Friday, February 13, 2004
Transition Game: Billy Cunningham
By Dr. Jack Ramsay Special to ESPN.com
Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Dr. Jack Ramsay's new book "Dr. Jack's Leadership Lessons Learned from a Lifetime in Basketball." Ramsay interviewed many former NBA superstars who have used their athletic leadership capabilities to achieve success in the business world.Taking the Heat: Billy Cunningham
For Billy Cunningham, the lessons he learned as a basketball player and
transitioned to the business world have led to tangible results. "The hard
work that it takes to become a good player is the same that it takes to be a
success in business. Set high goals, then when you reach those, set some
more that are higher. You have to know everything about your business
and about your competition. Your plans have to be flexible enough to accommodate
changing conditions in the economy," he said. "And never,
never allow complacency."
Ironically, he might have missed out playing in the NBA altogether
if his father had had his way. "The NBA was not what it is today when
I graduated from North Carolina. I didn't even know I was drafted until
a newspaper writer called to tell me," Billy recalled. "My father thought
it was better for me to play AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] ball for a
team like Phillip 66, where they gave you a job that you kept after your
playing days were over. I even visited Bartlesville [Oklahoma] and went
over their whole program with them. It was a good opportunity. But I
wanted to prove myself as a player, so I went with the Sixers.
My first contract was for $12,500 - and I had to negotiate all summer with
[owner] Ike Richman for the extra $500," he added with a laugh.
Cunningham proved to be outstanding as the sixth man on the
Philadelphia championship team of 1967; but the following year he
broke his wrist in the New York series as the Celtics bounced back to defeat
the Sixers, 4 games to 3 in the Eastern Finals.
Cunningham regards his playing and coaching days as a "phenomenal
experience." But they were never the be-all and end-all for him. Early
on, he became interested in business and investments. At the beginning
of their association, his agent, Shelley Bendit, guided him to some investments;
then Billy went out on his own.
He started his own travel agency in Philadelphia and bought into a Holiday Inn with some other
Philadelphia sports personalities; he still owns a pub near Philly and is an
investor in the Fleet Bank and other smaller businesses. He is careful
where he puts his money. In describing how he selects opportunities, he
says, "I've got to think the product is good, but primarily I invest in the
people involved in those businesses."
Cunningham says his most productive business experience was in securing
an NBA franchise for Miami, which began operating in 1989.
During the negotiations, he says he learned a valuable principle: "Lewis
[Schaffel, his partner] and I had done all the work in getting the NBA to
accept Miami as a franchise.
Then at a meeting we had with the majority
owner, Ted Arison, he asked how much we were going to invest of our
own money." Cunningham says he was upset by the question at first, but
then realized that Arison had a good point.
The efforts of Billy and
Lewis were vital to establishing the franchise, but to make them viable partners, they also needed to show they were willing to invest some of
their own money. Billy said that he often asks that same question of others
in business deals before becoming personally involved.
"Lewis and I really worked hard to make that franchise a success. We
did whatever we had to do. The night before a committee of owners was
coming to inspect the game site, we went out and painted over the graffiti
that was on buildings around the Miami Arena. We hired limos to
pick up the committee members at the airport, and even instructed the
drivers to take them along only the most scenic routes and to avoid the
less attractive sights in the city."
Later, as the managing partners of the Heat, Lewis took care of the
internal operations, while Billy focused on developing the team. They
did an outstanding job. The Heat made the playoffs in the third year of
its operation; and five years later, when the Arison family offered to buy
out their interests, Billy and Lewis left - very handsomely rewarded for
Cunningham also learned another important leadership lesson: "If
you want to motivate people, show them first how highly motivated you
are. I always want people to work with me, not for me." That formula has
worked well for Billy Cunningham - the player, the coach, and the business
executive. He's been at the top of the heap in everything he's done.
Dr. Jack Ramsay coached the Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, he is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Click here to send a question for Dr. Jack for possible use on ESPNEWS.