Billy Cunningham: Tale of Two Leagues, 1974

[Billy Cunningham. Popular Sports 1974 All-Pro Basketball Magazine. The great Lenox Rawlings at the typewriter. Let’s go!]


As the speed of Billy Cunningham’s journey devoured his 29th year, changes arrived in day-to-day living. When he drove the lane, floating and pumping, the ominously outstretched arms of Wilt Chamberlain and Nate Thurmond were replaced by lethargic waves from men named Gene Moore and Bob Netolicky. When he sparred for a long jump shot, the learned stares of Dave DeBusschere and John Havlicek were transformed into the youthfully eager jabs of George McGinnis and Willie Wise. 

The move from the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers to the ABA’s Carolina Cougars—ordered by a Richmond Federal Appeals Court in April 1972—altered Cunningham’s uniform and opponents, a natural course amplified by the differences in his 20 hours away from the arena. 

The transition meant temporarily vacating a lavish, recently completed home in suburban Gladwyne for an apartment in Greensboro, where his wife grew up but doesn’t want to settle, and encountering a lesser-developed educational system for 3 ½ year-old daughter Stephanie. It meant leaving a team that, by season’s end, lost the most games in pro basketball for a team that won the most ABA games. And it provided a psychological revival. Aimless rounds of golf the day before games, an exercise intended to suppress the despair of Philadelphia’s inferiority, were exchanged for a trip to Las Vegas with his Carolina teammates, an exercise to relieve the pressure of superiority. 

Instead of frequent national television exposure, a lush property right of NBA players, Cunningham was unseen by millions until the All-Star Game, and only twice after that. But national magazines, cuing on the new league theme, followed his trail relentlessly. 

Instead of non-stop bursts from one major terminal to another, he was subjected to start-stop-start-stop flights that often landed less than 50 miles apart. His objections to the jaunts small businessmen accept with the same nonchalance with which they clutch their vinyl briefcases were neither bitter nor hidden. 

Such irritation was perfectly clear on the night of November 7, a time when most Americans congregated in front of television sets to see their [election] votes tabulated. The Cougars milled around the regional airport at Greensboro, drinking beer and buying paperbacks, fulfilling autograph requests and awaiting Piedmont Airlines Flight 227. 

Understanding Flight 227—and the other Piedmont numbers between Greensboro and Louisville—requires patience and imagination. Otherwise, the ridiculousness would breed disbelief. For this relatively short jump across the Appalachians, Piedmont needs 2 ½ hours or more, with scheduled stops in Tri-Cities (Bristol, Kingsport, and Johnson City) and London-Corbin. 

Not only would the election-night votes from Connecticut flash across the nation’s tubes before arrival, but the decisions of Ohioans and Texans and—if the rainy night created problems—perhaps Californians. 

Cunningham shuffled from counter to counter, intently studying the departure alternatives. He eventually discovered a flight that made one stop, in Washington, and proceeded to carry his case to other players and trainer-travel secretary Buddy Taylor. Time and advance planning subdued the upper-class revolt, however. Cunningham boarded the aircraft and, as is his habit, promptly fell asleep. 

“This may be the greatest problem in playing for Carolina,” he explained later. “It’s hard to get a good flight out of Greensboro or into Greensboro. You have to get up at 5:30 or 6:30 in New York, whereas we could be back in Philly in a matter of minutes following a game in New York. I can’t go to sleep until 2 o’clock or so after a game, so it makes travel a little inconvenient.”

(To avoid an incorrect impression of Cunningham, whose salary approaches a quarter-million dollars a year, the experience of guard Bob Warren, a genteel Vanderbilt graduate, should be noted. When Warren was traded from Carolina to Dallas in mid-November, he observed: “I hate to leave a first-place team, but one of the first things that hit me when I heard about the trade was the fact that now I won’t have to fly anymore of those puddle jumpers.”)

Cunningham survived annoyances, of course, and constructed his finest season. The three-time All-NBA forward captured the Most Valuable Player award voted by the players and writers without serious competition. “I always thought Billy was a great player, but I never knew how great until this season,” said Carolina coach Larry Brown, a senior guard at North Carolina when Cunningham was the sophomore center, a distinguished floor leader during his ABA playing days and Coach of the Year in his rookie season. “I always thought he was as good as any forward in basketball. Now I can say it without any reservations. I have seen him repeatedly do what needed to be done.”

Cunningham controlled rebounds, compiling a 12.1 average, seventh in the league. He dominated the defensive boards—Brown believes it is his greatest talent—against short and tall centers, grabbing 772 missed shots there. The figure represented over three-fourths of his rebounds and the third-highest defensive total. 

Usually most effective in the first and fourth quarters, Cunningham consistently spurred the final-period offense as Carolina habitually won in the closing minutes. He averaged 24.1 points (fourth) and unraveled stacked defenses with 6.3 assists a game (fifth). 

Although his defense sometimes lacked movement—“You can only have so much energy, and he uses his doing other things,” said guard Steve Jones—Cunningham protected the lane, while Joe Caldwell and the guards applied Brown’s outside-oriented pressure. His positioning and anticipation resulted in a league-leading 216 steals, which in turn landed a second-string slot on the All-ABA Defensive team selected by the coaches.

Several players and management personnel privately derided the honor, a stance of skepticism unseen until Los Angeles guard Jerry West’s quoted remarks hit the national wires following the season. “Billy Cunningham, a good friend of mine, was named MVP in the ABA this season,” West reportedly said. “I’m happy for him, but I don’t think he could have made it that big in our league.”

Cunningham reacted calmly. “I was surprised. I didn’t know how he meant it because I know he didn’t mean anything personal. We’re good friends, and he wouldn’t question my abilities. I wouldn’t question his.”

West subsequently offered a revised statement, claiming that the published quote was taken out of context. He said Cunningham wouldn’t win the NBA MVP because centers always did. (Until last season, when guard Nate Archibald swept the award, a fact West apparently forgot.)

“I knew what he said came out wrong,” responded Cunningham to the correction. 

Cunningham’s views on the comparative strength of the ABA vary sharply from West’s opinion that “none of the best ABA clubs could beat our best teams.”

“There are six teams in the ABA that can compete favorably in the NBA,” said Cunningham, who played seven years in Philadelphia. “Memphis, Dallas, and San Diego are very weak. 

“After the season, I sat back and thought about the differences, which primarily result from experience. The best teams, like the New York Knicks, have greater experience, age, and maturity than the ABA teams. Maybe the NBA has changed, though. Last season, the big centers didn’t dominate. Boston and New York, with shorter centers, were the two best teams. Jabbar’s team didn’t make the finals. The current judgments about the importance of centers has been overdone.”

Deleting the middle man, Cunningham perceives the league as roughly equal. “The most obvious difference is at guard, where the NBA’s considerably stronger and deeper. Forward is the top ABA position. The ABA has more good forwards. 

“A few ABA guards could hold their own in the NBA. Ours (Mack Calvin, Jones, Gene Littles, and Ted McClain) are very good, and several others could do it—Warren Jabali, Jimmy Jones, Donnie Freeman, Bill Melchionni, Chuck Williams—but there’s not great depth. The styles changed so from league to league. The NBA guards have more control, more court awareness, more defensive ability, more of the talents that evolve after a number of years. 

“Age is a critical factor. The NBA guards seemed so methodical, seem to realize the importance of each play. The ABA guards have a reputation for running and shooting. But if you check the playoff scores, I think you’ll see lower numbers and a different pattern in the ABA last year. The guards were more aware of their jobs. It wasn’t run and shoot.”

Cunningham, admittedly factoring an identification problem, sought advice from Caldwell, Brown, and assistant coach Doug Moe on how the forwards played. Knowledge and competition failed to diminish his respect for the younger ABA stars. 

“When you think of the great forwards in the NBA, you think of Spencer Haywood, DeBusschere, Havlicek, Paul Silas, and Rick Barry . . .  and it ends around there. The ABA has Willie Wise and Julius Erving and George McGinnis and Dan Issel and more quality players at the position.

“When I was in the NBA, I felt that the ABA was inferior. I guess the NFL felt the same way about the AFL. My opinion has changed. Time will even things up. In two or three years, the best NBA players won’t be playing. West, Oscar (Robertson), Havlicek, DeBusschere, Willis Reed, Thurmond, and Chamberlain will all retire in the near future. The ABA’s top players are younger. They just need experience.”

The experiences of Cunningham’s youth assumed form on the waxed floors of American basketball, and elsewhere. Shooting baskets is somewhat different from shooting craps, but, on the streets of New York, both are exceedingly popular.  

Cunningham, a native of Brooklyn, took his high-rolling game to Las Vegas during the February All-Star interlude. Carolina’s principal owner, Atlanta-based Tedd Munchak, conceived and financed the excursion as a reward for the team’s performance. 

For three days, Cunningham, Moe, and Brown stuck together at the tables, winning and losing with equal exuberance. Cunningham’s distinct laugh competed with Moe’s generally loud banter to attract watchers, who became players. “They loved us out there,” Moe said. “We kept the place alive and got money on the table.”

Cunningham’s eyes, so blank following a loss that he appears entranced, almost unconscious, gleamed. “But you know,” said one observer, “he didn’t really seem to care if he won or lost. It seemed unimportant.”

“I enjoyed it,” said Cunningham, “because at that point in the season, I always try my best to get away from basketball for a few days and relax. It’s just my way. The constant routine of playing and traveling can wear me down, and I have to find some way to get loose. If I don’t, I’ll go crazy. 

“During the playoffs against Kentucky, I went out to the racetrack in the afternoon and night. There was more pressure in terms of winning and losing. I prefer to get involved in some activity like studying and betting on the horses to release tension and remove my mind from the games. When the season’s over, I could do without it.”

Cunningham’s life as a professional fuses laxity and intensity. In public, he either laughs or plays. “Billy’s shrewd and intelligent,” said his wife, Sondra. “His energy is unbelievable. That care-free attitude of Billy’s is really only surface. He is very serious.”

Quite serious about business and security, Cunningham burns telephone wires discussing business ventures and investments. His business partners are friends, men he can trust. “I suspect that Billy’s penchant for security may be greater than other men his age,” analyzed Carolina general manager Carl Scheer, whose relationship with Cunningham began when both labored in the NBA. “I think that when he turns 35 or so, he’d like to tell the world to go screw itself.”

Cunningham agrees. “What I want out of the game is the situation in which I don’t have to do anything except what I want to do,” he confirms. 

Attaining that with the dollar’s value falling all around him motivates Cunningham, but the real drive is personal, not financial. His tastes are surprisingly frugal; the only “luxuries” within view are a Miami condominium, a leased Citroen, the exquisitely furnished Philly home, and Sondra’s clothes.

“I really don’t spend much more money now than I ever have . . . I wouldn’t know how to,” asserted Cunningham, who often wears dungarees, a current mode of dress, and no socks, a style that flourished during his college years. 

Basketball serves to display his personality. Before a game, he walks through the lay-up drill, shifting the ball from hand to hand without dribbling, throwing weird, soft shots toward the glass. He never expends energy beyond the 48-minute games—“He’s as poor a practice player as I’ve ever seen,” said Brown—but during the minutes that counts, Cunningham’s concentration and intensity are naked. 

He continually yells at teammates. He corrects them, admonishes them. “If we were a .500 ballclub, I’m sure a lot of guys would have told him where to go,” said Brown, smiling. “When things are going good, the guys accept it and say, ‘I don’t want to rock the boat.’” 

Because the season opened and closed with Carolina atop the Eastern Division standings, Cunningham avoided confrontations. “At the first Cougar team meeting, I told them if I yelled at them too much that they should tell me to shut my mouth,” Cunningham commented. “Some of them have. It doesn’t bother me.”

Referees hip to Cunningham’s vitriolic gyrations have advised that he cool it, politely. He rarely does, until the first technical foul, then approaches, but doesn’t exceed, the fine line that would cause another technical and immediate disqualification. The officials consent to his frequent 20-second injury timeouts—a strategy that allows either rest or consultation or disrupts the other team’s search.  

The ABA’s supervisor of officials, Norm Drucker, who attended Brooklyn’s Erasmus High School before Cunningham, said they’re good friends. When Cunningham, representing the East, met Drucker at midcourt preceding the Salt Lake City All-Star Game, Drucker ended the conversation cordially. ‘Have a good game,” he said. 

Cunningham: “It’s about time you had one, too.”

They laughed, but Cunningham’s renown as a ref-baiter contributed to newspaper accounts describing the exchange in dire, controversial tones. 

The West overcame a substantial East lead in the second half, as Cunningham fouled out and Brown fumed about the officiating. Cunningham addressed Drucker afterwards: “I voted for you for the MVP.”

In the next three months, Cunningham experienced fewer and fewer light moments. Just when Carolina apparently sewed up the regular season championship in its division, Caldwell suffered an injury and Cunningham succumbed to exhaustion. He couldn’t eat and couldn’t sleep. “It happens every year,” he explained. Sondra wasn’t overly concerned.” 

He soon regained strength and helped the Cougars reach the playoff semifinals against Kentucky, which won in seven games. Then, he paused to consider his first trip through the ABA.

“Despite that game, I was very satisfied,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what we would do before the year started, although I knew we had some excellent players. It came together quite well.”

His routine changed drastically. Long telephone calls, often involving nothing in particular, just conversation. He listened to a wide variety of music, drove his car in the daytime until the lights were repaired (“Every time I cut them on, the car conked out”), and ran his basketball camps.

“It’s a different life four months a year. I get up when I want to. I don’t play basketball at all. I visit friends and stay with my family. As a professional, I live in two different worlds. I live two different lives.”

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