Dante’s homecoming

David Cassilo

Moments after a 98-90 victory for the Portland Trail Blazers against the 76ers in his return to Philadelphia, rookie forward Dante Cunningham raced back to the locker room.  As his teammates walked in, he fiddled with the television until he landed on the station showing his ex-Villanova teammates taking on Rutgers.  For the rest of the evening, he talked to reporters, but he always had one eye on the television, where he kept his focus.

Although Cunningham’s jersey now says Blazers across the front, he will forever consider himself a member of the Wildcats.

“I talk to Dwayne [Anderson], Shane [Clark] and Frank [Tchuisi] a lot,” Cunningham said. “We are still really close. I text the team all the time.”

Last June, Cunningham became the latest Villanova player to begin a career in the NBA when he was selected 33rd overall by Portland. 

After growing up in Maryland and spending four years on the Main Line, starting his NBA career across the country was the first of many changes for Cunningham.

“I knew Portland was a beautiful place and that it rained a lot out there,” Cunningham said. “That was pretty much it.”

The Trail Blazers, though, knew a lot more about Cunningham than he knew about their city. Head Coach Nate McMillan noted his rookie’s physical, fearless and scrappy nature as some of the reasons he was chosen. However, it wasn’t just his skills that caught the eye of the Blazers.

“He is a four-year guy, and I think that makes a difference,” McMillan said. “Playing for Villanova, he played in big-time basketball his whole career.  It’s somewhat of a smooth transition because he has played in big games and important games against some of the best talent in the country.”

Cunningham might have had all  the makeup they were looking for in a player, but he still needed to prove he could play on the NBA level. During the NBA’s summer league, he got his first chance to impress and did just that. In the league’s four games, Cunningham averaged 18.3 points per game, ranking sixth in the league in scoring averages. That performance led to him signing a multi-year contract with Portland only one month later.

Adjusting to the NBA lifestyle was the next task. No longer was Cunningham playing two games a week with classes in between them. 

Now, he is trying to figure out how to manage one particular aspect of his new schedule.

“The free time,” Cunningham said. “When you have ten o’clock practice, you get home by one.  What do you do the rest of the day?”

On the court, a whole different set of challenges arises, as well.

“You are no longer the most athletic and strongest player on the court,” Cunningham said. “Everyone in every spot is just as strong and athletic as you are. Day in and day out, there is always someone as big and strong as you.”

The physicality of the league also gave Cunningham his first “reality check” moment. In December, he collided heads with teammate Martell Webster, opening a huge gash right above his left eye and forcing him to get 11 stitches.  

His coach’s reaction told him that this is something he might have to get used to.

“I remember the first thing coach said was ‘Welcome to the NBA,’ not ‘Are you okay?'” Cunningham recalls.

Besides having the 11 stitches, it has been a smooth transition so far for Cunningham. Teammates and fellow big men Juwan Howard and Joel Pryzbilla have taken the rookie forward under their wings, while McMillan has done his best to get the most out of Cunningham.

“Coach McMillan and Coach Wright are similar in that they will continue to push regardless if you are doing well,” Cunningham said. “They are never going to relax on you.”

The one difference?

“Coach Wright dresses better,” Cunningham is quick to admit.

Although he may not be as slick of a dresser as Cunningham’s former coach was, McMillan has gotten his rookie forward ready to play, and the team has needed it.  

With a substantial number of injuries to the team’s frontcourt, Cunningham has seen significant minutes for the majority of the season.

Through last Saturday’s game against Detroit, Cunningham has averaged 3.1 points and 2.4 rebounds per game in just over nine minutes of action a contest.  He has played in 31 of the team’s 45 games this season.

With the number of injuries the team has suffered, McMillan is pleased that Cunningham has kept himself ready to play.

“We always tell our guys to be ready because your opportunity is going to come, you just never know when,” McMillan said. “Even when he wasn’t playing, he was in the gym working. Now that he is getting an opportunity, he has been able to be productive and take advantage of it.”

The opportunity also gave Cunningham the ability to return to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., during the week of Jan. 18 and play in front of his family, friends and fellow Villanovans.  While the chance to come back as an NBA player was nothing but special for Cunningham, it did have one drawback – ticket requests.

“I actually turned my phone off,” Cunningham said with a laugh.

Whether it was to see Cunningham  play or not, many fans attended the Wachovia Center on Jan. 20 when he made his return, and as Cunningham entered the game in the second quarter, they all stood up and cheered to honor him for what he did at Villanova and congratulate him for reaching the NBA.

“It was great to hear the cheers as I went into the game,” Cunningham said. “It was just a good feeling.”

Although Cunningham now plays across the country, he will always feel right at home in ‘Nova Nation.