David Cunningham — now a senior wrapping up his four-year career on the University of Nevada, Reno men’s basketball team — was identical to many of the students that were stepping onto campus in August of 2015. Right out of high school, David was filled with lofty expectations that strictly included academics, thus leaving sports in the not so distant past.
“I played four years at Bella Vista High School in Fair Oaks, California,” Cunningham said. “Senior year I kind of took the reins at the point guard spot. I got team MVP and first team all-league. I ended up deciding that I wanted to go to Nevada as a student and then that was kind of my final decision because I wanted to leave home.”
Others in Cunningham’s family never gave up on the dream of a college basketball career.
“My mom told me to try out the second week of school my freshman year,” Cunningham said, “She kind of like filled out a 30-page medical packet to try out and she filled it out for me.”
Following the encouragement from his mom, Cunningham proceeded with the mission and attended the 30-man tryout located at Lawlor Events Center. There was one thing on his mind when walking into the arena on that August day.
“I kind of had nothing to lose,” Cunningham said.
Even with head coach Eric Musselman closely watching from the stands, Cunningham did not feel the nerves. Quite the contrary, Cunningham confidently outperformed every single one of those 30 other men to gain a roster spot on the Wolf Pack 2015-16 roster.
“There’s 30 other people there, so, you kind of have to make an impression,” Cunningham said. “I wasn’t afraid to shoot the ball or anything like that. I hit back-to-back 3’s and then [Musselman] just asked me after practice if I wanted to come back. I said ‘of course I do’.”
Cunningham started his freshman season expecting to strictly be a practice player, which quickly changed Nov. 30, 2015, when David logged six minutes in a 108-57 victory against Holy Names University. David went on to log minutes in 14 other games in the 2015-16 season, including playing five minutes against basketball powerhouse, Wichita State where he tallied two points and one assist.
“When I first walked onto the team I didn’t think I was going to have a major role at all,” Cunningham said. “Muss and I laugh about it now that I played at Wichita State, which is like one of the biggest college basketball schools and two months before that I would have never imagined I was playing there.”
Cunningham’s first season laid the foundation of what was to become a special career here at the university.
“That first year really taught me everything for the next three years. That set the tone,” Cunningham said. “Marqueze Coleman, Cam Oliver, Lindsey Drew and Jordan Caroline all set the tone going forward for sure.”
Cunningham, over a span of three seasons, logged minutes in 24 games leading up to his senior season in 2018-19. In those seasons he posted three assists, three rebounds and seven points total.
In Cunningham’s third year, he became somewhat of a player-coach, helping the younger players develop, and passing on the knowledge he gained in previous years while helping in any way he could during practice.
“By my third year I think I had the experience and kind of like confidence to know what is right so I would start telling players like I could see their uncertainty and I would just know from years before what to do in that moment,” Cunningham said. “So, that was kind of like a big thing for me to start telling freshman and sophomores even what’s up.”
Cunningham also served as a role model for the younger players to look up to and use as a reference for hard work and determination. Teammate Lindsey Drew who joined the team the same year as Cunningham highlighted how David interacts with the younger players on the squad.
“He looks out for guys,” Drew said. “He’s a team player. He’s a smart guy so he knows all the plays and helps all the guys out with that.”
Cunningham became a fan favorite among the Wolf Pack community his senior year, including the student fan base. Lawlor was arguably the loudest it had been all year when Cunningham stepped on the floor for the last time on senior night. Cunningham has one reason in mind as to why he has been such a tremendous hit among the Wolf Pack community.
“I think people appreciate the loyalty of being here all four years.” Cunningham said, “Last year I wasn’t on the team for a little while and I think people were really happy that I came back.”
Drew had a different reason as to why Cunningham became such a fan favorite this season.
“He’s the G.O.A.T. [Greatest Of All Time]” Drew said.
Playing in his final season and eventually leaving the school brings some uncertainty as to what the future might bring. Cunningham has some possibilities that might include him going back home where his basketball career all began.
“I think I’m going to go back to Sacramento,” Cunningham said. “I was offered a graduate assistant job here and I was also looking at Sac State to be a graduate assistant there.”
From walk-on to fan favorite, David Cunningham’s journey was filled with ups and downs but ultimately, even he admitted he never could have imagined this.
Austin Paschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SagebrushSports.