May 5, 2009
The Nova Notebook, by director of media relations Mike Sheridan, returns to its off-season format with an entry in the first week of May tracking Dante Cunningham's transition to the new frontier of professional basketball.
It is just after 6:30 a.m. on a weekday morning and Dante Cunningham's body knows the drill. From the comfort of his bed he can hear his roommates, Jason Colenda and Scottie Reynolds stirring in the on-campus apartment they share, each preparing to head to the Davis Center for a morning shooting session.
"I hear those guys and I start scrambling for my phone to see what time it is," he says with a sheepish smile. "And then it hits me - I'm not supposed to be there. It's weird and it definitely takes some getting used to."
One month has passed since Villanova returned from the Final Four and the careers of Cunningham and classmates Dwayne Anderson, Shane Clark, and Frank Tchuisi officially entered the homestretch. As seniors headed for graduation later this month, they are still a part of the basketball family. They remain a presence on campus in class rooms and at the Davis Center.
Yet in a purely basketball sense the page has already turned. The burden of directing the younger Wildcats in open gym sessions now falls to Reynolds and Reggie Redding. Cunningham, meanwhile, is spending his time gearing up for the next phase of his hoops life as a professional, participating in daily Davis Center workouts with Anderson and assistant coach Doug West.
With the exception of a short pause on May 17 to enjoy graduation, Cunningham is spending most of his waking hours doing all he can to make a good impression on the basketball decision-makers in the National Basketball Association. It is a process that former Wildcat All-American and current Minnesota Timberwolves guard Randy Foye likened to a two-month job interview.
"It definitely is that," states Cunningham. "I understand that this is a business and I want to show people what I can add to an organization. Whatever they need from me, I'm ready to contribute."
It is a role that Cunningham knows well. When he came to Villanova in 2006, he was an unheralded prospect from Silver Spring, Md. Though he had enjoyed a superb senior season at Potomac High School, earning Washington Post player of the Year honors, his was hardly a ballyhooed arrival. Indeed, he entered a program with its top seven players back from a club that had reached the Sweet 16 of the 2005 NCAA Tournament and nearly upended eventual champion North Carolina. It would enter the 2005-06 campaign as the No. 5 ranked club in the nation.
And yet, it was Cunningham who became a pivotal piece of the puzzle when senior Curtis Sumpter was felled by a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in October of 2005, a mere six months after suffering the same injury in a win over Florida in the NCAA Tournament. Though he took only 62 shots in 33 games, Cunningham was a vital rebounder and interior defender on a unit that started four guards, none taller than 6-4.
"We needed someone to rebound and set screens," he says, "so that's what I concentrated on."
The end result was an Elite Eight appearance and a foundation that would serve the 6-8 product of Silver Spring, Md., so well over the next three seasons. As a senior, he blossomed, earning Most Improved Player honors in the BIG EAST while averaging 16.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per outing for a group that led the Wildcats back to the Final Four for the first time since 1985.
Along the way, he also took what he learned from the likes of Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Sumpter, and Mike Nardi to become a complete vocal leader. It was a transformation that did not come easily to a happy-go-lucky sort who had always played the role of good soldier in a family defined by the values of the United Stats Air Force that both his mother, Searcy Blankenship, and father, Ron Cunningham, had served.
"You definitely have to get in the mindset of understanding that it isn't enough to be responsible for yourself," says Cunningham. "You have to be aware of where the younger guys are at, who might need a ride, and be sure they understand what is expected of them. Over time, though, it becomes a part of you."
With the passage of a few weeks since the season ended in Detroit, Cunningham and friends have had a few moments to finally peer back at what they accomplished. They know there is now a new standard in place for victories by a single Villanova class (102) that belongs to them. It's a fact that has been brought to the attention of their younger peers - "I think they'll have to go like 38-0 to catch us" quips Cunningham - and will remain a source of honor for the soon to be alums.
Yet the pride is less a product of the stat line than it is from something less obvious, a snapshot if you will of the impact they have made here.
One night last week, Cunningham and Anderson stopped by the Davis Center for open gym. Those sessions tend to be more freewheeling than anything which takes places in-season. No coaches are present and it becomes incumbent on the older players to take charge.
"There was a turnover that led to a fast break for Jason," explains Cunningham. "As he dribbled in, Corey Fisher laid out on the floor from behind him to knock the ball away. We were all up cheering and going crazy. There are no coaches there and it's up to the players to set the tone. To see that kind of effort meant a lot to me and the other seniors."
It was a small hint from an exceptionally gifted soon-to-be-upperclassman that the efforts of the leadership group had not been in vain.
Soon Cunningham will embark on a new journey. The process of hiring an agent is complete and the vibes from the pro scouts have been positive. Once he graduates, it is expected that he will attend a series of workouts with NBA clubs in advance of the draft in the final week of June.
"I like to say I am working on becoming more guard-oriented," he says. "I have been working a lot on ballhandling and perimeter shooting. Any time I have a chance to get better I am taking advantage of it. The next two months are about being serious about the business I am interviewing for."
Towards that end Cunningham has solicited off the court help as well. He has talked to several current and ex-athletes - he had a long chat with former NFL player Doc Walker over the weekend - about being financially prudent and how to be a professional. It is something he has also spoken at length about with Wildcats coach Jay Wright.
Though he wonders if he will ever recreate the bond he felt with his Villanova teammates, he is ready to embrace the next step.
"I think to have something like we had here it will have to be a very special situation, sort of like what you saw with the Celtics," he states. "It will have to be a unique situation with a very close-knit group of guys. That's not always easy to find at any level.
"But it isn't scary in any way. It's exciting."
Cunningham uses a story to bring home his meaning.
"I've thought back to some of those AAU tournaments I used to go to," he says. "You would be there with 300 other players and they would tell you that something like four of you will make it to the NBA. To think that I could be one of those four is pretty cool."
The next time he hears his roommates hustling off to morning workouts, Cunningham can rest comfortably. The opportunity to realize his dream is at hand.