There may be more pleasant things to do than coach the Philadelphia 76ers. A rational man might rather guard the pumps at an all-night gas station. Or scrape the grease vats down at the pizza parlor. Then again, he might choose to be a Boston Celtic in the depths of a losing streak. That's got to be a lot of fun: waiting for Charlie Scott to pass, listening to Sidney Wicks get booed, watching 13 championship banners droop in despair and then drawing straws to see whose turn it is to quit.
Early-season events in the NBA brought these particular occupations into focus when Philadelphia's austere leader, Gene Shue, was fired; the 76ers' beloved former All-Star forward, Billy Cunningham, was hired to replace him; Boston's elegant guard, Jo Jo White, announced that he was walking out on the team only to walk back in; and everybody's favorite legend, John Havlicek, was replaced in the Celtic lineup by a rookie named Cornbread.
The proximate cause of such rampant turmoil in the Atlantic Division seemed to be that both the 76ers and Celtics had stumbled out of the blocks, at one point losing three straight games and five straight, respectively. In a season that had just started and usually does not end until the rivers run dry, this would be just another slump for most teams. But for the Sixers, the dancing, prancing, glamorous Sixers of Dr. J, Big George and Squawkin' Darryl Dawkins, and for the Celtics, proud possessors of all those championships, the losses could not be ignored.
What to do? Simply, the 76ers won. And won again. Four straight, in fact, under the masterful left-handed cheer-leading and free-substitution, happy-guy coaching of Cunningham. Washington knocked them off on Saturday 116-98, but at week's end they were suddenly just half a game behind the division-leading Knicks with a 6-5 record. Meanwhile, the Celtics beat Buffalo 109-103 on Friday, improving their record to a spine-tingling 2-8, the worst in basketball, unless you are counting Boe's Jests, otherwise known as the Piscataway Pets or, more familiarly, the New Jersey Nets, who were 2-9.
It does not require a CIA investigation to understand why the 76ers and Celtics found themselves in trouble.
Philadelphia's Julius Erving missed all of his team's exhibition games and the opener with a strained knee and, as Doug Collins said, "The spark seemed to go out of us right then. We missed seeing the Doc dunk and explode."
While hardly anybody on the Celtics is young enough to remember how to dunk, Dave Cowens, White and Havlicek should recall how to explode. Only a year and a half before they had won the NBA championship and only six months ago they had taken the 76ers to a savage seven games in the Eastern semifinal playoffs before surrendering their title.
Still, the Celtics could cop a plea on their horrendous beginnings, what with a nucleus of veterans having appeared in preseason camp woefully out of shape, not to mention Wicks showing up only hours before opening night. Then there were the new players (the antique Dave Bing and rookie Cornbread Maxwell) and the schedule (the first six games away from Boston Garden) and White's painful bone spurs on his heels.
Though nobody except Jimmy the Greek pays attention to pro basketball in November, what all this added up to was that two proud franchises were crumbling before our very eyes while the Atlanta Pennyhawks cruised to the best record in the league.
On Nov. 1 Sixer owner Fitz Dixon whispered to a Philadelphia newspaper that he might fire Shue. For all his Main Line Milquetoast manner, Dixon is a power wielder who permits no photographers or vendors to work near him at courtside in the Spectrum and orders guards to keep spectators from passing in front of his front-row seat. When two reporters approached him on the night after the big leak, Dixon instructed a member of his personal security force to "boot 'em out." Which they did. Later that evening, after watching the Chicago Bulls beat his dead-in-the-water team, Dixon decided to fire Shue.
In all fairness to the coach—who may have come within a missed George McGinnis jump shot of leading a collection of spoiled, whimpering, ego-pumping financiers to the NBA championship last spring—Shue has a good technical mind for the game. His record at the time of the firing—2-4—was not all that repellent. Also, he was working at softening his arrogance in order to get closer to his players (while paradoxically instituting a mammoth system of fines) just when he was let go.
Apart from lack of communication with the team, Shue's biggest shortcoming was his inability to get along with the owner. After one defeat last year Dixon embarrassed Shue in front of the press by railing at him, "Well, I'm waiting for your excuses," after which Shue referred to Dixon as "that son of a bitch." Neat, huh? Dixon did not like Shue's life-style, his off-court acquaintances and especially his refusal to kiss Dixon's feet as everybody else in the organization did.
In the 34-year-old Cunningham Dixon got the original Billy C, the Kangaroo Kid. You remember: Prep on the streets of Brooklyn. All-America at North Carolina. All-Pro with the 76ers. Successful businessman—hotels, recreation facilities, a travel agency. Huge home with tennis court in Main Line Gladwyn. Sensational college-sweetheart wife. Two kids. Two cars. Too good to be true. The only thing Cunningham ever failed at was removing the marbles from his mouth when he took to announcing basketball on TV. "This guy is more popular in Philly than soft pretzels," said 76er General Manager Pat Williams.
"We're not out to win." Billy C said at one point after his anointment. "We're out to conquer."
That remark, coming as it did after his team had crushed Denver 132-101 at the expense of his former college teammate. Nugget Coach Larry Brown, is the vow of one tough, mean competitor.
During last spring's playoffs Cunningham privately castigated his former team for "lack of pride" and questioned Shue's style and motivational ability. "Why doesn't he just let them run?" Cunningham wondered then. "Just let them play?"
They are playing now, having experienced something akin to resurrection. Steve Mix, a renowned clubhouse lawyer, said the 76ers' "hidden camaraderie" would come out now. On his own, Mix presented the new coach with a list of team plays accompanied by a commentary on which teammates they work best for. Doug Collins, practically bubbling, said, "When I played with Billy, he screamed at me until I was in tears. Then he put an arm around me. All this team needs is somebody to put an arm around it."
Cunningham spoke with each player individually, calling Lloyd Free by his nickname, "World," when he pulled him aside before the bus ride to Piscataway, N.J. where Cunningham would make his coaching debut against the Nets. Later Cunningham slapped five with World. Nobody could remember Shue using Free's pet name or a palm slap to get through to the moody backcourt man.
After the 76ers came from seven points behind in the final 1:27 to beat the Nets, the 20-year-old bull moose, Dawkins, another sensitive child, announced, "I'd say we gave it the old college try 'cept I didn't go to college." Later, acknowledging his expanded role in the 76er offense as demanded by the coach, he said, "I need my shot like a hog needs slop." In the three games Daddy Dawk played under Cunningham before cutting his hand washing dishes (you should see the dish) he averaged 17 points, compared to less than half that under Shue.
Apart from getting the 76ers running aggressively and employing a gambling, overplaying defense, Cunningham's main goal seems to be to keep everyone happy. The coach pounds backs, slaps rears, tousles heads, jumps up and down and whistles—a shrill, fingers-to-the-teeth job. "Just like home." Sondra Cunningham says. "He calls the dog like that."
The 76ers don't have many dogs, just horses. "The first thing Billy told me was I'll play," says Joe (Jelly Bean) Bryant, who sat on the bench for Shue. "That means so much—knowing, not hoping. He knows what's inside a player. He's more a leader than a coach." Bryant rewarded the leader when he scored 19 points in 13 minutes (11 in the fourth quarter) to lead a comeback 127-111 win over the Knicks.
"I'm already comfortable," Cunningham says. "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."
The job was just what the Boston Celtics were not doing, especially during a particularly galling 129-114 loss to the San Antonio Spurs after which, to turn a phrase, the cigar hit the fan. It was Red Auerbach's stogie, of course. Immediately following the debacle the Celtic general manager roared into the locker room and did everything but rub ashes into the eyes of his once-imposing champions, who had just lost their third straight at home and been humiliated by the Spurs, who had never beaten the Celtics. That's never, as in lifetime.
Auerbach fumed and spat out words like "ashamed" and "quitters," but the truth is that the Celtics have been sabotaged by a lack of foresight in the front office; they are victims of a dearth of young blood as well as of spirit. In that room Auerbach did not see Clarence Glover or Steve Downing or Glenn McDonald or Norm Cook, Boston's wonderful first-round draft choices of recent years who may now be selling pencils for all Auerbach knows. Nor did he see Paul Westphal, whom he traded to Phoenix, where Westphal promptly became All-Universe.
This may come as a shock, but since he drafted Cowens in 1970, Auerbach has received less value from his draft choices than any GM in the NBA. Instead, the Celtics have relied on trades, free agents and fat cats who have grown ancient and listless in a hurry.
Boston scored just nine points in a quarter against Detroit, squandered a 14-point lead against New Jersey and was handed a gift victory by Atlanta. A weak outside-shooting team, the Celtics had no fast break, no offensive rebounding, no effective press, sometimes no defense.
The Boston team's love affair with the masses and media seemed over as well. While the boos cascaded around them at home, the Globes Bob Ryan, a Celtic observer for years, lashed out at the team. He called Wicks "useless," Cowens "not recognizable on defense" and Havlicek "a mercenary." "The team is boring and lifeless," Ryan wrote. "For over 20 years the Celtics have stood for something. The only thing they stand for now is the anthem."
Responding to Auerbach's locker-room tirade, White, who had taken himself out of the game in disgust with his play, promptly folded up his Savile Row wardrobe, said he was quitting the team and, indeed, skipped practice the next day.
"Every time anything goes wrong, I get the blame," said Jo Jo. "I'm the quarterback of the club, so I get the abuse. I'm tired of being the whipping boy."
Such a gripe is commonplace in Detroit or Chicago or, for that matter, in the zoo called the New York Yankees, and White's outburst would have been a real yawner except that these were the Celtics. Celtic pride, Celtic green and all that. Celtic Schmeltic. "I really haven't seen this 'Celtic spirit' around here." said Bing, the old newcomer.
When Coach Tommy Heinsohn announced that Captain Havlicek would sit down in favor of Maxwell, his move was universally misinterpreted as a "benching." "To be benched is to not play," Havlicek explained. "Tommy just wants to shake things up—unless there's something I don't know."
What he might have guessed was that the Celtics would snap out of it against Buffalo; that Jo Jo would get back to where he once belonged and split 20 baskets with Scott; that Cornbread would become an instant star with three steals and three blocked shots as well as 21 points, nine rebounds and one behind-the-back assist: and that Heinsohn would be moved to say, "I think the melting pot of trouble has melted," and, "I like cornbread. I think I'll buy a loaf."
After the monumental victory, Charlie Scott was asked what was different. "The starting lineup," he snapped. "There ain't no ecstasy. We're still the same old Celtics." Which was, of course, half wrong. Old, yes. But not the same.