Dante Unmasked

Few people have, but Cunningham's worth getting to know




When the “L Train” circles the Rose Garden after a LaMarcus Aldridge dunk, that’s Todd Bosma’s work. When chants of “Olé!” blare from the arena’s sound system following a Rudy Fernandez 3-pointer, that’s Bosma’s brainchild.

The Trail Blazers’ director of game operations is teeming with ideas for how to celebrate each and every home-team bucket, but this one, quite frankly, had him stumped.

“It doesn’t really rhyme with anything. Like with Joel Przybilla, we call him ‘Thrilla.’ I don’t think he liked Michael Jackson, but it works,” Bosma said. “And LaMarcus’ nickname is ‘L Train,’ so that’s a natural fit. But Dante? I mean, I know people call him ‘DC,’ so we were thinking maybe something with DC comic books, but that’s kind of obscure.”

Bosma is referring to Blazers forward Dante Cunningham, a second-year player who’s about as anonymous as 6-foot-8, 230 pounds gets.

Reporters never crowd his locker after games. His 3,000 or so Twitter followers are the fewest on the team. And seeing how he’s started just seven times this season and averages fewer than five points, the 23-year-old is as distinct to NBA fans as a droplet at Niagara.

“So then we were thinking ‘Dante? Picante?’ but now you’re just getting cheesy,” Bosma continued. “He’s just Dante. That works for him. He’ll be that lunch pail guy that you can rely on.”

More like that Jenga block that fills holes on the league’s most wobbly roster. Injuries to Blazers big men such as Przybilla, Marcus Camby, Greg Oden and Jeff Pendergraph have catapulted Cunningham into a substantial role; the Villanova product logging at least 20 minutes 25 times this season as Portland remains in playoff contention.

And yet, aside from the protective mask his fractured right eye socket will force him to wear for the next few weeks, he possesses no distinguishable trait.

Or does he?

Turns out, Cunningham may have been wearing a mask this whole time — one concealing the fact that he’s actually one of the more colorful Blazers. Poke around, and you’ll no doubt uncover some compelling nuggets, starting with the fact that …

He’s Trouble. Literally. That’s the nickname longtime friend and Villanova teammate Dwayne Anderson tagged him with as a kid. That’s the word tattooed on his left biceps. And that’s the description Cunningham has long strived to do justice.

His older sister, Davalyn, used to catch him sneaking candy into his room and would blackmail him with the evidence. He’d frequently set off fireworks and bottle rockets around his Maryland neighborhood. And given his lifelong infatuation with technology, Cunningham made a habit out of disassembling remote controls, VCRs or “anything I could get my hands on,” — and hiding them under his bed if he couldn’t put them back together.

“I was always into something,” Dante said grinning. “Very mischievous, definitely.”

Don’t worry, it never got too bad. And he maintained a 3.8 grade point average at Potomac High.

Was it because he was motivated? A genuinely good kid? Yeah, that’s part of it.

But mainly …

He was terrified of his mother. No, really. When the woman who brought you into the world is a Chief Master Sergeant that spent 26 years in the United States Air Force, you think twice about back talk and curfew breaches.

Searcy Blankenship and Ron Cunningham didn’t raise Dante in a “yes sir, no sir” household, but as childhood friend Bubba McLeod said, “you definitely made sure you put your plates away after dinner.”

And seeing how Blankenship was a faculty member at Potomac when Cunningham attended his senior year, the teachers and coaches always had something to dangle over his head if he misbehaved.

“If I was ever talking in class, or if I was ever late, it was always ‘we’re going to tell your mom,’” Cunningham said. “Back then, it was definitely a big thing, ‘please don’t tell mom.’ It’s so embarrassing.”

The threat hardly faded when Cunningham left his home state to play at Villanova. Wildcats coach Jay Wright employed the same scare tactic.

One day, not long after a campus security guard caught him acting up in his car past curfew, Cunningham ran into a surprise guest while leaving practice: Mom.

“Give me your keys,” she said.

“He knows that if I have to come to Portland, I will,” Blankenship said. “He doesn’t want that.”

Not that Cunningham can’t switch roles and scare the bejesus out of his mother. Blankenship gasped the first time she saw Dante sporting his gap-toothed mouthpiece, fearing someone had knocked out two of her son’s pearly whites.

That didn’t happen. But if it did, we know who the prime suspect would be, because …

Wesley Matthews doesn’t like him. OK, fine, he likes him. But he didn’t at first.

Think about it. Cunningham played at Villanova from 2005-2009. Matthews played at Big East rival Marquette from 2005-2009. Meaning the two faced off in college, let’s see …

“Six times,” Matthews said without having to think. “We went 3-3 against them.”

Matthews confessed that he didn’t want to play with Cunningham when he first signed with the Blazers. You don’t just let bygones be bygones with an old college nemesis.

But now the two frequently play cards together on road trips, and Matthews has ridden in all three of Cunningham’s cars.

So how’d they get past it?

“We’re not past it,” Matthews said, stone-faced. “We hit each other every time we run by each other in practice.”

But Cunningham has NBA rivalries that date back much further than his college days. He played AAU ball alongside the Pacers’ Roy Hibbert and youth ball with the Nuggets’ Ty Lawson.

So with all that experience, it’s almost unbelievable to hear that …

He’s never beaten his sister in basketball. At least that’s her side of the story.

Davalyn Cunningham, who is seven years Dante’s senior, played one season with the WNBA’s Orlando Miracle before going into teaching. And one day, while she was still at Rutgers, she came home and challenged Dante to a game of one-on-one.

Davalyn won, but didn’t foresee that becoming a trend.

“That was the last time I ever played him,” she said. “He was getting taller. I knew if I played him at any point past that, he was going to beat me. Him being the younger brother and all, I didn’t want to hear that.”

Dante remembers it differently.

“No, no. Let me clarify,” he said, chuckling. “I beat her, and then she wouldn’t play me anymore.”

What no party disputes is that Dante topped his father in hoops for the first time shortly after. And that was quite the accomplishment, because …

His dad is no joke. Ron Cunningham spent exactly 30 years, 16 days and four hours in the Air Force. He worked on Air Force One during the Reagan, Clinton and both Bush administrations, and was the first member of the Cunningham household to achieve the rank of Chief Master Sergeant.

He helped coach Dante’s youth teams and would conduct mock interviews with him as a 7-year-old, prepping him for future interactions with the media. But even if Ron quickly noticed his son’s greatest talent, he made sure Dante developed some supporting skills, too.

“We exposed him to as many things as we could,” said Ron, who remains close friends with Blankenship despite their divorce. “Art, old cars, gadgets, there was always something new.”

Cunningham’s fascination with fixing up old automobiles started by working under the hood with pops. Now he owns a GMC Denali, a 2003 Mercury Marauder, a 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass, and considers each a work in progress.

He also does calligraphy. Yes, calligraphy.

“I call him weirdo,” Matthews said.

But hey, the ladies dig that sort of thing, and, oh boy …

Dante loves the ladies. And apparently, they’re quite fond of him.

Reminiscing from an airport last month, Villanova’s Jay Wright couldn’t help but gush, “I know that the ladies loved him. I know that he had his fair share, but he was always very low key about it.”

When Cunningham heard what his old college coach had to say about his love life, he blushed as though he just dunked on the wrong basket.

“I’m not really a public type of guy. Especially here, because it’s so small. Friends might see you and then that gets the chatter going and it kind of looks bad if you think about it. So to avoid all that, we’ll just watch a movie at my house or something,” said Cunningham, adding that he’s currently “single and ready to mingle.” “It’s not that I’m a ladies’ man, I’m just … kind of social with it.”

Cunningham’s also “social with it” on social networks, and in case you haven’t noticed …

He’s pretty combative on Twitter. Well, at least he can come off that way.

During the BCS title game, Cunningham tweeted “THE MAN CAM NEWTON is about to take over.”

Figuring Oregon fans instantly put their Cunningham jerseys on eBay as a result, a local columnist tweeted back, “You realize you’re alienating half the people who cheer for you, right?”

Answered Cunningham: “I’m just mixin’ the pot. Don’t get your panties in a bunch.” And then to a Ducks fan: “Awww, cry me a river.”

“I’m joking. I’m having fun. I love the conflict,” said Cunningham, who once ran into a Twitter detractor at a bowling alley, where the Blazer/Ducks fan apologized for tweeting that he wanted Dante traded.

“I like the fact that I can I just go on there and talk. I do get a little upset because I can’t really go back at them. I can’t curse or anything. … It’s one of those ropes you have to walk because I don’t want to be the bad guy.”

And really, he’s not the bad guy. Despite the mischief, the moniker, and the instigating tweets …

Cunningham is about as dependable as it gets. Former Potomac basketball coach Rico Reed said Dante was the hardest worker who’d ever played for him. Wright recalled the time Cunningham took a red-eye from a camp in Las Vegas, strolled into the Villanova gym after landing and began working on free throws.

When Dante decided to suit up for a game two days after fracturing his eye socket, Blazers center Sean Marks said he and teammates concluded that only a handful of players in the NBA were tough enough to do that. So no, Cunningham did not follow his parents into the military, but he’s been one heck of a reserve.

“Without Dante, we would really be at a disadvantage. We can bring in his energy and toughness, he’s guarding bigger guys, he’s knocking down shots and that has allowed us to stay competitive,” Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. “What he does, the average person watching the game won’t see or feel, but the coaching staff and the team does.”

Davalyn said that such reliability is equally evident off the court — that Cunningham always asks if his family needs anything, always stays up to date on their affairs, and showers his 6-week-old nephew with gifts.

“He’s a really sensitive guy,” Davalyn said. “He’ll do anything for his family.”

But that’s not to say “Trouble” won’t still make a cameo or two.

Last week, Przybilla overheard a conversation about Cunningham’s notoriously heavy driving foot, one that caused an old friend to joke that his life was in danger every time he stepped in Dante’s car.

“He’s flown by me on the freeway a few times,” Przybilla said. “I thought it was a cop at first.”

Let’s just hope mom isn’t reading.

Matt Calkins is the Blazers beat writer for The Columbian. He can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or e-mail matt.calkins@columbian.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/blazerbanter