Why was Heinsohn, a former player and successful Celtics coach, dropped into a less important spot? "I don't know," Cunningham said. "During the summer, I got a phone call to meet with CBS. During the luncheon, they came out and said, 'We want you to be the No. 1 analyst.' They didn't say, 'Tommy did this, and we don't want you to do that.'
"It was difficult for me, having a lot of respect for Tommy as a man and a basketball person. I called him and let him know, 'I didn't pursue your job.' ''
Cunningham had been the No. 2 analyst for CBS last season, working some
college games as well as pro contests. He had first worked for CBS as far back as 1977, during the interim between his 11 years as an outstanding player and his eight years as a successful coach.
Cunningham coached the Sixers to their most recent NBA title, in 1982-83. His championship Sixers, led by forward Julius Erving and center Moses Malone, are the only team other than Boston and the Los Angeles Lakers to win the NBA title in the 1980s.
Probably the most frequent complaint against Heinsohn came from viewers who thought he favored Boston when he covered Celtics games. Cunningham doesn't expect favoritism charges to be lodged against him.
"I've done a couple of 76er games already for CBS," he said. "I didn't get any feedback one way or another."
Another complaint against Heinsohn was the sameness of his language. He used pet terms, such as "wide body" to describe a burly rebounder, over and over, causing acute aural distress among regular NBA viewers.
Whether Cunningham's language will be any more varied and creative can be judged tomorrow afternoon when CBS opens its 1987-88 TV pro basketball season with a game between the Houston Rockets, led by center Akeem Olajuwon, and the Chicago Bulls, sparked by the stupendous guard Michael Jordan, who led the NBA in scoring last season. With Dick Stockton returning as the play-by-play announcer, the show will begin on Channel 10 at 3:30 p.m.
This will be the first time for Stockton and Cunningham to work together, but the cool Cunningham isn't apprehensive about that. "We're going to have to feel each other out and grow with each other a little bit," Cunningham said. "We've known each other socially for quite a few years. I think he's so good that he'll have the ability to adjust to me."
Stockton is not flashy, as are Brent Musburger and John Madden, the announcing stars of CBS's sports stable. But he is steady, reliable and accurate, perhaps more akin to NBC's smooth and impeccably poised Dick Enberg. And Stockton never showboats or upstages the game, which was the style made most vivid by ABC's now-departed Howard Cosell.
Despite Heinsohn's everlasting search for wide bodies to point out, CBS has enjoyed notable ratings success with pro basketball during a time when the numbers for other major sports like football and baseball have been slumping or sluggish.
PLAYOFF RATINGS RISE
The Nielsen ratings for the final round of the playoffs, the climactic match that determines the NBA champion, have been steadily and significantly improving: 12.2 for 1983-84; 13.5 in 1984-'85; 14.1 in 1985-86, and 15.9 last season. With each full Nielsen ratings point representing 886,000 homes, that means an increase of more than three million households watching the NBA finals over the course of the last four seasons.
Cunningham sees several reasons for the ratings improvement, beginning with the entrance of two tremendous players into the NBA in 1979-80: Celtics forward Larry Bird and L. A. Lakers guard Magic Johnson.
"They've redefined the way a great pro plays," said Cunningham, who has been elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. "Their passing, they're so unselfish. Michael Jordan is right there, too, but those two guys are the premier players."
Since Johnson and Bird entered the league, the Lakers have won four NBA titles and the Celtics three. You shouldn't be surprised to hear, therefore, that CBS's TV slate of 15 regular season games is dominated by these two teams, each to appear at least five times.
During the Sixers' glory years, what could be called the Cunningham/Erving era, the Sixers were routinely the team seen third most often on CBS, trailing only the Lakers and Celts. But the Sixers have sunk in the standings since then and will appear on CBS only twice this season, both times against Boston, on Jan. 31 and April 10.
Besides the Lakers and Celts, teams scheduled more often than the Sixers on CBS this season are three newly risen powers in the league: the Detroit Pistons four times, Jordan's Bulls three or four times, and the Atlanta Hawks three times. Like the Sixers, Houston and the Dallas Mavericks will also play twice on CBS.
Cunningham is preparing for his season by watching as many games as he can on a new $5,000 satellite system he had set up last month in the back yard of his home in Gladwyne. "The guy who installed it said I can get 130 stations," he said. Since he does not yet have a program guide to cover all those stations, he said "I just run through the numbers" until he spots a game he wants to see.
Cunningham said he did not watch many games on TV when he coached the Sixers from 1977-78 through 1984-85. "For the playoffs," he explained, ''what you do as a coach, you have somebody filming the game for you in a certain manner, filming the whole court so you can see what all 10 players are doing."
Cunningham has a firm idea of what he wants to accomplish as CBS's lead analyst. He spoke with enthusiasm about drawing on what he learned while coaching the Sixers to 454 victories against 196 defeats.
"I would like," he said, "to really help the fan appreciate how sophisticated the game is. It's not just a coach rolling a ball onto the court and then 10 men running up and down. There's more to it than we - the announcers - have been able to get across to the public.
"One thing I learned as a coach," he continued, "when a coach makes a decision on a substitution or a play selection, there's a reason for doing it." As an example, he mentioned two centers, Boston's Robert Parish and Detroit's Bill Laimbeer, and a decision that Boston coach K. C. Jones might make regarding them:
"Say Boston is down a point near the end of the game. You might say the ball will go to Larry Bird. But Robert Parish has the greatest confidence against Bill Laimbeer, that he can score against him. K.C. Jones knows that, so he may run a play for Parish."
Like most sports announcers, Cunningham believes that the easiest game to cover is a close and exciting one, and the toughest is a one-sided match in which announcers must labor to keep things interesting.
"I'll prepare the same way for all teams," he said. "Try to analyze each team the way I would as a coach, their strengths and weaknesses, and then go into the game and let it flow. You better be prepared before you get to the site.
"I try to prepare as though all the games are going to be blowouts. I overprepare. A great game carries itself."
Cunningham has prospered from basketball. His business interests include a pub in West Conshohocken called Cunningham's Court, which he says is "doing very nicely"; a financial printing company called Pandick, and partnership in the Miami Heat, which eventually hopes to enter the NBA as an expansion team. He sold his interest last year in Billy Cunningham's Travel Agency Inc., although the firm still bears his name.
Cunningham said he will have to give up his interest in the Heat next year,
because CBS feels it would be a conflict of interest if he were both an announcer and part-owner of an NBA team. He voiced no resentment of the choice forced upon him, saying, "It was the first time in my life, whatever decision I made, I was going to be all right."
Cunningham does not think that last season's champions, the Lakers, will repeat their triumph this season. "I think (the final) team in the East is going to be Detroit," he said. "In the West, I think Seattle will have an excellent chance to be in the finals."
Asked to pick a dream team from active players, Cunningham said:
"No question you have to have Magic, Jordan and Bird on that ball club." But then there was a long pause, while he pondered before concluding, ''Probably Olajuwon, who has not played well to this point of the year. And (Boston forward) Kevin McHale."
And then, ever the analyst, he re-examined his own choices:
"The thing that would be lacking is open-court speed, quickness. So maybe there should be a (Sixers forward) Charles Barkley or a (Lakers forward) James Worthy up front."
You will be able to see all seven of those top-notchers on CBS this season. That's one of the ways CBS has gotten the NBA ratings up: by concentrating on the stars, and wholly omitting lowly teams like Sacramento and Cleveland from its schedule.
Here is the full regular-season slate:
Tomorrow - Houston at Chicago.
Dec. 25 - Detroit at New York.
Jan. 16 - Atlanta at Dallas.
Jan. 24 - Lakers at Seattle.
Jan. 31 - Philadelphia at Boston.
Feb. 7 - NBA All-Star Game.
Feb. 14 - Boston at the Lakers.
Feb. 15 - Atlanta at Chicago.
Feb. 21 - Detroit at the Lakers.
Feb. 28 - Boston at Detroit.
March 6 - Lakers at Dallas.
March 13 - Atlanta at Boston.
April 3 - Chicago at Detroit.
April 10 - Boston at Philadelphia.
April 17 - Lakers at Houston.
April 24 - Boston at Chicago, or Golden State at the Lakers.