Billy Cunningham: The "Kangaroo Kid" has Never Forgotten his Tar Heel RootsThis 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."
posted by David Friedman @ 1:24 AM