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Friday, February 13, 2004
Transition Game: Billy Cunningham

By Dr. Jack Ramsay
Special to

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."

How to find Dr. Jack's book
You can get a copy of Dr. Jack Ramsay's book: "Dr. Jack's Leadership Lessons Learned from a Lifetime in Basketball" at your neighborhood bookstore or online @
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 their efforts.

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 Click here to send a question for Dr. Jack for possible use on ESPNEWS.