A recent phone call to Billy Cunningham, the winningest coach in Sixers history, began with a discussion of one of his players playing hooky during the NBA Finals. But before too long it veered in another direction, toward the passage of time.
“I tend to forget sometimes that I will be 80 years old shortly,” he said. “It goes by so fast.”
For coaches. For fans. For everybody.
It has also been nearly 40 years since Cunningham, who turns 80 next June 3, coached the Sixers to the 1982-83 championship, the most recent of the three they have won in their history. The quest ended with a sweep of the Lakers in the Finals, nearly fulfilling the alleged fo’, fo’, fo’ prophecy of Moses Malone. And it ended with Cunningham looking as if he had received a stay of execution from the governor as he left the court in The Forum after Game 4 in Los Angeles (as shown at 1:36:54 of this video).
There is ample evidence that Cunningham did some celebrating on the flight home. But in the moment, there was only relief — and not without reason.
Again and again the Sixers of that era pushed the boulder up the mountain, only to see it roll back over them. They fell in the ‘77 Finals to Portland (under Gene Shue, Cunningham’s predecessor), then in the ‘80 and ‘82 Finals to the Lakers, with Cunningham in charge. Sprinkled in there, too, was an agonizing loss in the ‘81 Eastern Finals to Boston, after the Sixers built a 3-1 lead, and a near-repeat the following year; only a Game 7 victory in Boston Garden averted a second implosion.
Small wonder that Cunningham, 454-196 in eight years as coach, looked like he had been through the wringer after they finally – finally – reached the summit. That’s exactly what he had been through. They all had.
“If he had any fun during those years, he kept it to himself,” former Daily News columnist Mark Whicker once told me.
Now here we are, all these years later. The Sixers have made exactly one Finals appearance since ‘82-83, when the Allen Iverson-led club fell to the Lakers in 2000-01. They’ve been up. They’ve been (mostly) down. And that ‘82-83 title — they also won it all in ‘54-55 and ‘66-67 - has nearly shrunken from view, like an image in the rear-view mirror.
Cunningham, who fashioned a Hall of Fame resume during his 11 seasons as a player, was the sixth man on that ‘66-67 team, one featuring the legendary Wilt Chamberlain and two others enshrined in Springfield, Hal Greer and Chet Walker. Cunningham has steadfastly avoided comparisons between that club and the ‘82-83 squad, but has left some strong hints about his leanings, not the least of which is the fact that he was among those who spearheaded the placement of the Wilt statue outside the Wells Fargo Center in 2004.
After stepping down as coach in 1985, Cunningham went into private business, and was later a co-founder of the Miami Heat. He keeps in touch with many of the players he coached, and mourns those who have been lost along the way, like Darryl Dawkins, Caldwell Jones and, from the ‘82-83 champs, Malone and Mark McNamara – all of them centers, all dead from heart afflictions, all 64 or younger. (Another player Cunningham coached, Harvey Catchings, underwent a heart transplant in 2019, at the age of 67.)
Cunningham finds it “amazing” that four big men from that era succumbed in such a fashion, but is at a loss to explain it.
“It makes you wonder,” he said.
He has had heart issues himself, having undergone triple-bypass surgery last year, a procedure in which two heart valves were also repaired.
“So,” he told me, “I’m lucky I’m talking to you on the phone.”
There was a light moment in our conversation, when I told him that with the Sixers leading the Lakers 2-0 in the 1983 Finals, McNamara, a rookie at the time, sneaked out of the team hotel in Los Angeles on Saturday, May 28 — the day before Game 3 — and flew to San Jose. There he would serve as best man in the wedding of Ted Whittington, who had been his teammate and roommate at Santa Clara, where McNamara played his first two collegiate seasons. (He finished up at Cal-Berkeley.)
“I’ve told this story so many times,” Whittington, now an attorney in Bakersfield, Calif., told me recently. “Anyway, he did that, never got caught and got back to the hotel room.”
Cunningham admitted during our recent call he had no idea about McNamara’s wanderings, and chuckled at the thought of them. Hard-driving as he was, it’s difficult to envision him not coming down hard on the rookie in the moment, had he found out. But at first he guessed otherwise.
“I might have let him go, for the simple reason that Mark was not going to be a factor in the game,” he said. “From that standpoint, I might. I’m just not sure.”
“Then again,” he said, “I probably wouldn’t have let him do anything, if I’m going to be consistent with everyone.”
McNamara, who played sparingly that season, actually saw a minute of garbage-time action in the Sixers’ 111-94 victory the next day, making both his shots and scoring four points. That represented his entire offensive output in that year’s postseason.
Two days later, the Sixers won the title. And since then the years have unspooled at a rate Cunningham finds stunning. (“From 70 to 80 is a freaking blur,” he said.) He has seen some heartache, as was the case in 2005, when he and his family lost all manner of personal items in a fire at their Gladwyne home.
“You get past that,” he once told me, “and you move on.”
The memories and relationships survive. There have been team reunions. There are frequent phone calls and emails. On our call Cunningham said he had just reached out to Bobby Jones, to let him know Maurice Cheeks’ brother was having some health problems; surely Bobby, a deeply spiritual man, would be more than willing to offer some prayers.
No, the clock cannot be stopped. But every now and then, it can be rewound. And for Billy Cunningham, as with all of us, that will have to be enough.