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Tar Heel Firsts: the first UNC alumnus to win an NBA championship

Billy Cunningham became the first Tar Heel to accomplish two notable things in the NBA.

Unveiling of Doctor J Sculpture Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Were we living in normal circumstances, we would be well into the heart at the NBA playoffs. For example on this day last year, the Warriors finished off a 4-2 series win over the Rockets to advance to the Western Conference Finals. Alas, none of that is currently happening this year, so we don’t have that to write about. However, we can take a trip back in time.

UNC players have had a long history of success in the NBA, and specifically the NBA playoffs. Many Tar Heels have had big moments in the playoffs, however the most notable is by far Michael Jordan. As you’re probably aware, and have been reminded by a rather popular documentary series, Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to six championships in eight years from 1991 to ‘98.

However, he was far from the first every Tar Heel to ever climb that mountain.

The early days of the NBA (or the BAA and NBL, the two leagues that would merge to form the league we have now) have several Tar Heels playing over the years, but none that had especially long career. From 1947 to ‘62, only Bones McKinney and Lee Shaffer played more than two seasons in the pros. Several of those players were on team that made the playoffs, but none made it past the conference finals, never mind win a title.

In the 1965 NBA Draft, UNC All-American Billy Cunningham was selected fifth overall by the Philadelphia 76ers. He was used as a sixth man in his rookie season, and was pretty good, averaging 14 points and seven rebounds, making the all-rookie first team. He also helped the 76ers to first place in the Eastern Conference, or Eastern Division as it would be more accurately described back then.

However as many teams did back then, the 76ers ran into the Celtics in the playoffs. The Bill Russell led team took down Philly in just five games. Cunningham was held on average just five points and four rebounds in the four games he played in the series.

The following season, the Sixers took a massive leap, going 68-13 in the regular season. Under coach Alex Hannum, they set a record for winning percentage and started the season 46-4. Cunningham took a step forward too, averaging 18.5 points in just 26.8 minutes per game.

Philadelphia won their opening playoff series pretty easily, setting up a rematch against Boston. The 76ers would not be denied the second time around, winning four games to one, with only one of their wins coming by fewer than 10 points. In the clinching game five win, Cunningham scored 21 points and grabbed eight rebounds.

That set up an NBA Finals matchup against the San Francisco Warriors. Despite winning 20 fewer games in the regular season, the 76ers were tested in game one. Philly led by 14 games through three quarters, but ended it ended up going into overtime. The Sixers ended up pulling out the win, with Cunningham scoring 26. Game two was not as close. Cunningham dropped 28 in a 31-point win.

The series shifted out to California for game three, and saw the Warriors get on the board with a win. Cunningham struggled in game four, but the 76ers won by 14 and headed back home with a chance to close out the series.

That would not be on the cards. The 76ers were outscored by 20 in the final quarter, allowing the Warriors to stay alive and force the series back to San Francisco. Philadelphia would close things out the following day with a three-point win. With the win, they are on the shortlist for best NBA teams of all time.

Cunningham averaged 19.7 points and 5.7 rebounds as he became the first Tar Heel to win an NBA title. He actually outscored Wilt Chamberlain in the series, although Chamberlain did average 28.5 rebounds in Philly’s win.

Over the course of the next couple seasons, Cunningham would become a marquee name for the 76ers and in the NBA. He made four all-star teams before jumping to the ABA for two seasons. After wrapping up his playing career back with Philadelphia, he became a broadcaster before being named 76ers coach in 1977. There he would also become the first Tar Heel to coach an NBA champion, leading Philly to the 1983 championship. He had taken them to two other NBA Finals, and finished with a career winning percentage just under 70%.

Between his playing and coaching career, Billy Cunningham is a rightful Nasmith Basketball Hall of Famer. He also is the first ever Tar Heel to accomplish a couple notable feats.

Thanks to Basketball Reference for the information for this article