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."