There was a point in the season where DuVal High School's boys basketball team could have very easily been 2-3, fully living up to coach Lafayette Dublin's original expectations that “we would compete, but I didn't know how many games we would win.”
The Tigers had competed against Charles H. Flowers, and lost by four in overtime. They had competed against Eleanor Roosevelt, and lost by one on a buzzer-beater. And they were again competing, this time against 3-1 Bowie, but the tides were shifting in the Bulldogs' direction.
“And then Michael [Cunningham] comes up to me and says, 'Coach, I got it, relax,'” Dublin said. And then Cunningham did exactly that.
He walked the ball down the court and pulled up for a 3-pointer. The Tigers didn't need a 3-pointer.
“I was like, 'Good God, I couldn't draw that up,'” Dublin said.
Cunningham then converted an old-fashioned 3-point play to put the Tigers up six and the game out of reach. A 62-57 victory followed the guard's impromptu two-minute drill, which portended the end of the days in which DuVal simply “competed,” and the onset of a very successful month.
“I knew if we beat them, we could beat anybody in the county,” Cunningham, a junior, said. “It all started right there.”
Meanwhile, Dublin would be thinking the same thing: “After that game, I said this team can be pretty good.”
Pretty good turned out to be an understatement. That Dec. 18 victory over the Bulldogs was the third in what would become a 13-game winning streak and a rise to the top of the Prince George's 4A League standings. Undefeated Parkdale was doused before the first quarter was complete, Henry A. Wise went down, and a rolling Suitland team was knocked off mid-winning streak.
“It went from being able to just stay in and compete in games to 'Man, we can win this thing,'” Dublin said.
The somewhat surprising turnaround can be put squarely on the shoulders of Cunningham. The Tigers have various other talents, namely Charles Ekeanyanwu, a senior who torched Parkdale for 36, and Edward Polite has been a force inside all season. But Cunningham is that final piece to the puzzle, a piece that arrived at DuVal through the most unlikely of routes.
Cunningham attended Archbishop Carroll as a freshman and then switched over to Paul VI — where he had originally wanted to go for his first year but his parents deemed the commute too far — for his sophomore year. He would wake up around 5:30 every morning, hop on the Metro from the New Carrollton stop and take it all the way to Vienna — the very last stop on that line — and finally get to school where, by the end of the day, he would be exhausted.
In the classroom it became hard to concentrate. On the court, his playing time dwindled to the point of near nonexistence and he soon pondered whether it was worth all that trouble to be “put on the shelf,” as he called it.
So he made yet another switch, opting for DuVal, the public school four minutes from his house.
“It's kind of easier than private school is,” Cunningham said. “You're more awake during the day. My grades skyrocketed [he now boasts a 3.5 grade-point average] right there.”
So did the Tigers' basketball prospects.
Dublin lost eight players from the 2011-2012 team that went 15-5 and still missed out on the state tournament. It wouldn't be until the first day of school that he learned his thinned out lineup would be adding Cunningham.
“I didn't know anything at all about him,” Dublin said. “People told me, 'Man, he can play. He might be the best guard in the 4A.' I had conversations with coaches and they would say, 'This kid can do some things.'”
So he searched online and found nothing about Cunningham. The guard hadn't done much of anything at Paul VI and he had been siphoned off to the junior varsity team at Carroll. Dublin had no idea what those other coaches were gushing about.
But then he showed up to tryouts.
“I'm calling the same people who told me those things and I'm like, 'Man, this kid can really play,'” Dublin said. “The only one that stops Mike is Mike.”
Dublin labels Cunningham as a “scoring point guard,” one who looks for his shot second. A quick skim of his stat line argues the contrary. Cunningham is averaging more than 20 points per game, has eclipsed 30 in three games, and, despite the fact that he stands just 6-foot-1, has logged a trio of double-doubles.
“You tell him he can't shoot, he makes a three,” Dublin said. “You tell him he can't drive, he goes to the basket.”
Every night, without fail, typically between the hours of 8-11 p.m., Dublin's phone will light up. And every night, Dublin will talk all things basketball with Cunningham, whether it be a good game that was just on television or a play that Cunningham thinks would work in the Tigers' offense.
“With that kind of kid, I'm just like, 'What does he want?'” Dublin said. “He's just analyzing the game. I've never had a kid work at the game like he has. The sky's the limit for this kid.”