A career as staggered and varied as Billy Cunningham’s naturally defies any sort of neat categorization. He was one of the great 6th Men in NBA history on one of the great teams in NBA history. He was a perennial NBA MVP candidate during the early 1970s. He was an MVP winner in the ABA. His return to the NBA ultimately truncated and ruined by unfortunate injury.
As the Sixth Man for the Philadelphia 76ers, Billy Cunningham was key to the team’s success and failure in the late 1960s. In the 1966 Eastern Division Finals, the Celtics successfully harassed Cunningham into an abysmal series (5 PPG, 16% FG) that Boston won 4-1. In 1967 Cunningham had a more respectable 14 PPG and the 76ers knocked off the Celtics 4-1 en route to the NBA title. In 1968 Cunningham went down to injury early in the playoffs and Boston won the EDF 4-3.
Cunningham’s days as a Sixth Man ended the summer of 1968 when Philly traded Wilt Chamberlain to the Los Angeles Lakers. Standing only 6’6″, Cunningham over the next four seasons would usually start at forward but would sometimes have to slide over to center on an often scrambled 76ers roster. Cunningham’s toughness and versatility kept the hodge podge ensemble competitive up through 1971. Thereafter there wasn’t much his 25 points, 13 rebounds, and 4.5 assists a night could do for a roster that was running on empty.
Luckily for Cunningham, the prime of his career wasn’t entirely wasted. The Kangaroo Kid jumped ship to the ABA for the 1973 season with the Carolina Cougars and was named that league’s MVP. The Cougars whipped up the ABA’s best regular season record that year, but lost in the conference finals to the Kentucky Colonels. That season proved to be Cunningham’s high-water mark.
In 1974 he battled kidney ailments appearing in just 32 games for the Cougars. In 1975 he bounced back in the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers compiling an all-star worthy season. However, in 1976 his career finally came to a close when he blew his knee out against the New York Knicks. A shame since Cunningham still had game left and the next season, Philly would add Julius Erving to their core of George McGinnis and Doug Collins.
Even though his career took many winding, unexpected turns, Billy Cunningham excelled at each point. His slashing offensive attack proved nearly unstoppable. His remarkable rebounding and passing make him one of just 12 players to ever average over 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists in a season. Cunningham is also one of just four players to average over 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 assists. Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, and Elgin Baylor are the other three.
For the uninitiated, that may be a surprising fact to learn. But for those in the know, they can testify that the Kangaroo Kid at his best was definitely that caliber of player.
Seasons Played: 1966 – 1976
All-ABA 1st Team (1973)
3x All-NBA 1st Team (1969-’71)
All-NBA 2nd Team (1972)
4x All-Star (1969-’72)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1966)
ABA - 116 Games
23.1 PPG, 11.6 RPG, 5.9 APG, 2.4 SPG, 0.7 BPG, 48.3% FG, 79.1% FT
NBA – 654 Games
20.8 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 44.6% FG, 72.0% FT