Ex-Wolves PF Cunningham picking up pieces after tumultuous 2014

In two years in Minnesota, Dante Cunningham (right) averaged 7.5 points on 46.6 percent shooting and 4.6 rebounds per game, in a valued reserve role. Now, he's trying to rebuild his NBA career in New Orleans.

Thomas Shea/Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — There was a time when the Target Center held primary meaning in Dante Cunningham’s life.

This was his workplace. His office. This is where his live-in girlfriend Miryah Herron would come watch him play for the Timberwolves and be waiting outside the locker room for him after games.

But Friday night, sitting in the visitors’ dressing room on the arena’s service level, it was "just another arena," he said.

The end of Cunningham’s Timberwolves tenure was a tumultuous one, first because of accusations against him and later because those claims were ruled to be fabricated. They left the chiseled, gritty forward feeling trapped, constricted in the very place that had been his basketball sanctuary for two pivotal seasons.

But the truth, Cunningham says, has set him free.

"It’s all out now," Cunningham, now a New Orleans Pelican, told FOXSportsNorth.com. "Everything’s kind of out in the open."

Accusation and vindication

When Cunningham entered games late last season, it was not uncommon for fans here to boo.

During a time when the topic of domestic violence rocked the sports landscape — most notably due to the Ray Rice scandal — Cunningham had been charged with domestic assault, arrested twice and spent time in jail. The Wolves were criticized for playing him while the legal process played out, but the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement allows teams to keep players in the lineup until litigation is complete.

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Herron told police Cunningham kicked in their bedroom door, choked her and slammed her against the wall after an April 3, 2014 argument. A few days later, she claimed he’d sent her threatening messages, violating a protection order.

Cunningham was arrested both times, missing one game while he was in jail. He denied Herron’s allegations, saying the only time he touched her was to keep her from clinging to his truck as he drove off the night of their fight to cool off.

According to the Associated Press, a felony domestic assault charge against Cunningham was dropped because investigators found multiple inconsistencies in Herron’s story and that she’d concocted the messages in order to frame him. Cunningham was never charged for the second incident.

Legally, his name was cleared. But he’d lost more than his reputation.

Teams weren’t willing to assume the public-relations risk of signing Cunningham, who became an unrestricted free agent after the season. That included the Wolves, who’d traded for him in July 2012.

In two years here, Cunningham averaged 7.5 points on 46.6 percent shooting and 4.6 rebounds per game, coming off the bench and playing a chippy, spark-plug role.

"He’s a good player. He deserves to be in the NBA," Minnesota coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders said. "We talked to (his) people about it, just the whole situation. I thought it was best for him to move on because of the way the whole situation arose last year. I’m glad to see him back in the league. He’s playing well for them, and hopefully things will continue to work out for him."

They have, only because an old friend was willing to take a chance on him.

Vindication

Drafted 33rd overall by Portland in 2009, Cunningham didn’t take long to carve out a niche as a second-unit energy hub. One big reason: a guy by the name of Monty Williams.

Then an assistant with the Blazers, Williams took Cunningham under his wing that year. The next season, Williams took over as the head coach in New Orleans.

And Dec. 4 of last year, the Pelicans inked Cunningham — largely at Williams’ behest.

"I know Dante, and none of us are perfect," Williams said. "But when I heard about the things that were said about him, I trusted my relationship with him. I was saddened that he was accused of something he didn’t do, and it hurt his career. So we thought more about helping our team than anything else."

Cunningham, 27, has. His role isn’t that different from what it was in the Twin Cities — "just energy and defending, getting out there and just scrapping, doing dirty work," said Cunningham, who started in place of injured Ryan Anderson on Friday and came in averaging 4.7 points and 3.5 boards in 26 games (seven starts).

If not for his old mentor, Cunningham might have never had the chance.

"It was definitely a big deal, just because he kind of molded me and taught me the way of just being a good pro, the ins and outs," Cunningham said. "He’s such a great role model, and someone that had the situation I had to come back and kind of get back under his wing and learn from him again, it’s definitely a blessing.

"Honestly, the biggest thing was just to be the standup guy that I was, that I am — just showing that this chance wasn’t just out of nowhere. It was for a good reason."

When the incidents and resulting investigation kept Cunningham from landing another NBA deal, he made it his mission to clear his name, even considering a lawsuit against Herron; police recommended that Hennepin County Attourney Mike Freeman charge her with making a false police report regarding the second incident, but Freeman opted not to because he didn’t want to discourage other domestic violence victims from reporting abuse.

That disappointed Cunningham at the time. But sitting in front of his locker with headphones around his neck and a No. 44 New Orleans jersey draped over his torso Friday, the past didn’t matter.

Cunningham is free.

"The truth’s out," the Villanova product said. "That’s the biggest thing for me. As long as the year’s gone on, it’s getting better and better and everything’s behind me. Honestly, I’m not worried about that anymore. My name will clear itself on its own."

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