gene Shue had taken over the Sixers following the disastrous 9-73 season and built them (with the help of the shrewd trades of GM Pat Williams and smart drafting by assistant coach/head scout Jack McMahon) into an NBA powerhouse.
However, the owner who hired Shue, Irv Kosloff, had sold the team the previous year to F. Eugene Dixon, a patrician Main Line tycoon.
He had been talked into spending a large sum of money to get Erving the year before, with the hope of winning the title. He had not been happy that Shue could not figure out a way to stop the backslide against Portland.
And Dixon and Shue simply did not like each other. Dixon had let it slip he was thinking of giving Shue the boot a few days before the ax came.
Shue had to deal with the owner and a lot of big egos in the locker room. If anything, the Sixers might have had too much talent, as there were a lot of alpha dogs on the roster.
Sam Goldaper of the New York Times put it at the time:
"“Gene Shue was dismissed yesterday as the coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, a team sometimes described as “the boys of turmoil.” In the second season of a four‐year contract, Shue was replaced by Billy Cunningham, one of the greatest players in 76er history. Cunningham took over the team of exaggerated egos, inflamed temperaments, discontent and divisive words….”"
When the Sixers began the 1977-78 season with a 2-4 start, Dixon fired Shue. According to the Bleacher Report, at the time Shue was the fourth-winningest coach in NBA history.
Equally shocking was Shue’s replacement: Billy Cunningham.
Cunningham was a legendary player for the 76ers. He had been part of the 1967 title team and returned in 1974 after spending two seasons with the ABA’s Carolina Cougars.
He played for Shue until a serious knee injury ended his career 20 games into the 1975-76 season. As a player, ‘The Kangaroo Kid’ would be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986.
Cunningham had moved into the broadcast booth upon retirement and was doing the NBA on CBS broadcasts with Brent Musburger.
Cunningham accepted the challenge of taking over the team. He just had one mark against him.
He had never coached a meaningful game of basketball in his life, and he was suddenly put in charge of a team in which anything less than an NBA championship, would be considered a failure.
Shue’s main assistant, Jack McMahon, was retained but also did a lot of college scouting.
Cunningham hired a local college coach, Chuck Daly, to be an assistant. Daly was a sparkling 125-34 at Penn but had zero NBA experience. Of course Daly would eventually adapt quite well to the NBA game as he would go on to coach the ‘Bad Boy’ Detroit Pistons to two NBA championships and the ‘Dream Team’ to the 1992 Olympic Gold Medal.
As it turned out, Cunningham was a heck of a coach. The players responded to what for many was an ex-teammate.
With help from Daly and McMahon, the 76ers that year won 55 games, five more than Shue’s Sixers team the year before. With ‘Sixth Man’ Lloyd (later World B.) Free hurt, the Sixers fell to the Washington Bullets, in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Cunningham eventually got the Sixers an NBA championship in 1983 and retired from the bench in 1985 on his own terms.
Bleacher Report ranked Shue’s ousting as one of the most controversial in-season firings in NBA history.
What makes this a crazy, bizarre incident is not just a coach coming off an NBA Finals appearance getting bounced after six games, but being replaced by someone who had never coached a game in his life (so don’t bring up Mike Brown and the Lakers).