Missouri's Truest Daughter: The stories that shaped Sophie Cunningham

She’s one of the most celebrated athletes and eminent personalities in MU history. Now comes her final ride.
Missouri forward Sophie Cunningham hones in on the hoop before a free throw attempt during Missouri's 70-48 exhibition win over Missouri Western, Monday, Oct. 30, 2018. Cunningham, who committed MU in eighth grade and is entering her senior season, used to shoot hoops at a brick instead of a basket.

The driveway of Sophie Cunningham's childhood home is a mountain amid mid-Missouri flatlands. The steep slope in west Columbia ascends to a humble brick house. Above the garage door, one brick is unique, a white rectangle surrounded by red.

Sophie and her older sister, Lindsey, played basketball on the elevated driveway. There was a suitable slab of concrete in the back, but they wanted their neighbors to see their skills. Their only problem: The driveway was too steep for a hoop.

Sophie Cunningham has sacrificed plenty for basketball on her way to becoming one of the most prolific athletes in MU history. As she tips off her final season as a Missouri Tiger, the memories that shaped one of Columbia’s most eminent personalities stand out more than ever. At 8 years old, Sophie made a sacrifice in the pursuit of presentation, not basketball prowess. She didn’t know it then, but it would work out for the benefit of both.

Playing in the driveway meant sacrificing a basket for a brick.

The lone white block became a makeshift target for shots heaved up by the Cunningham sisters. Due to the steepness of the driveway, it was similar to shooting uphill at a 12-foot basket that was also less than half the size of a normal hoop. “So unrealistic, but so fun,” Sophie says. That also made it tougher to tell whether shots were good or not.

“You can imagine the fights we had,” Lindsey says.

“It hit the brick!”

“No it didn't!”

"Yes it did!”

The sight was a peculiar one for neighbors, but it achieved the sisters’ goal. People frequently stopped to catch up with them. One of those neighbors was Missouri men’s basketball coach Mike Anderson. On his way to and from his home at the end of the cul-de-sac, he would pull over and roll down the window. He reminded the Cunninghams almost every time: “Someday, having that small of a target and shooting uphill is gonna pay off, girls.”

Sophie knew what Anderson did for a living, but she didn’t think of him as anything more than an ordinary neighbor.

“We were like, ‘Yeah, whatever,’” she says.

While shooting 3-pointers at a Missouri practice before her senior season, Sophie hones in on one spot, the right wing, and sinks 11 straight. She doesn’t envision a brick while shooting, but she says her past in the driveway always plays a role in the present, whether consciously or not.

It’s Oct. 19, the Friday before Sophie’s last Homecoming as an MU student. In the next 24 hours, several fans will approach her at a Missouri volleyball game. She’ll ride a Bird scooter through the Homecoming parade, then be introduced as the “mayor of Columbia” before the Mizzou Madness preseason scrimmage.

But for now, she’s focused on practice, staying in the present. It’s an approach she’s adopted from Lindsey, who played on Missouri’s team from 2012-13 to 2016-17.

“So many people kind of lock up because they want it so bad, and they can’t play free because they get caught up in it being their last go-around, and I've seen that,” Lindsey says. “Having known that, I told myself I'm just gonna play and then when it hits me, it’s gonna hit me a lot harder.”

Lindsey wasn’t prepared for the heartbreak when Missouri was eliminated by Florida State in the NCAA Tournament her senior year, but she doesn’t regret the mentality. Sophie is prepared to live with it too. She dives to the floor time after time in practice, saving each ball from trickling out of bounds. Sophie’s mother, Paula, is one in a line of impressed spectators.

Paula Cunningham is a seventh-year senior.

“It’s horrible; this is my last year,” she says. Then she realizes what she just said and rolls her eyes. “My last year.”

Lindsey’s MU career started in the 2012-13 season and lasted five years, one as a redshirt. Sophie’s tenure has overlapped with two of those seasons. This is the last for Paula as a “MIZZOU MOM,” as the T-shirt reads.

Like practically everyone else in her family, Paula played basketball growing up, and she sees similarities between Sophie and herself. Jim Marshall, a retired high school basketball coach who coached Paula and her sister at North Callaway High, says Sophie’s competitiveness mirrors that of her mother. “All of the kids on Sophie’s teams want to do better because they want to impress her.”

The entire family has been involved in Sophie’s athletic growth to some degree, even her grandparents. They still live on Primus Farm east of Columbia, 2,500 acres that have been in Paula’s side of the family for generations.

As basketball became a more serious part of Sophie’s life, escapades on the farm offered relief from the sport. In a revised version of playing catch with a softball, Sophie’s grandmother, “Maw-Maw,” sat in a lawn chair and didn’t move for any throws. An errant toss meant an embarrassing chase, so Sophie learned accuracy quickly – like Paula did when Maw-Maw played the same game with her a generation earlier.

Sophie says those other activities have contributed to her success. When her middle school club coach, Gary Brown, wanted to provide his team with a good example of work ethic, he turned to Sophie, privately asking: “Are you a gym rat? Are you in the gym all the time?” He never shared Sophie’s response with the rest of the team: “Actually, I like going to the pool.”

Sophie was a multi-sport athlete, specializing in basketball and volleyball and even kicking for Rock Bridge High’s football team. But she was predestined for basketball, and no other sport gave her the same bond with her family, with her mother.

Paula may not coach, but she’s always on call. Whenever Sophie wants to get extra shots up at Mizzou Arena – usually well after dark – mom hurries over to be her late-night rebounder. It happens two or three times a month, but this is the final year for that tradition. Sophie could just as easily use the shooting gun that regurgitates every shot back to her, but she finds it harder to hold a conversation about life with the machine.

Sophie appears pensive observing from the sideline while five of her teammates practice running Missouri’s offense against the scout team. Coach Robin Pingeton stops them to reposition people. Sophie doesn’t like what she sees.

“Can I say something real quick?” she interjects. All heads in the gym turn. Sophie explains that the location of various players on the floor will inherently remain incorrect unless the ball is repositioned first. “If we’re holding the ball in the corner, no one’s moving weak side,” she says. “If the ball is on the wing, it creates more movement off the ball.”

When the scrimmage expands to full-court between the Tigers and the scout team later, Sophie isn’t happy with the opponents’ efforts. “Pick up your scout game!” she yells. At a timeout moments later, the team breaks into two huddles. Pingeton spearheads one, Sophie the other.

Grace Berg knows not to cross Coach Cunningham.

The freshman says Sophie is “like the second coach” for Missouri, and Pingeton says Cunningham has been that way since arriving on campus. Marshall praises her positivity that’s necessary for leadership.

“Her smile, all the time – she could be down by 10 and there was a smile, or get called for a ridiculous foul and there’s a smile,” he says.

Sure enough, in a game against top-ranked Incarnate Word her senior year, Sophie fouled out late in regulation on a call she took exception to. All she could do was take over coaching from the bench. The Bruins lost in overtime.

“She fouled out, but does she just let that be the end of it? No, she continues to be a positive person for teammates,” Rock Bridge coach Jill Nagel says. “She’s gonna do whatever needs to be done within the framework of the rules of the game in order to try and win.”

That doesn’t always mean scoring a basket. Sophie knows that. Once, after a Missouri win in which Sophie scored one point, her family mocked her by each holding up one finger as she approached their section. She shrugged it off.

“Never once during four years did she ask me how many points she scored, or how many assists or rebounds or anything,” Nagel says. “That doesn't matter.”

That’s the kind of mentality that makes Sophie an example to high schoolers locally and across the globe. A top recruit from Australia is considering Missouri and planning to visit soon, all because Sophie is one of her top role models. Sophie’s cousin, Mary Primus, is a sophomore on the Rock Bridge basketball team. She can’t count the number of times a peer has approached her at school asking about Sophie.

“She’s almost like a mythical icon,” Nagel says.

Sophie’s path to Missouri may have been as predestined as her basketball playing career. With her family’s history – her mother, father, aunt, uncle and grandfather all played sports at MU – the hometown school was “all she ever knew,” Marshall says. Sophie was committed to the Tigers before she ever played a high school game.

Paula was driving home from work one evening when a post-eighth-grade Sophie called and told her she was about to call Pingeton and commit.

“You wait and let’s talk about it as a family one more time,” Paula replied, not wanting her exuberant daughter to rush into anything. “Hold your horses, chill out, let me get home and let’s talk one more time.”

When Paula got home, Sophie was on the phone. Paula asked who was on the other end, but she already knew. Sophie silently mouthed back: “Coach P. I just committed to Mizzou.”

Other schools still tried to grab Sophie’s attention after her commitment. She didn’t even open the letters.

“None. No. Mhm. ‘Oh, cool, Tennessee,’” she says, making a tossing gesture. All of her letters over the years were discarded into the same bin and never touched again. “I knew where I wanted to be.”

Sophie starts to get frustrated at practice when she airmails a pass over Lauren Aldridge and out of bounds. Sophie has an incredulous look on her face, but she knows it’s her fault. She turns the ball over again two possessions later, then resigns to her coach’s perch on the sideline for a moment.

There haven’t been many mental roadblocks in Sophie’s career, her family will attest, but not even Missouri’s season-ending loss to Florida Gulf Coast had the same psychological effect as another demon her junior year: social media.

Missouri split its season series with defending national champion South Carolina, as the home team won both games. When the Tigers went to South Carolina, Sophie was greeted with jeers every time she touched the ball throughout the 40 minutes. She had excelled in Missouri’s earlier win against the Gamecocks, but some perceived her competitive style of play as dirty. Paula calls it “the extra.”

“If you're on her team and you're a Mizzou fan, you like the extra, because it gets people pumped up,” Paula says. “But if you're not on her team, the extra gets under your skin.”

South Carolina’s response was to get back under Sophie’s skin. The trash talk didn’t stop after the game, and Sophie was consumed by negative comments on Twitter. Her best means of connection to fans had turned against her, and it was just too hard to look away from the bad stuff.

Lindsey took note and convinced Sophie to delete the Twitter application for a while. Then Lindsey went to work on another project. “There comes a point where enough is enough, and even the strongest people are gonna be hurt by that,” she says.

With the help of about 40 people in the Cunningham and Primus families, Lindsey secretly compiled a booklet of compliments for Sophie. Each of the 40 contributed a kind paragraph and accompanying photo. Lindsey had a clear message: “Unless it’s people in this book that are critiquing you, you don't need to worry about anything else outside of that.”

Coming from a family whose relationship with Sophie is largely shaped by sarcastic banter – roundly teasing her for that one-point game comes to mind – the genuine compliments were especially meaningful, and they made for an especially emotional recovery. Sophie’s contagious smile, the one Jim Marshall so warmly describes, had become a mask. After unplugging and receiving the pick-me-up, she was able to put the smile back on and mean it.

Senior season is days away and the smile is still there.

After practice, Sophie and her parents are watching the MU volleyball game together. Sophie fondly remembers her volleyball days, chats about preseason college hoops and tells Paula and Jim about plans to prepare with friends later that night for her final Homecoming the next day.

She and her parents joke about Paula’s on-call nights coming to rebound for Sophie at the arena. Dad used to do the same from time to time, but not so much anymore.

“Yeah, well Mom’s not working in the sun all day!” Jim retorts.

Half a dozen fans approach Sophie in her seat throughout the first two sets. They ask how she’s doing or crack a joke. Sophie doesn’t know everyone’s names, but she recognizes close to everyone and always laughs along. Soon, she’ll be sticking around after her own games to greet long lines of fans, sign autographs and snap selfies. The mayor of Columbia has stayed as long as 2 1/2 hours after games to make sure she gets to every waiting fan, because what is a public official if not accessible?

“The event staff, bless their hearts, I know they're just looking after her,” Lindsey says. “But they said, ‘Hey, we’ll cut the line off,’ and she’ll say, ‘No, its fine, go home early but I’m gonna stay and meet every last person.’”

This season also represents the last go-around for having those conversations. As the college season gets closer, it becomes harder for the family not to think about Sophie’s likely future in the WNBA. Paula says it’s inevitable because they have to learn the logistics of compliance and figuring out an agent. It makes the whole “staying present” mindset a little harder, but talking to fans is another way for Sophie to do that. At the very least, it takes her mind off all the “lasts.”

“The basketball team, the University of Missouri and the city of Columbia are going to lose their greatest ambassador,” Marshall says.

Sophie hopes that celebrity hasn’t changed her. Even if it has, there are some cardinal traits that she knows can’t go away: her good heart, for one, and her loyalty to the mid-Missouri community that cheered her on at MU, at Rock Bridge and in her driveway while shooting at a brick. Mizzou immortality is imminent.

“This blue-collar community, it represents us,” Sophie says. “We represent each other. I owe everything to them.”

Back at the volleyball game, Sophie lays her head on her father’s shoulder and hugs him. There’s still one set left, but her friends have arrived.

“I’m sorry,” Sophie says. “I have to go soon.”

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

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