Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
One of the 76ers' all time great players, Billy Cunningham has been elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
William John Cunningham was an outstanding basketball player, coach, and analyst. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for his outstanding achievements as a player and then a coach for the Philadelphia 76ers. Prior to entering the NBA Cunningham found success on the basketball court at his Brooklyn high school and also at the University of North Carolina. After an 8 year coaching run with the 76ers, he became a top analyst for NBA broadcasts and a partial owner of the Miami Heat.
William John Cunningham, typically referred to as Billy Cunningham, has become a basketball legend. Whether it be as a player, coach, broadcaster, or team owner he has always been known for his fierce desire and intense dedication to the game. The success that Cunningham has found with every team he has been affiliated with earned him a place in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as well as the opportunity to be a part of two NBA Championship teams.
Growing up in Brooklyn, NY, Cunningham received a basketball on his fifth birthday. He immediately ran out of the house to the nearest school and started shooting on the playground. Cunningham reflected on his experiences from that playground saying, "I can't put my finger on it exactly, but there was just something about the game. I loved it instantly." He attended Erasmus Hall High School where he became known as the "Billy the Kid" for his strong competitive attitude. In his senior year he lead is team to an undefeated season, the NYC championship, and became a high school All-American.
Cunningham's next found success at the University of North Carolina. He became an instant star at UNC, though the team did not experience great success. He was a consistent scorer and rebounder for the team and is still remembered as an intelligent player who always gave one-hundred percent. While at North Carolina, "Billy the Kid" became "Kangaroo Kid" for his impressive leaping abilities. Throughout his collegiate career, Cunningham was an All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection three times and was also a two-time All American. In his final season,he was named the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year. Not only was his success, on the court recognized, but he was also chosen for the Academic All-American team.
After graduation from UNC, the Philadelphia 76ers selected Cunningham in the first round of the 1965 NBA Draft. He found immediate success yet again as he proved his abilities and was selected for the NBA's 1966 All-Rookie Team. After a disappointing ending to the 1965-1966 season, the 76ers dominated the NBA the following year. With Cunningham coming off the bench averaging 18.5 points and 7.3 rebounds, they soon found themselves winning the NBA Championship and winning a league-record sixty-eight games. Many experts have hailed this team as the greatest ever assembled in professional basketball, as they were the only team in an 11 year stretch to prevent the Boston Celtics from winning the championship.
After spending seven seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers Cunningham left the NBA to play for the Carolina Cougars in the new professional basketball league, the American Basketball Association. In his first season with the Cougars he was given the MVP award and led them to the best ABA regular-season record. As the ABA's future became uncertain, after only two years playing for the Cougars, Cunningham decided to return to the 76ers. Gladly welcomed back by Philadelphia fans, Cunningham averaged 19.5 points in his first season back with the team. However, the following season and the rest of Cunningham's career as a player ended with an unexpected knee injury. This may have ended his career as a player; however Cunningham's basketball career was far from over.
On November 4, 1977, Cunningham was named head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. Few people believed he would find success as a coach as he had never coached at any level prior to receiving the position with the 76ers. Cunningham's first game as a coach was a victory and from there he led his team to the Eastern Conference finals in 1978 and the NBA finals in 1980 and 1982. He spent eight seasons as head coach of the 76ers and posted a 454-196 record while reaching 200 and 300 wins faster than any previous coach in NBA history. To reward his great success with the Philadelphia 76ers Cunningham's number 32 jersey was retired and in 1986 he was elected to the Hall of Fame.
Continuing to follow his passion for the game, Cunningham took a position with CBS as a television commentator for the NBA. He became one of the top analysts due to his insights into the game. Following his time at CBS, Cunningham was able to help acquire an NBA franchise for the city of Miami and became vice president and partial owner of the Miami Heat that began official play in the 1988-1989 season. He has continued his involvement with basketball ever since.
Betzold, Michael. "Cunningham, William John ("Billy")." Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Thematic Series: Sports Figures. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2002. 207-209.
"Cunningham, Billy." Great Athletes: Basketball. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 2010. 74-76.
Goldaper, Sam. "Cunningham: An Unlikely Coach Makes His Way." The New York Times 9 May 1982: A4.
Lynch Wayne. Season of the 76ers. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2002.