Cunningham struggles to clear name after domestic abuse claim
MINNEAPOLIS -- It was after 4 a.m. when Dante Cunningham pulled his truck back into the driveway of his suburban Minneapolis home and saw the police waiting for him.
Officers put the handcuffs on the Minnesota Timberwolves' reserve as soon as his feet hit the pavement. The reality of his situation and the domestic assault charges that were on their way didn't sink in until he was lying in a jail cell and the lights went out.
"The whole time I was like, `I'm OK. I'm out of here. Things will be fine,'" Cunningham recalled. "Then it went dark and I was like, `This is not a joke. I'm really in this.'"
In the six months since, the charges have been dropped and police concluded Cunningham's accuser fabricated some of the allegations against him. But those six months have also seen domestic violence in sports thrust into the headlines like never before, thanks in part to the Ray Rice scandal in the NFL, and Cunningham feels as if those handcuffs have never been taken off.
He is now an ex-Timberwolves forward, an NBA free agent who is living in a motorhome at a campground near Penn State, where a former college teammate is on the coaching staff and runs him through workouts. He lives in the motorhome because he enjoys it, not because he's broke, but the journeyman player who was hoping to get a multimillion-dollar contract this summer says he hasn't even gotten an offer for the league minimum because teams have told them it's not worth the bad publicity that could come if they bring him in.
"At this point it's about justice and it's about clearing my name," the 27-year-old forward told The Associated Press. "Clearly this adds a terrible stigma to my name. ... Now when anyone looks up Dante Cunningham, oh, wasn't he the one that was in trouble? There's nothing out there saying there was a false charge."
Cunningham helped Villanova reach the Final Four as a senior, but what really attracted NBA scouts was his blue-collar mentality. The Portland Trail Blazers drafted him in the second round in 2009 and he signed a three-year deal worth more than $6 million with Memphis in 2011 before he was traded to Minnesota the following year.
Cunningham met Miryah Herron last year and lived with her for eight months in a whirlwind start to their relationship. The two had an argument April 3, and that's where their stories take wildly divergent paths.
Herron told police Cunningham kicked in the door to their bedroom, choked her and slammed her head against the wall. Cunningham says he kicked the door in more than a week earlier after he accidentally locked his keys in the room. He also says the only time he touched Herron was when he grabbed her wrist to get her to stop hanging on his truck as he drove away to cool off.
Cunningham missed one game while he was in jail, but the team and league did not suspend him under a collectively bargained policy of letting the legal process play out before deciding on a potential punishment.
Cunningham was arrested again three days later after Herron told police that he violated a protection order by calling her from his hotel room phone and sending her threatening messages on Skype. A police investigation found Herron apparently sent the messages herself in an attempt to frame Cunningham.
Herron denies that and maintains she was assaulted by Cunningham.
"That was not Dante that night," Herron told the AP. "That sounds crazy, but honestly speaking, that was not the guy I was in love with, that was not the guy I laid in bed with every night, that's not the guy I woke up with every morning. That was not him. And I honestly blame alcohol for that."
Police said alcohol was not a factor in the case. They also recommended that Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman charge Herron with making a false police report for the second incident, but he told the AP he was reluctant to do so in part because he feared "a chilling effect" on future victims of domestic violence.
As dependable as Cunningham is on the court, he's not the kind of game-changing talent that could prompt a team to look past the incident to sign him.
Cunningham's agent, Joel Bell, estimates Cunningham could have landed a deal paying him more than $4 million per season were it not for the charge. He said he was told as recently as Monday by one team that they couldn't risk the public relations trouble that could come from signing him.
Two executives with NBA teams told the AP the domestic violence charge was not a deal-breaker for their teams to consider Cunningham, but it definitely made it more difficult. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly on team personnel decisions.
Players' union executive director Michele Roberts said she has had substantive dialogue with the league about addressing domestic violence and educating players and their families. But as a former public defender, she is also an advocate for due process.
"I don't, quite frankly, know what the rush is," Roberts said. "Many of the teams are saying, until this is resolved I'd like at least for you to not play. I'm not fond of that."
While Cunningham was facing the charges, he was booed by home fans and the Timberwolves were criticized for allowing him to play in games.
"They think I'm a bad person," Cunningham said. "C'mon. I'm a great person. Give me that chance. I've been stripped of that. You have to understand that. That's terrible. Awful. And if I don't have my name, what do I have?"