MINNEAPOLIS – When Portland selected Dante Cunningham with the 33rd pick in the 2009 NBA draft, it wasn’t his first time playing for the Blazers.
It just wasn’t those Blazers.
Cunningham lived in Germany from age 2 to 6, moving between Air Force bases with his parents, Ronald Cunningham and Searcy Blankenship, who were enlisted, and older sister, Davalyn. It was in Germany where Cunningham played his first basketball game, for those first Blazers, his team on Ramstein Air Base. It was a long way from Portland, farther still from the NBA, and the path that brought Cunningham to where he is today – playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves — bears the heavy mark of his military childhood.
Cunningham’s early basketball memories are of pickup games in hangars, where makeshift courts were often erected. At Ramstein, he remembers his father participating in such games, and now, years later, the base is playing host to the first American college game played in Europe, on Friday between UConn and Michigan State.
The UConn-Michigan State game tips off just two days before Veterans Day on Sunday, and the holiday will also be recognized within the NBA. Friday night’s Timberwolves game against the Indiana Pacers is Military Night, and the event hits especially close to home for Cunningham, who knows first-hand the hard work and sacrifices of serving one’s country.
Cunningham was born in Maryland and spent the first two years of his life living near Andrews Air Force Base, where his parents both worked as mechanics. After those four years in Germany, he returned to Maryland in time to start first grade, and his traveling days were over. It was his older sister, Davalyn, who got the most stamps on her passport; she was born in the Philippines and has dual citizenship.
When Cunningham was born, his parents were on the tail end of their Air Force careers, and by the time he was in high school they’d retired with a combined 58 years of service. Cunningham was lucky; he wasn’t subject to the frequent moves and travel of some military kids. When his father would leave, his mother would be home, and vice versa, so he lived in just two different houses from the time he returned from Germany until he went to college.
In a way, Cunningham got many of the perks of the military lifestyle without those drawbacks. When he was a kid, his father worked on Air Force One, and Cunningham remembers his first trip to see the plane soon after the family’s return from Germany, in the early years of the Clinton administration.
“At the time, it didn’t really stand out to me,” Cunningham said. “It was just a plane. I remember looking at the jets on the side and said, ‘Oh, those look like bombs.’ (My dad) gave me a look and said, ‘No, you don’t say that here.’ “
Cunningham logged countless hours around and inside airplanes. It was every little boy’s dream. He remembers seeing large pieces of planes before they were assembled and how fun it was to sit in the cockpit and look at all the buttons – back when he was small enough to actually fit in a cockpit.
He also got involved in the basketball scene on Andrews Air Force Base, where his team, the Andrews Magic, was wildly successful. His first coach was George Lawson, father to his good friend, Tywon, now a guard for the Denver Nuggets known to the rest of the world as Ty.
“We grew up together, since we were in high-top fades and all that, growing up on Andrews Air Force Base,” Cunningham said.
In high school, Cunningham spent three years at St. John’s College High School, where he was a member of the strict Army ROTC program. Every day, he’d dress in full military apparel, from tie to slacks to shiny shoes. His senior year, he transferred to Potomac, a public high school where his mother was the Air Force ROTC director. It was a bit more relaxed there, but there was still a lot to juggle.
“At the time I was playing football, basketball, and then (going to) high school,” Cunningham said. “I was still trying to do everything, and still had to run from ROTC practice and drills to (sports) practice. Then I had to still do homework at the end of the night.”
The discipline Cunningham learned simply to survive in high school has served him well throughout his career. That’s how he managed to balance everything at Villanova, where he played in college, and it’s the root of his NBA success. He believes the skills he learned in ROTC – giving orders, taking orders, responding under stress, good communication – have helped him along in his career, and it’s easy to see the mark his childhood has left on the man he is today.
When asked if he ever considered following in his parents’ footsteps, Cunningham’s answer comes quickly: “Noooo. Not at all. Not even a little bit.” It’s a tough life, and he saw it first-hand through his childhood and his decision to participate in ROTC. But that doesn’t mean Cunningham doesn’t want to play a part in the military community that raised him; he wants to start a foundation to help military children whose parents are deployed overseas.
Cunningham has come a long way from that first Blazers team in Germany, a long way even from his rookie season with the real Blazers. He’s athletically gifted, yes, but also a tireless worker, and when you’ve learned the story of Cunningham’s past, his present attitude and drive make all the sense in the world.