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"You can't really stop him, he takes bad shots," said an Eastern Division opponent. "I don't think he can make 'em when you're not on him. He needs contact. He likes to go down the middle or across the middle, sort of like Elgin Baylor used to play—hanging up there and making shots under his arm and every which way."
"I wasn't too good at outside shooting before I turned pro," explains Cunningham, "because when I was learning basketball at home in Brooklyn we always played outdoors. Nobody shot jumpers much because you had to know where the wind was blowing from and compensate for it. Mostly it was a driving game."
Not only does he rebound and score, but he officiates, too. Many NBA players grouse about decisions that affect them directly. Cunningham likes to get in a word or two or three on almost every play, even if he is a floor length away from the incident. If a fellow 76er is the victim of a foul, Cunningham often makes the call before the referee has a chance to blow his whistle. In a game in New York he was, as usual, playing and officiating at the same time when Knickerbocker Coach Red Holzman, not having much luck with the refs that night, hollered in desperation, "Billy, if you're going to referee, how about calling them both ways."
Cunningham denies he deserves an honorary striped shirt, saying, with a touch of modesty, "I don't call three-second violations much."
Philadelphia is not all Cunningham, of course. After General Manager Jack Ramsay reluctantly replaced Hannum with himself, he installed a full-court press that is feared all around the league. He decided to put Guards Hal Greer, Wally Jones and Archie Clark in at the same time, backed up by Cunningham, and the result was a sort of dash-and-scramble mayhem that helps make up for the rebounding strength that disappeared with Chamberlain and Jackson.
"I figure with our speed and extra defense we can give away 10 rebounds a game and still win," says Ramsay. "To do it we must force turnovers and then handle the ball well when we get it. So far, it's worked."
If Philadelphia has been surprising, Baltimore has been amazing. The Bullets finished sixth and last in the Eastern Division in '68, yet they have been first almost this entire season, upping their home attendance by nearly 3,000 spectators a game. Those are solid figures, unlike the questionable ones of two or three years ago when the club was using 50� tickets and other gimmicks to pump up the gate.
The difference essentially has been one man, rookie Westley Unseld from Louisville. He is listed at 6'7�", but he is really not quite 6'7", and even his own college coach thought he would have to play forward in the pros. So there he is playing the pivot for the Bullets and ranking fourth in rebounds in the NBA behind three guys 7'1", 6'9�" and 6'9". And he probably already is the league's best at taking down a rebound and whipping out a pass to start the fast break.
"He's one of the most unselfish players I've ever seen," says New York's Reed. "Last year we outrebounded them, but this year they know if the shot is missed Unseld is going to be right on top of that ball. If Baltimore wins this thing, I think he should be a strong contender for most valuable player." Baltimore had plenty of shooters—Earl Monroe, Kevin Loughery, Jack Marin—but it needed a consistent board man and Unseld has been just that.
Like Holzman at New York and Ramsay at Philadelphia, Baltimore Coach Gene Shue has done a good coaching job. His cleverest move, though, was catching on early that Unseld could do things he had no business even dreaming about. Shue also wisely resisted trading away reserve Forward Ed Manning, an eighth-round draft choice two years ago. Keeping him around paid off when Gus Johnson got hurt.