Los Angeles — By the time the National Basketball Association's championship playoffs between Los Angeles and Philadelphia are over, head coach Billy Cunningham of the 76ers may have the most recognized face in America.
It seems like every time there is a break in the action, or an official makes a call that goes against Philadelphia, the network TV cameras pan to Cunningham and his forlorn features. Invariably Billy looks as though some older and bigger kid has just stolen his lollipop.
But there is considerably more to this 39-year-old, who looks 10 years younger, than the hurt expression he has borrowed from Hollywood's Lon Chaney Collection. The fact is Billy got his 200th regular season win faster than any coach in NBA history, and twice in the last three seasons he has led Philadelphia to the NBA finals.
For those who don't remember Cunningham as a player, he had an 11 year career as a pro - nine with the 76ers and two with the Carolina Cougars of the old American Basketball Association. Billy made all-league four times in the NBA, and in 1972-73 was named the ABA's Most Valuable Player. He was also a member of the last Philadelphia team (1966-67) to win a world title.
Cunningham, a high-scoring forward, played with such intensity that his game often seemed out of control even when it wasn't. He attributed most of his aggressiveness to having learned his basketball on the macadam playgrounds of Brooklyn, where the macho style of the day was to drive through 10 of the sharpest elbows ever honed to get a basket.
While the jump shot might have accomplished the same purpose it was not the thing you did if you were a member of Brooklyn's impolite, street-gang society. Asked what was the toughest thing he had to handle mentally after becoming Philadelphia's head coach on Nov. 4 1977, Cunningham replied:
''As a coach, I couldn't stand to lose. Of course as a player I couldn't stand to lose either. But the way the NBA schedule is set up, where a team is seldom idle for more than a couple nights in a row, I was able to handle my frustrations by playing extra hard in our next game. But that outlet isn't available for a coach, especially for someone like me, who still takes the game home with him.''
Even though Philadelphia has had the best regular season won-loss record of any NBA team over the past five years, Cunningham has not escaped criticism, mostly because of what has happened to the 76ers in the playoffs.
Billy is still being rapped by his critics for Philadelphia's failure to close out Boston last year after leading that series 3 games to 1. (The Celtics went on to win the NBA championship against Houston.)
The year before, two things seemed decidedly in Philadelphia's favor even though the 76ers trailed the Lakers by one game. First, the next game was in Philadelphia. Second, LA center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would be unable to play because of an injury. The Lakers handled that situation by using guard Magic Johnson at center and won going away when Johnson scored 42 points and controlled both backboards.
This May, after Philadelphia let the Celtics back into the Eastern Conference championship series for the second straight year, there was talk Cunningham would be fired if the 76ers lost the decisive seventh game. Team owner Harold Katz has reportedly denied that was ever the case.
''Back in 1977, when Cunningham took over the 76ers, he was as overcharged as a coach as he had been as a player,'' explained Larry Creger, a former NBA assistant coach who now scouts for the Detroit Pistons. ''Intelligent - you bet he was intelligent. But he was so busy reacting to everything that happened on the court and letting it bother him that he never took time to think.
''Eventually, when Billy came to realize that what he was doing was limiting himself as a coach, he cut it out,'' Creger added. ''Today Cunningham is an excellent coach who has learned the value of matchups, when to call a strategic timeout, and how to recognize the first signs of fatigue in a player. Basically all Billy ever needed was a chance to gain some experience as a coach. Now that he's got it, he runs a game as well as anyone in the league.''
Although Cunningham hasn't yet swapped his Sporting News for the Wall Street Journal, he owns a travel agency and a popular racquetball club in the heart of Philadelphia, plus holds ownership in a Holiday Inn.