On his own, Cunningham becomes a man

Trail Blazers forward Dante Cunningham first described it as a deer in the headlights-type of feeling. Then he referred to it as a blur. But Cunningham finally settled on a sound.

It was the sound of a rush. Of watching the NBA game sprint and zoom by, while more talented and experienced players floated on like the world was simple and easy — theirs for the taking.

The sound: “Shoom, shoom, shoom, shoom, shoom.”

“In the beginning, me and Jeff (Pendergraph) are out there, and everybody’s zooming past us,” Cunningham, 22, said.

But where most rookies spend their entire first season wondering when life on and off the court is going to slow down, Cunningham’s initial campaign has been different.

Schooled for four years in a Villanova system that prizes a family atmosphere as highly as it does a professional environment, the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Cunningham has played more like an aged veteran than a wide-eyed rookie this season for the Blazers.

His statistics — 4.1 points, 2.5 rebounds — are pedestrian. But the 33rd overall pick of the 2009 NBA Draft has provided all of the traits and intangibles that Portland coach Nate McMillan requires out of his players: physical defense; a fearless attitude; basketball intelligence; and the heart and will to fight and succeed in a star-driven league.

Asked about Cunningham’s evolution, McMillan’s first words were: “I love his game.”

“I think he plays winning basketball because of the way he plays,” McMillan said. “He’s not afraid to mix it up and guard. He’s not starstruck. He’s not intimidated by anybody.”

Becoming a man

Cunningham first learned to play winning basketball as a Wildcat.
Villanova coach Jay Wright said that the same drawbacks that initially appeared to plague Cunningham’s NBA game were also points of concern when he was a college freshman.

“He came in as a question mark,” Wright said.

Cunningham lacked several key offensive skills, including the ability to play with his back to the basket in the low post — a key for any forward with hopes of taking his game to the next level. Cunningham’s jump shot and ballhandling skills were also suspect. Moreover, just as he is now in the NBA, Cunningham was a “tweener” — he lacked the bulk and physique of a power forward, while he was neither fast nor surehanded enough to play the small forward position.

So Cunningham went to work. He sharpened every aspect of his game, while listening to and processing each piece of advice Villanova’s coaches passed down.

“I went from a kid that was long and lanky and full of energy to a leader. A man that was motivated; driven to get everything done,” Cunningham said. “I feel that being in college for four years, you learn all of those different things.”

But what began to separate Cunningham was his desire.

While much of Cunningham’s maturity and professionalism is attributed to his strong upbringing — his parents were chief master sergeants in the United States Air Force — a significant part of his progress came from within.

Wright said the former Wildcat began to exude pride. Pride in obtaining his degree; pride in being a role model; pride in being the team leader.

But one scene best described Cunningham’s ascension, Wright said.
As Villanova’s coach began yet another day at 6 a.m., he noticed an unexpected sound coming from an adjacent basketball court.

After looking out his window, Wright viewed a scenario that surprised — but did not shock — him. Cunningham was alone on the court, shooting free throws until he made 100.

Extra practice has long been part of the college game. But the fact that Cunningham was putting up the shots after participating in a big-man basketball camp in Las Vegas, and then taking a red-eye cross-country plane trip back to Philadelphia, said everything about the once long and lanky kid who had become a man.

“That was it,” Wright said. “No one was around. He didn’t expect anyone to see him doing it. But that’s the kind of commitment you’ve got to have in the pursuit of discipline.”

Playing fearless

Cunningham said he cannot point to the exact time, but he knows that it has happened: Life in the NBA is no longer on overdrive.

On the court, he is able to anticipate plays and moves. Action has slowed down, and he has even gotten to the point where he is able to pocket and file away tricks and veteran-like techniques that normally take young players years to learn.

Cunningham attributed his quick rise to the four years he spent at Villanova.

“It comes back to just having that (college) experience,” Cunningham said. “I feel that I’ve been through everything
basketball-wise on the court that I can have possibly gone through.”

Numbers back him up. Cunningham recorded at least eight points during a five-game stretch from Feb. 4-16, including a season-high 14 points on 7-of-12 shooting and six rebounds during a home loss to Oklahoma City on Feb. 9.

Just as importantly, Cunningham’s minutes have not declined. He averaged a season-high 16.7 minutes in February — a huge jump compared to the 10 games he did not play due to a coach’s decision during Portland’s first 13 contests of the year.

And while the Clinton, Md., native has seen his time cut in recent games due to the addition of center Marcus Camby, Cunningham has not been completely shoved to the bench.

Out of all of the surprises in Cunningham’s game, his footwork and shot selection top the list. But it his fearless playing style that drew the most praise from McMillan.

Portland’s coach said most young NBA players are in awe of the league’s brightest stars. Asked to guard a big-name All-Star such as Denver forward Carmelo Anthony, and a normal rookie will not just back down — they will back away. Up-and-coming athletes are more concerned with making summertime friends and bowing to power, McMillan said, rather than playing the game as it should be played.

Not Cunningham.

When Portland asked the ex-Wildcat to take on San Antonio’s Tim Duncan, Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Kaman and Boston’s Rasheed Wallace in succession, Cunningham delivered.

“He will go at the best player, even on his own team,” McMillan said. “I’ve seen him switch out on Brandon (Roy), and try and get down and guard Brandon as a rookie.”

Smooth adjustments

But Cunningham knows that adjusting to the basketball part of the NBA is only part of his adjustment. There is also NBA life. Big paychecks, road trips, nights out, and long days that are no longer balanced by the confines of a classroom.

While others can easily get swept away, Cunningham said he has not been phased. He has kept things simple, living in a townhouse in Tualatin, Ore. And he has also made a conscious effort to kept big, needy crowds away. Cunningham does not travel with an entourage, and spends most of his time on the road either at the mall or the movies.

“It’s not necessarily you getting into trouble,” Cunningham said. “It’s when your boys get into trouble that your name gets brought up.”

A strong bond with fellow rookie Pendergraph has helped Cunningham follow a straight road, while friendships with Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge have provided perspective and growth.

But for the most part, Cunningham’s new life is his own.

He acknowledged that having a 10 a.m. practice that runs for two hours followed by an entire day of empty plans in an empty house was at first challenging. But the dilemma of “Hmm. What do to today?” has been replaced by hobbies and personal freedom.

“I’m all by myself,” Cunningham said. “I’m mature enough to handle my own business.”

The free time has also allowed Cunningham to look back. Not too long ago, he was a lanky, undersized freshman at Villanova. Before that, he was just another face — one of 500 kids in a basketball camp being told “Only one of you is going to make it.”

Now, Cunningham is that one. His dreams have become reality. But the work has only just begun.

“It’s definitely something that you have to keep in check — to let it fester and say that you’ve made it,” Cunningham said. “You haven’t made it. It’s just the beginning. You’ve got to keep on working like you’re not even here.”

Dante Cunningham
Position: Forward
Year: Rookie
Stats: 4.1 points, 2.5 assists
Vitals: 6-foot-8, 230 pounds
College: Villanova
Acquired: Chosen by Blazers with 33rd overall pick in second round of 2009 NBA Draft

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