Billy Cunningham: "It wasn't difficult to see the greatness of Julius Erving"
What is your earliest memory of Julius Erving, who you played against in the ABA and later ended up coaching?
Billy Cunningham: I remember the first time I ever saw Julius Erving. He was playing in a summer league game in Philadelphia in the Sonny Hill League. I think it was a game between Philadelphia and New York City. It was the first time that I ever got to see him play. I’m trying to think of the guy’s name who owned the Virginia Squires.
BC: Earl Foreman, right. A few days afterward I ran into Earl Foreman in Philadelphia – and he had not seen Julius Erving play basketball. He asked me, ‘What did you think?’ I said to him, ‘He’s special. He’s special.’ It wasn’t difficult to see, even in the summer league, the greatness of Julius Erving.
The 1980-81 Sixers were really one of the great defensive teams of all-time. That gets a little overlooked because of what happened in the playoffs (losing to Boston in the Eastern Conference finals). Talk a little about how great that team was defensively.
BC: I think something that I carried over from all of the coaches that I played under is that you have to remain consistent at the defensive end of the court. Offense is always going to be a situation where you are playing in spurts. That was an exceptional team defensively because we had Maurice Cheeks playing on the ball and he would pick up the point guard full court and pressure the ball. We had such quick forwards in Bobby Jones and Julius Erving that we would look to create turnovers with their great quickness and speed. Physically we weren’t as intimidating as a lot of teams but we relied a great deal on our quickness and our overall team concept on defense in terms of helping each other. With Caldwell Jones and Darryl Dawkins being back there – especially Caldwell, who had the ability to block shots and was such a smart defensive player – we were just a smart defensive team. We played the Boston Celtics 13 times that year between the regular season and the playoffs (splitting the regular season series 3-3 and losing the seventh game of the playoff series by one point).
And Boston went on to win the championship.
BC: We knew that last game was for the championship, even though Houston had Moses Malone. Boston and Philadelphia were just better basketball teams. For Bill Fitch, who was coaching the Celtics then, the biggest thing (in the NBA Finals against Houston) was avoiding a letdown, because the players were smart enough to realize that whoever won that game would win the world championship if they played to their abilities.
Would you agree that Julius Erving was an underrated defender, that that part of his game was not as appreciated?
BC: Yes, and there were other examples too. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were not good individual
Sometimes the criticism of guys who get a lot of steals would be that when they go for the steal and
BC: As I said earlier, we had to rely on our quickness more than physically overpowering teams. If Julius went for the steal and missed, there was supposed to be somebody there giving him support until he recovered and got back into the defensive set.
In 1980-81, the 1966-67 76ers were voted as the all-time greatest team. Do you still believe that to be the case? We’ve had another 24 years or so of NBA history that have passed, including some great Bulls teams and a great Sixers team that you coached. So I am asking in a general sense if you still believe that and I am also interested in some specific comparisons that you would make between the Sixers championship team that you played on in 1966-67 and the 1982-83 Sixers championship team that you coached that had the great 12-1 run through the playoffs.
BC: First of all, even to be considered one of the greatest teams is a great enough honor. For me to say whatever I would say in feeling that that was the greatest team would be biased. I know that it was truly one of the great teams ever put together and the shame of it was that the team was broken up so quickly. It was a team that would have gone on and won more championships because we had a wonderful blend of young players as well as experienced players who played very well together. Comparing the two teams – I don’t think that would be fair for me to do. They were two outstanding, great teams and I was just fortunate to be part of both.
OK, maybe not saying which team was greater, but with your experience as a coach in the league, what would some of the matchups have been like? Not necessarily saying who would win, but describe some of the strengths and weaknesses of each of the players going against each other and what that might look like from a strategic standpoint.
BC: I think that both teams had great versatility – the ability to run and the ability to run a set offense. I think that the big matchup, obviously, would be Moses against Chamberlain. That year, 1982-83, was by far Moses’ greatest year as a pro. He truly had a special, special year. So that would be a phenomenal matchup. Wilt was bigger, Moses was a little quicker around the basket. It’s hard to say now how it would come down. Dr. J would match up against Chet Walker. Julius was obviously better in the open court offensively than Chet and a better shot blocker. Chet was a better one-on-one player offensively and would probably try to post up Julius and do things like that. Luke Jackson was such a key factor on that team because of his versatility and his physical strength.
Bobby Jones and Luke Jackson were very similar in that both did whatever they had to do to help the team. There was nothing done that was selfish in anything that they did because they sacrificed a great deal of their offensive skills for the sake of the success of their teams. With Andrew Toney and Hal Greer, that is just a wonderful matchup. If Andrew Toney had stayed healthy, he would be truly considered a special player who played in the NBA. Cheeks and Wali Jones were two very smart basketball players who were great extensions of their coaches on the court, knowing and understanding what the team needed and what an individual needed at a certain time on the court.
You mentioned that Chet Walker was a better one-on-one player than Julius Erving offensively and you said that Julius was better in the open court. In what way was Chet Walker better one-on-one? I think that in a lot of people’s minds Julius would be considered one of the great one-on-one players, so what specifically are you referring to that Walker did better one-on-one?
BC: Julius was the greatest open court player who ever played. Chet Walker was a better jump shooter and he had, I think, a little bit more of an arsenal in the set offense. But by no means am I taking anything away from Julius Erving.
The classic thing that is brought up a lot of times about the six championships that Michael Jordan won is the idea that he never really had to go against a dominant center. The Bulls did beat Orlando once in the Eastern finals but a lot of people raise the question of what would have happened if Jordan’s Bulls had to play against your 1983 Sixers and face Moses Malone or of course the 1967 Sixers with Wilt. How would a team like the Bulls try to attack teams that have a Malone or a Chamberlain and how do you think that those teams would attack Jordan’s Bulls? What do you think of that type of hypothetical matchup?
BC: Well, they would probably be double teaming either one of those players, Chamberlain or Moses. Or they might have an attitude that they felt confident in Bill Cartwright or someone like that that they would use several centers to compete against them and not worry about fouls and just play straight man to man against both players. The Bulls were a great defensive team because of Pippen and Jordan, not to take anything away from the other players, but we’re talking about two exceptional defensive players besides their offensive skills. It would be a wonderful chess match, that’s what it would amount to – and how would teams play against Jordan? Obviously you try to take away something. It wouldn’t be as easy for him to go to the basket, for one thing, but as great as he was, he would find another way to be an effective player. He’d also have to play people like Greer or Andrew Toney, which would put a lot of pressure on him at the defensive end of the court.
Something that you experienced as both a player and a coach is the challenge of trying to win repeat championships. You won the championship in 1967 with one of the greatest teams of all-time but that team did not repeat and then you went through a similar situation – in terms of not repeating– as a coach with the 1983 Sixers, a dominant team that also was not able to repeat.
BC: The year after we won the championship I broke my wrist in the New York series, so that hurt. Plus we had other injuries on that ball club and I think that was as big a factor for us that year as anything – injuries. As for the next year (in 1984, when the Sixers tried to repeat as champions), looking back, for several years we were right there either playing for the championship or competing for the Eastern title and it almost appeared that at the end of that year (1983) we had an empty tank, emotionally more than anything. It wasn’t a matter of people not wanting to do it or not trying their hardest, it was just, even in the last game when we lost to New Jersey (in the first round of the 1984 playoffs), in the latter part of the fourth period we were up seven and we just ran into a brick wall. That series was very strange because we lost the first two games against New Jersey in what at that time was a five game series and then we went up to New Jersey and won two games. I mean, they played well, but there was no energy, there was no emotion – it was a very frustrating time for all participants.
David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com
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