Billy Cunningham, that budding TV sports commentator turned National Basketball Association coach, is finding out these days that it's hard to teach NBA superstars new tricks, especially if those players wear Philadelphia 76ers uniforms.
Cunningham's 15-game coaching honeymoon, during which the 76ers lost only to the Washington Bullets, has been followed by a stretch in which his team has played more like the unpredictable outfit that cost Gene Shue his job.
An overtime victory over Chicago Wednesday night in Philadelphia temporarily ended a skid that saw the 76ers lose five of seven games. Cunningham still is searching for ways to get his team out of the doldrums before to tonight's meeting with Washington in Philadelphia (8 p.m., WDCA-TV-20).
The Bullets, embarrassed three times last year by the 76ers, got a measure of revenge by knocking them off, 116-98, at Capital Centre in November. At that time, it was Washington, not Philadelphia, that was struggling and inconsistent.
Since then, Cunningham has picked up eight technical fouls and a few worry lines fretting about his up-and-down club, which hasn't always embraced his coaching as quickly as he would like, particularly when it concerns defense.
If Cunningham, the TV commentator, interviewed Cunningham, the coach, about the 76ers at this stage of the season, the conversation probably would go something like this:
Q: Coach, your starters had a meeting Tuesday. What was that all about?
A: They felt they were falling into a lot of bad habits and they wanted to talk about it. George McGinnis says the regulars have been slipping more than the reserves and they wanted to see if they could start playing more aggressively.
Q: Do you agree?
A: Well, we've been falling behind early an awful lot lately. George calls it "uphill basketball." We were down 25 points at Chicago (Dec. 16) and almost pulled it out when Lloyd Free scored 22 in the fourth period. But you can't keep trying to salvage last second victories.
Q: I've noticed a lot of bad habits the last few weeks. The players don't seem to be boxing out and they are getting beat on transition and they are standing around a lot on offense.
A: We talk a lot about ball movement and getting everyone involved on offense. I know Doug Collins said in the paper the other day that it was difficult for him to score points when he wasn't getting anything but air to shoot. When we don't move the bal, he suffers the most.
We've always had problems rebounding consistendly and we are trying to improve on that. You win on the road with defense and rebounding and we gave up 68 points in the first half at New York and Chicago and 72 at Milwaukee.
Q. You've still got the same mixture of personalities that Gene Shue had to deal with. I know you are playing nine people a game, which Shue never did, but you don't seem to have the chemistry that Portland, for example, has on the court. Have you found it difficult to be successful and still keep everyone happy?
A: We feel we are better when we use more players. We like to send our bomb squad (Free, Steve Mix, Darryl Dawkins, Joe Bryant) in to get things rolling. It's a long session; we still are trying to get our concepts on defense and offense across.
Q: I understand that Dawkins has become even more outgoing since you took over as coach.
A: Darryl is a delightful player to coach - and he is the only guy on our team who can give Bill Walton trouble in the middle when we play Portland.
He has a nickname for his dunk shots now. He calls one an "embryotic smasher" and another "look and believe." And he's got "cover your head" and "we owe you one" and his super one, "Philadelphia's finest."
The team bus drove by the Superdome in New Orleans and he yelled out, "I'm going to build me a home like that one day."
But Darryl's not the only one with a personality on our team. Lloyd Free, who calls himself all-world, now has another nickname: Prince of Midair. So he bought two police dogs and name one "Prince" and the other "world." That was after he had a house built for his mother.
Q: Do you like coaching.
A: Like my assistant, Chuck Daley, said the other day, pro coaching is a rough business. And he used to think college coaching was difficult. This is hard work, harder than it looks on television.
The Bullets will take a three-game winning streak into tonight's contest, which features the teams with the best records in the Eastern Conference. Coach Dick Motta will have another chance to test his new matchups against the 76ers, including Bob Dandridge on Julius Erving, Dandridge had 28 points the first game and [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of a cut hand and Mitch Kupchak and West Unseld combined for 23 points against the Philadelphia centers.