ProHoopsHistory HOF: Mack Calvin

Mack Calvin

Like any proper ABA legend, Mack Calvin has one fantastic name. Also, like any proper ABA legend, Mack Calvin had a fantastic game.

The most exciting little man in the annals of the ABA, Calvin was blindingly quick. He could burst by you and leave your retinas blistered, your corneas busted, and your pupils punctured. The fury of  his drives was unstoppable and led to insufferable nights for opponents. Calvin loved it all though, making the All-ABA 1st Team three times in his career.

Little Mack averaged a tremendous 7.7 free throws per game in the ABA and made 86.6% of them. In 1975 and 1976 he led the league with free throw percentages of 89.6% and 88.8%, respectively. To foul him was to basically give up the points anyways. The problem, though, was that Calvin would force the issue and leave you in an untenable position. Fouling was all that you could do. The diminutive Calvin is the ABA’s all-time leader in free throws made and attempted, and is third all-time in that league in FT%. Rarely do you find out that someone 6’0″ tall is the leader in free throws made.

Mack’s quickness didn’t just lead to forays at the rim and the line, he also had a devastating pull up jumper. The compact Calvin was strong beyond his size and could always muster up a good shot. And his best shots all came in the ABA. Whether with the Los Angeles Stars (who Mack led to the ABA Finals as a rookie), the Floridians (with whom Mack was the only bright spot), the Carolina Cougars (who utilized Mack as a sort of “Release the Kracken” offensive force), the Virginia Squires (the less said the better), or the Denver Nuggets (a game away from another Finals appearance), Calvin was a stud in the ABA.

The NBA, though, never thought too highly of Calvin. When Mack entered the draft out of Southern California, the hometown Lakers drafted him 187th overall, gave him an invite to training camp, and a possible t-shirt. Little wonder he chose the LA Stars of the ABA. Bob Bass pretty much summed up why Calvin was able to succeed in the ABA:

“[The ABA] was a wide-open league, a league that ran the fast break and didn’t have a lot of big men clogging the middle. That was why little guards such as Larry [Brown] and Mack Calvin bloomed in that league; the accent was on speed and finesse, while the NBA played walk the ball up the court and jam it down your throat.”

For seven great years, Calvin was able to play wild, loose, and free in the ABA. Maybe if the NBA was more amenable to his style of play “Mack the Knife” would have cut out a greater legacy for himself. As it stands, you can’t say the ABA’s 2nd all-time leading playmaker and 8th leading scorer didn’t do well nonetheless.

Years Played: 1969 – 1981

Accolades

ABA - 
3x All-ABA 1st Team (1971, 1974-’75)
All-ABA 2nd Team (1973)
5x All-Star (1971-’75)
All-Rookie Team (1970)

Statistics

ABA – 533 Games
19.9 PPG, 5.8 APG, 3.1 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 45.1% FG, 86.6% FT
APG Leader (1975), 2x FT% Leader (1975-’76)

NBA - 222 Games
7.0 PPG, 2.5 APG, 1.2 RPG, 0.6 SPG, 42.0% FG, 84.8% FT

Contemporary ABA/NBA Ranks (1969-70 through 1980-81 season)
13th Assists, 18th APG
6th FTs Made, 4th FT%
32nd Points
26th Games Played, 40th Minutes Played

Pro Hoops History HOF: Billy Cunningham

Billy Cunningham (NY Daily News)
Billy Cunningham (NY Daily News)

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.

Years Played: 1965 – 1975

Accolades

ABA -
MVP (1973)
All-ABA 1st Team (1973)
All-Star (1973)

NBA -
Champion (1967)
3x All-NBA 1st Team (1969-’71)
All-NBA 2nd Team (1972)
4x All-Star (1969-’72)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1966)

Statistics

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

Contemporary NBA/ABA Ranks (1965-66 through 1974-75 season)
3rd Points, 19th PPG
3rd FGs Made, 6th FTs Made
11th Rebounds, 31st RPG
12th Assists, 24th APG
6th Steals*, 11th SPG*
12th Games Played, 7th Minutes Played

*Stat not kept until the 1973-74 season

The Lowdown: Billy Cunningham

Years Active: 1966 – 1976
Regular Seasons Stats: 770 games, 34.9 mpg
21.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.8 spg, 0.5 bpg, 45.2% FG, 73.0% FT
Playoff Stats: 54 games, 32.4 mpg
19.6 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 3.6 apg, 44% FG, 68.8% FT
ABA Accolades:  MVP (1973), All-ABA 1st Team (1973), ABA All-Star (1973)
NBA Accolades: 3x All-NBA 1st Team (1969-’71), All-NBA 2nd Team (1972), All-Rookie 1st Team (1966), 4x All-Star (1969-’72), NBA Champion (1967)

There are three distinct Billy Cunninghams. For the first three years of his career, he was the 6th Man for the 76ers entering games and delivering a hot dose of instant offense. For the next several years after that, he was perhaps the best forward in all of basketball. His game flourished beyond scoring and encompassed tremendous rebounding and deft passing. However, the last three years of his career were filled with frustrating injuries that eroded a unique and sparkling talent.

Before his hotshot pro career, Cunningham grew up in New York City and then headed down south to attend the University of North Carolina. In his 4 years at Chapel Hill, Cunningham averaged 24 points and 15 rebounds. At the conclusion of his senior year, 1965, he was named ACC Player of the Year. With such play, it’s unsurprising the Philadelphia 76ers made him the 5th overall pick in the 1965 Draft and back north Billy headed and was immediately injected into one of the great rivalries in the NBA.

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