The Kangaroo Kid That Could

In March 1971, the Baltimore Bullets and Philadelphia 76ers met in the first round of the NBA playoffs. It would be the start of Earl Monroe’s final playoff run in Baltimore. It also would go down in NBA history as one of the league’s more-grueling playoff affairs. Having recently published the book Shake and Bake with NBA great Archie Clark, I have a clip file of the series from the Baltimore Morning Sun, Baltimore Evening Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, and Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. I’ve pulled the best quotes from their playoff stories, without traditional attribution, and rolled them into a “super stories” for each game of the series. It’s my way of bringing this classic series back to life as vividly as print journalism allows, 50 years hence.

Four games in, the Baltimore Bullets seemingly have the best-of-seven series in command three games to one. The action now dribbles back to Baltimore’s quirky Civic Center for the presumed clincher, and the Bullets’ chance to move on and renew its playoff hostilities with the loathed New York Knicks in the Eastern Division finals. Too bad they would lose on a wild pitch.

Baltimore, April 1, 1971—Something happened to the Bullets last night on their way to New York to meet the Knicks. They forgot to beat the Philadelphia 76ers. They also forgot that Billy Cunningham, a.k.a., the Kangaroo Kid, still was alive and well despite the fact he looked dead when he stepped on the court for the start of the fifth and most-exciting playoff game so far. 

Two hours before, Cunningham suffered a severe case of stomach cramps. “We gave him stomach tranquilizers and had him chew ice,” said 76er trainer Al Domenico . . . 

Cunningham started the game (the crowd booed him when he was introduced) as though he might be in some kind of physical distress, and every time there was a timeout, he would immediately be treated by the Philadelphia trainer. Apparently, he was having some difficulty breathing and immediately after the game was examined by a doctor. If he was hurting, however, you couldn’t tell it off his play as he went the full 48 minutes and led all scorers with 32 points. In addition, he had a game-high 20 rebounds, stole the ball, did it all in an all-out effort to keep his team from being eliminated. 

While Cunningham killed the Bullets, teammate Archie Clark came close to murdering them. The lightning-fast guard twirled and whirled his way to 31 points and was the main reason the 76ers got off to a quick start, hitting 12 points in the opening period. 

“We were playing wide open and getting opportunities going to the basket,” explained 76ers coach Jack Ramsay.

Ramsay made Hal Greer the ball handler again last night so that Clark would have an easier time penetrating for his jump shot. The combination was absolutely flawless in the first quarter. Greer, who said he couldn’t recall turning the ball over once all night, set up Clark, and Archie shot six-for six. 

The 76ers shot a phenomenal 61 percent from the floor to 36 for the Bullets in the first half. In fact, their 61 percent was just two percentage points below the 63 percent the Bullets shot from the foul line . . . Every time the Bullets looked up under the defensive board, all they saw was a Philadelphia shot coming through the bottom of the net. 

Then, in the second half, the 76ers played it a little more cautiously, started to shoot like human beings instead of finely tuned machines, and the Bullets gradually whittled the deficit to set up the frenzied finish. The play of the night was Pearl Monroe’s three-pointer starting the fourth quarter . . . he faked to each point of the compass, wrote a letter home and spun in a layup all while in flight and under heavy assault by Wally the Werewolf,” a.k.a. Wally Jones.

Then Cunningham and Baltimore’s Gus Johnson figured in one of the strangest decisions of a game, which should have been contested with six-ounce gloves on a barge in the middle of the harbor. It came two minutes deep in the final quarter when the Bullets had managed to cut   What once was a 16-point deficit down to six. 

Johnson drove downcourt on a 2-on-1 fast break, with Cunningham playing the “1” part. Cunningham braced himself in the path of Johnson and Gus proceeded to slam into him.  Cunningham fell backward, holding his head with both hands 

“Bleep,” went Richie Powers whistle. “You,” he shouted, pointing to the 25 on Johnson’s jersey. Johnson got right up, cocked his fist and started back for Billy, who still hadn’t moved. Gus screamed, swung his fists and screamed some more. The fists hit nobody but the screams did. After an injury timeout had been taken, Powers said the foul was on Cunningham. That’s Rich.

Cunningham knew nothing of it. “I didn’t know,” he said, “because I wasn’t awake at the time. I remember Al (Domenico) asking me where I was.”

“What did you say?” a reporter asked.

“Baltimore . . . I think.”

Johnson made the free throw, and now the 10,998 customers were raising the Civic Center roof with cheers and yelps and booming chants of “Defense, defense, defense.”

It was a perfect setting for one of those whirlwind comebacks, and it almost happened. Except when Cunningham got the ball in maneuvering position or Clark was drilling in a popper, the 76er offense stopped stone cold dead. 

The Bullets tied the score at 101 with 1:46 to go, but that was as close as they were to get. The 76ers went right back to Cunningham, who drove on Johnson, going right-handed to the baseline. Johnson rammed Cunningham on a shot attempt and paid the penalty with two free throws. Clark made another free throw, and now it was 104-101 with 50 seconds left. 

It stayed there for a mere six ticks, because the 76ers’ Luke Jackson grabbed Earl Monroe on a drive, and the pair of freebies made it 104-103.

The 76ers tried to use up as much clock as possible with Clark dribbling away 16 seconds before hitting Bailey Howell with a pass. Howell had no place to go, passed back to Clark, who then hit Jackson in the corner. Luke got off a quick shot, which hit the rim, and Monroe rebounded with 13 seconds on the clock. 

Time out. Big strategy meeting in the Bullets huddle. Everybody knew what was coming. Get the ball in to Monroe and let him work the baseline for a whirl-in or a popper. Johnson inbounded to Jack Marin, which was breakdown No. 1 because the first pass was to go to Kevin Loughery, who was bottled up in the right corner by Hal Greer. Marin then passed to Wes Unself on the high post, which was breakdown No. 2 because he couldn’t find Monroe in the corner, being hounded by Clark. 

Jackson then put a magnificent swarm on Unseld, so active that Wes couldn’t find anybody open except Marin, who was 30 feet from the basket. He fired a zipping, hard, high pass that Marin could hardly reach, let alone control and the ball ricocheted out of bounds.

“It was like wild pitch,” Marin said later. “I was set to get the pass in shooting position and there it was going over my head.”

When the ball went off Marin’s hands into the crowd, the 76ers had the ball with five seconds to play and were on their way to their second win in the five-game series. “I ache all over,” Cunningham said to 76ers’ public relations man Harvey Pollack. “I’m too weak to shake hands.”

Cunningham’s chest was so sore he couldn’t laugh if he wanted. Or cry either for that matter. A post-game examination revealed nothing worse than chest bruises, but then Cunningham is covered with bruises and those long red slashes made by clawing fingers. 

“Tear stains,” he said softly, rubbing the wounds. He shrugged his shoulders. “I do talk a lot out there. It’s my way of working off some feelings, but I play as hard as I can. Maybe that’s the way Gus feels. But I don’t swear and I don’t think it hurts anybody.” Before the game, Johnson boomed Cunningham “is a superstar but is also a super crybaby.”

Johnson refused to discuss anything about anything. “Just tell them,” he growled, “I’ll be seeing them in Philly Saturday afternoon.” 

A slogan on the blackboard in the Bullets’ dressing room read: “Be an animal—Animals win games!”

Up Next: Game 6

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