Basketball legend would take its first steps in Brooklyn, New York. As a high school player at Erasmus Hall, Cunningham was named MVP of the Brooklyn League in 1961. That same year, he would take home accolades of First Team All-New York City and was a Parade All-American selection. New York is widely accepted as the Mecca of basketball and to be named to the First Team All-New York City helped in taking Billy to the next level.
That level was the historic University of North Carolina. As I have leaked in previous Historical Glimpses, freshman were not permitted to play on the collegiate varsity level back in those days. So it would be 1963 before Cunningham would be draped in baby blue. When Cunningham did get on the hardwood he wasted no time making his presence felt. In a 1963 game against the Clemson Tigers he grabbed a record 27 rebounds. Next season, Cunningham set the single game scoring record for the Tar heels when he scorched Tulane for 48 points in 1964. His years at North Carolina were spectacular and upon their conclusion Billy had inked his name all over the record books. Leaving Chapel Hill, Billy had posted a career average of 24.8 points per game, while caroming 1,062 career rebounds for an average of 15.4 boards per night. Impressive on the glass was Billy’s forte and his single season rebounding record of 16.1 rebounds a game in 1963 is still a UNC record. He was All-ACC from 1963-65 including ACC player of the year in his senior campaign. That same year he was an ACC Academic All-Conference selection and an All-American selection by the Helms Foundation.
“The Kangaroo Kid” was drafted to the NBA with the fourth pick, seventh overall due to the territorial draft having three earlier selections, in the first round to the Philadelphia 76ers. Posting averages of 14.3 points, 2.6 assists, and an impressive 7.5 rebounds landed Cunningham on the NBA All-Rookie Team in 1966. The following year Billy and the historic 1967 76ers would set the record for most regular season wins by being victorious in 68 of 81 games. With Cunningham as the sixth man, a concept pioneered by the great Red Auerbach, the 1967 76ers were the most dominating force that the NBA had ever seen. And broke up a string of championships by the Celtics that was eight years running. That mark would later be bested by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1971 with 69 wins, and once again in 1995 by the current record holding Chicago Bulls with 72 victories. But those accomplishments will never overshadow what the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers accomplished because they broke what was the greatest sports dynasty ever.
Billy would continue his career with Philadelphia for the next five years before leaving the NBA for the ABA in 1972. Cunningham would return to his alma mater state and join the Carolina Cougars for the next two seasons. In his first year with the Cougars, Billy would average 24.1 points, 6.3 assists, and 12 rebounds. Also in that year he would run away with the ABA’s Most Valuable Player award while leading the Cougars to an ABA best 57-27 record.
After his brief stint in the ABA, Billy would return to the Philadelphia 76ers for the remainder of his playing career. In 1975 disaster struck on the Kangaroo Kid when he suffered a devastating knee injury that limited his appearance to only 20 games in that final season, but Billy’s involvement with the NBA was not over.
For eight seasons Billy would coach the 76ers. In those eight seasons the Philly team only finished below .500 once, and his winning percentage as a coach, (.698), is only second best to the great Phil Jackson. Not to mention that the 76ers championship run in 1983 with the great Dr. J and Moses Malone still holds the postseason win record at a mark of 12 and 1. Billy Cunningham concluded his basketball career winning a World Championship as a player with the 1967 76ers, and guiding the 76ers to the NBA promise land as a coach in 1983.
His career accolades are astonishing. They read as follows; First Team All-NBA honors in 1969, ‘70, and ‘71, Second Team All-NBA honors in 1972, NBA All-Star four times starting in 1969 and ending 1972, All NBA Rookie Team in 1966, ABA MVP in 1973, his number “32” will never be worn again by a Philadelphia 76er, he was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1985, and honored as one of the NBA’s greatest 50 players of All-Time. Billy Cunningham played 11 seasons of professional basketball in his career and has averages in the NBA of 20.8 points, 4 assists, and 10.1 rebounds putting him in the 20 & 10 club forever. His ABA averages are just as marvelous at 23.1 points, 5.9 assists, 11.6 boards while playing two years in the free-running and free-spirited league. At a mere 6’6”, The Kangaroo Kid will forever be remembered for his amazing leaping ability, desire to rebound, innovative scoring, and quite possibly being the best sixth man ever. Enjoy Billy Cunningham, hoop aficionados, he truly was one of the best.