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Sunday, July 05, 2009

Billy Cunningham: The "Kangaroo Kid" has Never Forgotten his Tar Heel Roots

This article was originally published in the January 2006 issue of Tar Heel Monthly.

Billy Cunningham was known as the "Kangaroo Kid" because of his tremendous leaping ability but that nickname also aptly describes how he successfully jumped from playing to coaching to broadcasting to being an owner.

Cunningham starred at North Carolina from 1961 to 1965, a turbulent period for the Tar Heels program. He recalls, "The school was on probation and wasn't able recruit outside of the state. At that time there was segregation in North Carolina, so there were no black athletes—there were black students but no black athletes—and at the time I was there many people wanted him (Coach Dean Smith) removed. He was hung in effigy. It was not an auspicious start. People didn't accept the fact that the school was on probation and he was limited in regards to recruiting. We even had walk-ons who were starting when I was there, which you don't see very often." Despite these difficulties, when asked his fondest memory of his Tar Heel days, Cunningham replies, "Just being part of the program is probably as much of a highlight as anything."

The lessons that Dean Smith taught Cunningham not only helped him to become a Hall of Fame player and a member of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List, they also inspired Cunningham's approach during his successful stint as coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. Cunningham explains, "Most importantly, that you try to treat everybody on the team the same. It didn't matter if it was the star or the guy who was the 12th man on the bench, you had feelings and concerns about everyone that was involved with your program. He was such a detail oriented coach—(focusing on) every little detail--probably coming from his mathematics background (and) that was something that carried over a great deal."

Cunningham played the key sixth man role on the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers. Led by Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer, Philadelphia won a then record 68 regular season games and rolled to the championship, defeating the Boston Celtics—winners of eight straight NBA titles—along the way. Cunningham made four straight NBA All-Star Game appearances (1969-72) before leaving the 76ers to join the Carolina Cougars in 1972-73; Cunningham won the ABA MVP that year after averaging 24.1 ppg, 12.0 rpg and 6.3 apg. Carolina was led by an ex-North Carolina point guard who had recently ended his pro playing career to take his first head coaching job—none other than Hall of Famer Larry Brown. Cunningham says, "It was a unique experience because Larry and I played together at (North) Carolina and then in his first head coaching job I had the fortune of playing for him. From day one you could just see that he was made to be a coach. He was very comfortable and it was just one of the enjoyable periods of time for me in my basketball career, playing for Larry."

Cunningham rejoined the 76ers in 1974-75 but a devastating knee injury brought Cunningham's playing career to a sudden end in 1975-76. He replaced Gene Shue as head coach of the 76ers early in the 1977-78 season. Cunningham reached the 200, 300 and 400 win plateaus in fewer games than any previous NBA coach. His 1982-83 squad, led by Hall of Famers Moses Malone and Julius Erving, won the NBA championship, posting a 12-1 playoff record that would not be surpassed until the 2000-01 L.A. Lakers went 15-1. Cunningham's .698 regular season winning percentage ranks second only to Phil Jackson's .725 mark and his playoff winning percentage is the fourth best all-time (.629).

Cunningham retired from coaching in 1985. He was a commentator on CBS' NBA broadcasts before becoming one of the founding co-owners of the expansion Miami Heat in 1988-89. The Heat made it to the playoffs in the franchise's fourth year of existence, a tribute to the sound personnel decisions made by Cunningham and the team's front office. In 1994 Cunningham sold his interest in the Heat to the Arison family.

Cunningham enjoyed the Tar Heels 2005 championship run: "I said hello to the players last year. I don't even know if they know who I am. I stay in touch with Roy Williams. I spoke with him this week. I'm a huge fan of North Carolina and always root for them." He maintains his connection with the professional game through the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA): "I stay very involved with the Retired Players Association because I think that Mel Davis (CEO/Executive Director of the NBRPA) and the Board have done a great job watching out and trying to help everybody who is a retired player, offering all kinds of different things for them and trying to help in every possible way—trying to help in any way financially, with scholarships and all sorts of different things. I think we're just getting bigger and stronger as time goes on, with the help and consideration that we get from (NBA Commissioner) David Stern."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:24 AM



At Monday, July 06, 2009 1:05:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

At times I wish Cunningham was still involved in the NBA as a coach or commentator. He seemed to be a good (and pretty animated) coach, and he was an excellent color commentator during his stint on CBS.

CBS had the best commentators. Dick Stockton and the other guys he was pared with (Bill Russell, Kevin Loughery, Tommy Heinsohn, Cunningham) knew how to provide quality yet low-key commentary. They let the game take center stage rather than mug for attention by constantly screaming over each other and making outrageous statements like some of today's commentators.

At Monday, July 06, 2009 2:45:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Dick Stockton is one of the first "big name" people who I interviewed and he is as warm and friendly in person as he comes across on the TV screen. I really respect him both personally and professionally. As you mentioned, he worked smoothly with a number of different color commentators, including Cunningham. I agree with you that Cunningham did an outstanding job at CBS.

At Monday, July 06, 2009 9:32:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

I hated Stockton. He acted like Bird and the Celts invented basketball. I know he did Red Sox games but growing up I hated him. The whole black/white dynamic during those years was fascinating. Stockton was right in the middle of it.

Cunningham was very good. I like the quote of him in the 83 Sixers video...I want someone to remember this team.

At Monday, July 06, 2009 4:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't think that Stockton was biased toward Bird; I know exactly what dynamic you are talking about--and as a Sixers fan I did not like it--but I don't remember Stockton being a part of that. Stockton spoke very highly of Dr. J and the other Sixers.

A lot of people thought that Heinsohn had a pro-Boston bias, but how could Heinsohn not be pro-Boston when he played and coached there? I did not think that Heinsohn was noticeably biased when he worked at CBS, though he obviously shows his pro-Boston feelings now as a Celtics broadcaster.

At Tuesday, July 07, 2009 9:06:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Im not talking about against the Sixers, David. Im talking about against the Lakers. He definitely had a bias during those three finals in the 80s with the Lakers vs the Celtics. I couldnt stand the praise that Bird received over Magic and the other players.

Obviously Heinsohn was. He had no choice really.

At Tuesday, October 04, 2011 11:23:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I wonder what he thinks of the play of Lindsay Whalen and the way she attacks the basket?


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