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Cunningham: the coach who grew in Philadelphia

By Phil Elderkin / May 31, 1983



Los Angeles

Billy Cunningham, the conservative business suit on his Eiffel Tower frame cutting the air with its sharp creases, is playing the Palace these days as director of the Philadelphia Symphony of Scorers. Soloists include Moses Malone, Andrew Toney, and the amazing Dr. J., whose range extends well above the rim of the basket.

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Anyway, I guess you could call coaching in the National Basketball Association finals the equivalent of being a headliner at Broadway's Palace Theater in its vaudeville heyday, since a world championship is involved.

Cunningham and the 76ers got off on the right foot, too, capitalizing on their home court advantage to defeat the Los Angeles Lakers in the first two games in Philadelphia before the best-of-seven series moved to L.A. for Games 3 and 4 this week.

When Cunningham replaced Gene Shue as coach of the 76ers on Nov. 4, 1977, there was no special effort by the press to portray him as a great strategist, strict disciplinarian, or astute handler of men. How could there have been, since Billy had never coached at any level before, although he had been a great pro player with the 76ers for seven years, including their 1966-67 championship season.

It was hoped that the inexperienced Cunningham would win often enough right away to give himself the time he needed to grow into the job. At the risk of sounding dull, that's exactly what the likeable and intense young coach did.

Today, after seven years with the club, Cunningham probably knows the league as well as anyone you can name. All during this year's playoffs his team has done well on defense; kept turnovers to a minimum; and made the opposition bend to its kind of game. Give Billy credit for that, even if you can't give him credit for the unusual talents of Malone, Toney, and Julius Erving.

Although almost any coach could win 60 games a year with Philadelphia's present roster, don't think for a minute that handling all the talents on the 76 ers is easy.

While Malone has often been quoted as saying that he is merely part of the Julius Erving Show, Moses has to get the ball inside a certain number of times a game or he isn't happy.

Toney also has a need for the ball if he's going to get the 20-plus points a game, which are so important to him. And even as quiet a figure as Maurice Cheeks has to know that when he calls a play, he'll get as much attention from the regulars as he does the substitutes.

During the past seven years Philadelphia has had the best regular-season won-lost record (398-148) of any team in the NBA. Where the 76ers haven't been able to do the job is in the playoffs.

Three times in the past six years (1977-80-82), Philadelphia has made it to the NBA's championship series only to be eliminated in six games each time. The Lakers have done it to the 76ers twice; the Portland Trail Blazers once.

Originally most of the blame for Philadelphia's collapse got heaped on Cunningham, the premise being that he got outcoached. But Billy can only call plays from the bench, he can't personally make them work, and eventually the experts came to realize that there were other factors too, such as the erratic play of center Darryl Dawkins. The Dawk would make the basket sing like Robert Goulet one night and Joan Rivers the next.

That is why Dawkins was traded to the New Jersey Nets at the end of last season and Malone acquired from the Houston Rockets and given a six-year contract at $13.2 million.

Unlike Dawkins, Malone doesn't have any off nights. His ability to go hard for 40-plus minutes every game has made him almost as indispensable to the 76ers as Bill Russell once was to the Boston Celtics.

The secret to Malone isn't so much that he blocks shots as that his mere physical presence near the basket spoils shots. Would-be scorers start looking for Moses when they should be concentrating on the basket and it is kind of a mini-testimonial to Philadelphia's Man in the Middle every time they miss.

Malone and Dr. J. (who was with the Sixers first) have adjusted well to each other. And Toney, because he plays in the backcourt and doesn't need the ball inside to score, has been no problem. Cheeks knows a good thing when he sees it, too, and rookie Marc Iavaroni, who usually starts at the forward position opposite Erving, is just happy to be there.

But remember it was still Cunningham who had to bring them all together; convince them to play defense; and, after the 76ers traded for Clemon Johnson and Reggie Johnson in the middle of the season, fit his new players into the system. Although Erving was on a championship team in the ABA, that was seven years ago. Malone has never been a member of one, making Philadelphia's two key players self-motivated.

As for Cunningham, he seldom uses his seat on the bench during game time, preferring instead to pace the sidelines and make suggestions to the referees that sometimes result in technical fouls. Often Billy gets so serious about his work that he misses some of the humor - like the time he told his team that practice would be 10 to 11 and Iavaroni showed up at 10 minutes to 11 o'clock!