As he and his teammates were singing and dancing their way down the steep ramp from their Donoher Center locker room to the UD Arena floor Saturday night, it suddenly hit him.
“We were coming down the ramp and I was like, ‘Man, this is different!’” Josh Cunningham said.
The Flyers 6-foot-7 junior captain wasn’t just referring to the renovated arena with big, new, bright scoreboard over the court.
Nor was he just focused on new head coach Anthony Grant or even the new-look Flyers who would play five new players in the exhibition game with Ohio Dominican.
The biggest difference for him was that he finally was healthy, wasn’t being forced to sit out because of NCAA rules and wasn’t with a team that he wanted to leave.
The past three seasons he couldn’t say all that.
“I felt fresh tonight,” Cunningham said. “It felt like I was in high school again.”
That was the last time everything seemed perfect.
As a senior at Morgan Park High on the South Side of Chicago, he averaged nearly 22 points and 15 rebounds a game, won first team All-State honors and was a top 100 recruit in the nation.
He went to Bradley University, had a superb freshman season, but didn’t like it there and came to UD.
The following season – which he was forced to sit out because of NCAA transfer rules – he also underwent two surgeries, one to repair a torn meniscus, the other to fix a torn labrum.
Finally cleared to play last season, he tore ankle ligaments against Alabama in the second game of the season. That required yet another surgery and he missed 21 games before hobbling through the last five of the season.
“This is the first time I’ve been healthy coming into the season in a long time,” he said Saturday night. It was great to be able to go out there and help my brothers.”
He carried them in their 79-61 victory over the NCAA Division II school from Columbus.
Cunningham made 10 of 13 shots and finished with a game-high 22 points and 9 rebounds.
Afterward Grant called him a “workhorse” and talked about how he had been “a steadying force.”
He talked about the “experience and poise,” Cunningham showed that and how he has the respect of his teammates.
“Those are a lot of the qualities you want to see in a captain,” Grant said.
Cunningham said he was playing for his teammates – “I’d run through a wall for them,” – and for his new coach:
“We all just wanted to get the first win for Coach Grant. This was his first game back. He played here himself and now he’s come back and wants to give back.”
After starting three seasons for the Flyers in the mid-1980s – and being the co-captain and the team’s MVP as a senior – Grant return home to Miami, Florida, played briefly with a minor league pro team, then began a coaching career, first in high school, followed by 13 seasons as a college assistant, nine as a head coach at VCU and Alabama and the past two seasons in the NBA as an Oklahoma City Thunder assistant.
He took the UD job when Archie Miller jumped to Indiana last spring.
Like Cunningham, Grant also felt something different on Saturday:
“It was awesome to be back in the Arena. Thirty years ago I was a player here and now I see it come full circle as I have the chance to walk out of the tunnel as the head coach.”
The real difference for him came as the game progressed. Midway through the first half, Grant shed his dark suit coat and coached the rest of the game in his long sleeve white shirt.
With a laugh, he compared being in the Arena Saturday night to being here three decades ago:
“It was louder and hotter…Thankfully, as a player, I never had to wear a suit to a game. I was always in uniform.”
As he worked the sidelines Saturday, he presented a far different image than Miller, who often growled and grimaced his way through a game.
Grant – who waved to the crowd as he entered the Arena and got a heartfelt applause — was more stoic and understated than his predecessor. But he still commanded the moment.
“He made the transition real easy,” Cunningham said. “He’s a nice person, a down to earth person. He doesn’t yell much. He really cares about us and it showed and that got all our trust.”
While Grant was warmly received, the wildest cheer from the sellout crowd of 13,350 came when 6-foot-10 redshirt freshman Kostas Antetokounmpo entered the game at the 12:59 mark of the first half.
Although he hasn’t played basketball in almost two years and still is developing, Flyers fans have over-pumped expectations for him, hoping he has a noticeable resemblance to his brother Giannis, the 22-year-old Milwaukee Buck who is the much-trumpeted sensation of the NBA.
Antetokounmpo sat out last season as a partial academic qualifier and this summer suffered a knee injury when he returned to Greece to play for the U-20 national team. Then on Sept. 30, his 54-year-old father died of a heart attack.
Saturday night, 70 seconds after entering the game, he raised a long arm skyward and called for the ball from guard Jordan Davis. When the pass came, he promptly did a spin move on the Panthers 6-foot-5 Matt King and went up for a forceful, two-handed dunk that left him swinging from the rim.
The crowd erupted.
“It was great that got the reaction he got,” Grant said. “He’s battled a lot over the last few months. I know he was really excited to finally be able to get out there, put on the uniform and play in front of our fans.”
The other foreign player on the team is freshman Matej Svoboda of the Czech Republic who has a wealth on international experience. He played four seasons as an amateur on the top pro team in his country.
The team played in a Czech league, a Russian league and toured Europe playing tournaments. He also was on an age-limit national team and played across Europe.
Although 1 for 5 from long range Saturday night, he made all five of his two-point attempts. He finished with 13 points and showed he can put the ball on the floor, drive to the rim and dish off. “For a freshman – with the experience he got oversees — he knows how to play the game,” Grant said.
Add in the 15-rebound effort of Xeyrius Williams and the initial emergence of senior Darrell Davis and there were several positives to take from this outing.
“There were some good things out there tonight,” Cunningham said afterward.
As he walked back up the ramp after the game – had you been able to see beneath the back of his jersey – you would have seen a new tattoo.
He already had the Chicago skyline inked across his chest. Now he has something just as long across his shoulder blades.
“I got my last name tattooed there,” he said quietly. ‘My family means a lot to me. So does my name.”
And this season he hopes to regularly live up to that name again.