Boys To Men
From Andrews Air Force Base to the NBA, Ty Lawson and Dante Cunningham keep the dream alive.
Dante Cunningham must have felt like he was a kid again.
It was a couple minutes before halftime with the Portland Trail Blazers leading the Denver Nuggets in preseason action at the Rose Garden on a Sunday night, when Nuggets rookie point guard Ty Lawson cut through the lane and scored on a driving lay-up, stole Portland’s ensuing inbounds pass and hit a nineteen foot jump shot in the process.
The entire exchange unfolded in about 20 seconds.
“Anytime he was on the court, he brought that energy and everyone fed off of it,” Cunningham, the Blazers rookie forward, recalled watching Lawson.
“He was always that spark anytime he made a steal.”
If anyone knows Ty, it is Dante. And if anyone knows Dante, it is Ty. They not only go back. They go way, way back.
In 1995 at the ages of 7 years old and just getting into the game, Lawson and Cunningham were teammates on the Andrews Magic – a youth basketball team led by their fathers, former Tech Sergeant George Lawson and former Chief Master Sergeant Ron Cunningham – on Maryland’s Andrews Air Force Base. They were the best around and were proud of it.
Over an eight-year stretch, the Andrews Magic Went 80-7.
“We were young. We won a couple championships playing together,” remembered Lawson playing alongside a lanky Cunningham.
“Both of our parents were in the military and it was real straight-forward. It was a real good time. There was a lot of talent on that team. I don’t think we were the best players, but you see where the hard work got us.”
Dedication led Ty and Dante from Andrews to the Association.
In the 2009 NBA Draft, the 5-11 Lawson was drafted 18th overall out of North Carolina by the Minnesota Timberwolves before being traded to Denver, with Cunningham – a 6-8 forward from Villanova – was the 33rd overall pick by Portland. Today, removed from the past childhood basketball games and student-athlete campus life, Lawson, 21, and Cunningham, 22, are NBA rookies thankful for their humble beginnings eight miles east of Washington D.C. on an air force base.
“They (Lawson’s parents) always had me in school or in sports to keep my head straight. My dad taught me a lot and kept me out of a lot of trouble, so I thank him for that,” Ty said of his youth.
“It definitely is [humbling] because you’re sitting there looking around – and at that age, everyone was saying you were going to be good. Everyone wants to go to the League at that point. Life went on and guys started dwindling away on our team, but we stuck together,” explained Cunningham.
In high school the two friends became instant rivals – at least before Ty and Dante both changed high schools. Lawson initially attended Bishop McNamara High School before transferring to Oak Hill Academy where he was a first team USA Today All-American, averaging 23.8 points, 9.1 assists and five steals his senior year. Cunningham went St. John’s High School before transferring to Potomac High School for his senior year, where the Washington Post declared him the Metropolitan Player of the Year.
Soon, they embarked on individual college careers.
All-everything at North Carolina, Ty was named the ACC Player of the Year his junior year. It was the first time a point guard had won the ACC’s acclaimed award since Phil Ford accomplished the feat for the Tar Heels in 1978. Dante did his thing at Villanova where he played all four years. As a senior, he led the Wildcats in scoring and earned Big East Most Improved Player honors, all while pushing Villanova to their first Final Four appearance since 1985.
Yet throughout all those years in college, Lawson and Cunningham never played each other until their last year on the big stage. The two met in the National Semifinals at the Final Four, a contest the Tar Heels won handily over the Wildcats, 83-69, before North Carolina – thanks to Lawson’s eight steals – eventually reined victorious over Michigan State in the National Championship game.
“I think he threw me a bow (elbow) in that game. I’m pretty sure,” Lawson grinned.
“I came off a screen and he bumped me a little bit. But it’s all good. You know, I talked trash before the game to him like, ‘there’s no reason for you to even show up, we all know who is going to win’. “I’ve got bragging rights right now.”
Apparently those details are a bit hazy for Cunningham, at least the beginning part.
“I’m not admitting to that,” Cunningham laughed sheepishly about the alleged elbow. “It’s part of the game. I’m sure there was some shoving in there. You never want to go out there and not give it your all, regardless who it is.”
Now in this preseason, the NBA experience has been filled with early anxiousness and high hopes for Ty and Dante.
“The first game, I was nervous. The second game, I was still nervous. But now I’m getting into my groove. Everybody’s telling me to just play my game and do what I do with what got me here,” said Lawson.
Lawson – who is averaging 7.3 points and 2 rebounds in 14.8 minutes per game in four games – has received consistent playing time from George Karl in Denver’s backcourt with the likes of Chauncey Billups and Anthony Carter, while Cunningham waits patiently for his number to be called by Nate McMillan in Portland’s forward logjam.
“It’s definitely hard this being the first time I’m sitting on the bench. It’s nothing you really want to get used to,” admitted Cunningham, who’s appeared in four contests with 6.8 points and 2.5 rebounds in roughly 12 minutes per game.
“You just have to stay mentally ready at all times when you’re not playing. The next day you have to get in there and get your extra shots up and keep your cardio ready. You have to be ready to run when they drop you in the game.”
Their time will come. In some ways, it already has.
When talking with Dante or even Ty – who stay in touch regularly with a quick text message or phone call – about where they are now, the conversation always tends to drift back to when they were two kids playing for the Andrew Magic.
“He’s goofy. I don’t know if you’ve seen his goofy side. You’ll see it sooner or later,” Lawson said of Cunningham.
“He likes to laugh, so he’s the same then as he is now. He was a hard worker. He’s more polished now, but he was a guy who got rebounds and could score a lot with a little jumper.”
For Dante, Ty’s only improved with age on the floor.
“He’s always been the kind of guy who could penetrate and get his own shot. He’s gotten better and is even extending that shot out to the three-point line. So that’s real nice.”
You would think in some way they knew they’d be here one day. It’s only fitting that after all these years Dante and Ty have arrived in the NBA together with not new dreams set before them, but the continuation of another shared along the way.
“This has always been my dream…,” Lawson began before pausing.
“Here we are living out our dream.”
Wendell Maxey is a freelance writer now in his third season covering the Portland Trail Blazers. You can read more of his writing at Beyondthebeat.net.