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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.
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.