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Revisiting the Career of Sixer Great Billy Cunningham

Aug 19, 2012, 1:33 PM EDT

A brief history lesson on the career of Hall of Famer and Sixer great Billy Cunningham.

Bit of a slow day for us today here on TheLevel. We’re sort of out and around.

However, we were able to dig up a list from Dime Magazine ranking the 10 greatest lefthanded basketball players in NBA history to help you pass the time.

We address this because, aside from how much I love lefties for the challenges they present  defenders, Sixer great Billy Cunningham cracks the list at No. 6.

A brief history of the Kangaroo Kid below…

Billy C. was an absolutely insane leaper, who averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds in just over eight NBA seasons. Unfortunately, he blew out his knee 20 games into the 1975-76 season and never played again. One wonders what modern medicine might have been able to achieve back then.

From Dime’s write up:

“But in his prime, the dude could hoop. He came from New
York City and UNC, so he had the pedigree (even if Dean Smith initially
didn’t want him), and he was the sixth man on a Philly championship team
in ’67 that many still believe is the best team in history. Five
All-Star Games, three All-NBA First Teams and 16,310 points later, he’s
still one of the best left-handed players in league history.”

You can add to that resume that he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, named to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary team and had his No. 32 jersey retired by the Sixers (It was un-retired for one year so that Charles Barkley could honor Magic Johnson, after Magic he was HIV-positive and retired from the game. Nos. 32 and 34 (Barkley) are now both retired by the club, hanging alongside Erving’s 6, Cheeks’ 10, Chamberlain’s 13, Greer’s 15, Jones’ 24 and Zinkoff’s numberless banner.). He’s also one of only two Sixers on the short list of players who have ever dropped 50 or more in a playoff game — just Allen and Billy, though Chamberlain is on the list three times as a Philadelphia Warrior.

After Wilt left in ’68, Billy, who had been playing about 27 minutes per off the bench in his first three seasons, became the team. Take a look at this stretch from 1968-72, when he averaged 24.3 points and 12.6 rebounds and put up career-highs of 26.1 and 13.6 in 1969-70.

For those of you who are doing the math from from his rookie season in ’65 and wondering how eight seasons gets him to ’75, OR for those of you who know history well enough to know that ’72-’73 produced the worst NBA team to ever play an 82-game schedule — you’ll realize something isn’t adding up. Cunningham left the Sixers after the ’71-’72 to return to his home of North Carolina and spend two years in the ABA.

He returned to play a full season in ’74-’75, and got only 20 games into the following year  before his knee exploded.

He still contributes to the franchise, serving as an unofficial consultant to former teammate and current Sixers coach Doug Collins, who the team took first overall thanks to their 9-73 season. Collins and Cunningham played just over a year together, serving as the second and third leading scorers on the ’74-’75 team behind only Fred “Mad Dog” Carter — who, by the way, claims to have invented, or at least popularized, the fist bump and went on to coach the team himself in 1993-94.

Billy goes down in history as one of the greatest Sixers of all-time and the only man in NBA history to win a championship with the same franchise as both a player and a head coach — I’m not counting player/coach Bill Russell.

Speaking of which, it’s of little surprise Russell topped the list which spurred this impromptu Billy tribute. That Top-10, which actually has 11 names thanks to a tie at No. 5, is below. I’m not thrilled with the parts of the order, but that’s how these things usually go and arguing about it is part of the fun.

Dime’s Lefty List:
1. Bill Russell
2. Willis Reed
3. David Robinson
4. Dave Cowens
5. Tiny Archibald/Lenny Wilkens
6. Billy Cunningham
7. Chris Mullin
8. Artis Gilmore
9. Gail Goodrich
10. Bob Lanier

Alright, so you tell us — where does Billy Cunningham rank on your list of the greatest lefties of all-time? Actually, here’s a better question — where on the list of the greatest Sixers of all-time?

Brief video of Billy as part of the Spectrum Moments series here:

And an extended radio interview here:

pictures above via the Associated Press