The Cunningham Effect

It’s pitch black. The buzz of the crowd is growing, along with the overwhelming anticipation of what is about to happen. The slow methodical rumble from both the stamping feet of the packed arena and A Space Oddessy 2001 soundtrack booming from the PA, is deafening. As the music builds, so to does the noise from the crowd. Two beams of light appear from high in the arena. They shine down from their source, opening out to a single spot light that covers the center cirlce in the middle of the court perfectly. The music builds to a climax and the home town players introductions are about to follow from the very fired up and charismatic announcer. It seems a little pointless in a way, as the sold out crowd is drowning out his every word. But you can hear his excitement even though his voice is just a murmur, lost in the now thumping intro beat. The spot lights move, and split off into separate areas, one on the free throw line and one hovering near the home teams bench. A player is announced. Impossible to hear who, but the spotlight picks up the player instantly. There is no mistaking who it is. His 6ft 10 frame seems incorrect as the intense build up and amped up atmosphere makes him appear 7ft 2. His arms are spread wide, as if mimicking a airplane about to attempt a fly by. No sooner had the spot light found him, and the baing crowd identified him with an appreciative roar, then he was off to the races. Sprinting, with the spotlight barely able to keep up, he holds both arms outstretched to the right of his body and the expectant front two rows lean in as he completes a full lap of the courtside fans, high fiving anyone and everyone he can reach. The rest of the team are announced, each with a roar of approval as high as the last. As if perfectly choreographed, he arrives back to the second spotlight as the last name is announced and high fives the entire squad. They go into a huddle as the arena lights come up, at which point the crowd knows it’s game time and they are in for a treat.

The player that generated such an atmosphere and response was of course, former Harlem Globetrotter, Alan Cunningham. If it is suggested that Alton Byrd is the Magic Johnson of British basketball, then Alan Cunningham is certainly Bill Russell. Countless BBL league and playoff titles, as well as cup and trophy wins. He was an integral part of the famous Kingston Kings and their domination of the BBL in the late 80’s and early 90’s and if that wasn’t enough, he then took his talents to Worthing and helped the Bears dominate for a further three years, winning the playoffs with each outing. The third consecutive playoff win came in particularly Bill Russell fashion. At the end of Russell’s playing career, his Boston Celtics qualified for the the NBA Playoffs in the lowly fourth seed, and despite not having home court advantage in the final, beat the Lakers in a seven game series, even though fans and critics had written off the Celtics early. Alan Cunningham and the Bears finished the regular season in 7th and like Russell’s Celtics, the Bears were considered over the hill and past it, having only just qualified for a post season spot. However, they eased into the finals and held off the Giants for their third consecutive Championship.

Cunningham’s professional career in the BBL was impressive. His influence on the court has been unparalleled, perhaps until recent seasons and Fab Flournoys current role on the Eagles. What is perhaps more impressive is Cunningham’s continued career into the NBL as player coach of Solent. In the late 90’s he led the team to a third division championship and a second division title. He retired on top in 2000, after scoring 38 points in a friendly game for a Portsmouth Pirates select team against a squad from the University of Gettysburg, USA. His retirement did not last long. Coming back to Solent in 2001-02 for one final season and finished his career on the court, with the ball in his hand as the buzzer went, in a playoff final having scored 29 and in a double overtime loss.

There’s no question that wherever Cunningham took his talents, silverware would surely follow. In many cases the results were instant and fans and supporters that were lucky enough to have seen him play at any point in his career, will have fond memories and without a doubt, will have been entertained.