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Hiring Billy Cunningham as head coach of the Sixers

Ninth in a series of 25 Setup: The Sixers, coming off a painful NBA Finals in which they blew a 2-0 lead on the road against Portland, started 1977-78 at 2-4. Owner Fitz Dixon wanted a change and called on a familiar face.

Billy Cunningham during a game in 1978. (Rusty Kennedy/AP file)
Billy Cunningham during a game in 1978. (Rusty Kennedy/AP file)Read moreAP file

Ninth in a series of 25

Setup: The Sixers, coming off a painful NBA Finals in which they blew a 2-0 lead on the road against Portland, started 1977-78 at 2-4. Owner Fitz Dixon wanted a change and called on a familiar face.

The 76ers of the late 1970s were one of the most exciting and entertaining teams to ever grace the NBA. Fans, especially on the road, would make sure they'd get to the arenas early so they could watch George McGinnis, Julius Erving, Lloyd "World" Free, Joe "Jellybean" Bryant and Darryl Dawkins put on a display of da dunk.

Besides playing to the crowd, they had won 50 games in 1976-77 and made it to the Finals. But there was always a feeling that this team could do better. After all, it was the best team money could buy.

So when the team reached 2-4 by losing three straight games - by a total of eight points - at Portland, at Golden State and at home against a mediocre Bulls squad, Dixon was sharpening the blade.

Dixon was no fan of Shue's. It was well-known that Shue's communication skills needed to be polished, but that alone didn't put him in Dixon's hit list. The fact is, Dixon didn't like Shue, his lifestyle or his acquaintances and Dixon had other dislikes that he didn't discuss in public. After a painful loss during the 1976-77 season, Dixon confronted Shue in front of the press and embarrassed his coach by saying, "Well, I'm waiting for your excuses." After that, Shue referred to his boss as "that son of a bitch."

So, when Shue lost those three straight games, Dixon had the guillotine glistening and ready to go. On Nov. 2, after a 103-102 loss to Chicago, Shue was dropped and was replaced by Billy Cunningham, the Sixers great who was doing TV color commentary and hadn't coached a game in his life.

But everything Cunningham had done in his life was a success. As a skinny, pale-faced, pigeon-toed freshman, Cunningham had to convince new North Carolina coach Dean Smith that he was a player. Cunningham was recruited by Frank McGuire, so Smith didn't know that the skin-and-bones redhead had led Erasmus Hall to the 1961 New York City championship and that he wasn't called the Kangaroo Kid because he had a great set shot. It didn't take long for Smith to realize what a gem he had. Cunningham was a three-time All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection and two-time All-American. He was a first-round draft pick who made the NBA All-Rookie team, helped the 76ers win the 1966-67 NBA championship, and when he jumped to the American Basketball Association, he led the Carolina Cougars to the championship round and was named the league's MVP. He was first-team All-NBA three times (1969-71), second team in 1972, was a four-time All-Star and was voted one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History in 1996.

He was also considered an excellent color commentator and would eventually become a highly successful businessman who was instrumental in bringing an NBA franchise to Miami.

It didn't take Cunningham long to prove that he would be a success at coaching as well. The Sixers won their first four games under him, 14 out of their first 15, and 16 of their first 18. There was also a nine-game winning streak (Dec. 28 to Jan. 18) and an eight-gamer (March 5-19).

"I'm already comfortable," Cunningham told Sports Illustrated less than 2 weeks into the job. "Maybe I don't feel the pressure because I know that coaching doesn't have to be my life's work. But I also know I can do this job."

And the players were loving it.

"The first thing Billy told me was I'll play," said Bryant, who was shackled to the bench by Shue. "That means so much - knowing, not hoping. He knows what's inside a player. He's more a leader than a coach."

In his fourth game on the bench, Cunningham's well-placed confidence in Bryant was rewarded. The Philly native scored 19 points in 13 minutes, including 11 in the fourth quarter, as the Sixers came from behind to beat the New York Knicks, 127-119.

Cunningham finished 53-23 that first season. After sweeping the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs, the Sixers fell to the eventual NBA champion Washington Bullets.

Following that first season, Cunningham knew that Erving and McGinnis were a bad mix and that McGinnis needed to be traded. Shue knew this, too, having asked Dixon on two occasions to trade the former franchise player. Dixon's response to Shue? "If you can't coach him, I'll get somebody who can." But the difference was that Cunningham had Dixon's ear. So when Cunningham made the suggestion, the deal was done. The addition of Bobby Jones in that trade and the drafting of Maurice Cheeks in the '78 draft began the metamorphosis from a team that was a collection of great one-on-one players to a team that was built to chase an NBA title.

History tells us that the hiring of Cunningham was a coup. He would lead the Sixers to three NBA Finals (1980, 1982 and 1983), an NBA title (1983) and he would reach 200 and 300 wins faster than any coach before him. After eight seasons as coach, Cunningham walked away in 1985 with a record of 454-196 and was elected to the James Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame the next year.

Entering this season, Cunningham has the second-highest winning percentage (.698) in league history among those who have coached at least 400 games, trailing only Phil Jackson (.704).

As one writer said, "He whipsawed them, stomped his feet at them, goaded them, drove them, and together they had a memorable 8-year run."