Former Tiger Sophie Cunningham discusses life in the WNBA

After finishing her college career earlier this year as Missouri’s all-time leading scorer, Cunningham was selected in the second round of the WNBA Draft by the Phoenix Mercury.
Missouri's Sophie Cunningham was drafted in the second round of the WNBA Draft on Wednesday, April 10 by the Phoenix Mercury as the No. 13 overall pick. Zach Bland/Mizzou Athletics

It can be a bit surprising at first to see Sophie Cunningham in her Phoenix Mercury uniform.

The Columbia native, who spent her entire upbringing surrounded by black and gold, now sports the purple and orange of her WNBA team over 1,000 miles from mid-Missouri. The number beneath her name is a nine, replacing the three she wore for four record-breaking years at Mizzou Arena.

But as you look closer, some telltale signs that this is the same Sophie Cunningham start to emerge. Her shorts are still rolled up her thighs in her signature style. She still plays with the tenacity and toughness that helped her stand out as a Missouri Tiger, and still draws all kinds of attention for it.

On July 30 in Washington, D.C., Cunningham made her third professional start as the Mercury visited the Washington Mystics. Within the opening minutes of the game, she had Mystics coach Mike Thibault— not to mention a fan or two seated near the press section— imploring the referee to call a foul against her.

This is nothing new for Cunningham, whose reputation in college often revolved around her physicality. As she adjusts to her new role as a WNBA rookie, it has probably been the first part of her game to make the leap from college to the pros.

“That's just who I am, is to do those hustle plays,” Cunningham said. “And I always pride myself on that, and so I promise you [until] the day that I stop playing, I'm going to be doing those.”

From do-it-all star to depth asset

Cunningham is remembered at Missouri for her leadership and her record-setting performances on the court, but both of those qualities are taking some time to translate to the WNBA level. After leaving Missouri as the women’s basketball program’s all-time leading scorer and the unquestioned leader of the team on and off the court, Cunningham was averaging a more pedestrian 3.4 points in 12.7 minutes per game for the Mercury as of August 5.

The step up from college to the WNBA was clear as soon as Cunningham arrived to training camp in May. The lifelong athlete told the Arizona Republic that it was the first time she had ever had to worry about making the roster of a sports team.

“It's competitive, it's hard,” Cunningham said in Washington of her training camp experience. “You have the top level in the whole world, but I think we just have some great [veterans] to kind of help you calm down and help you just remember you're at this level for a reason.”

Among those Mercury veterans is Diana Taurasi, a nine-time WNBA All-Star and living legend who has been sidelined most of this year by a preseason back injury. She is the longtime occupant of Phoenix’s No. 3 jersey and the reason Cunningham had to find a new number upon joining the team, but the similarities don’t end there. Comparisons have been drawn between the pair for their work rate and the intensity with which they approach the game.

Cunningham and the Mercury have yet to benefit from Taurasi’s presence on the court this season, apart from a brief appearance in a July 12 game in which she aggravated the injury. But Cunningham has been able to learn from Taurasi’s wealth of talent and experience nonetheless.

“She's the most intelligent person I've been around who knows the game, and she just sees things differently,” Cunningham said. “To be around her, I'm trying to be a sponge, soak it all up and rely on her to help me out.”

Statistically, Cunningham’s start to her rookie season was a slow one. She had more personal fouls than points over her first six games. Though she started to heat up in late June and into July, dropping 19 points in a win over the Indiana Fever on June 28 and earning her first start a week later against the New York Liberty.

Over the past month, Cunningham’s performances have been inconsistent at best. Scoreless with four fouls at Minnesota on July 14. A 10-point outburst to go with four rebounds against Indiana on July 23, when she made her second career start. No points and three fouls in 11 minutes on July 30 in Washington.

“When I'm out there, I try to do the little things, but it's not going to be awesome 24/7,” Cunningham said. “Like tonight I had a rough game, but I'm going to bounce back. This is a quick season, there's a lot of games, so you’ve got to bounce back quick.”

Old friends in new places

It can be daunting at times to go from being the face of a college program to just another rookie contributor on an experienced professional team, but Cunningham has embraced the grind and hopes it will allow her to continue to improve.

“I'm just trying to do whatever the team needs for me to do, and if I keep working hard, eventually I'll get there,” she said. “It is hard to be up there and then come all the way back down, but that's what I'm about. I work hard and I try to outwork work my opponents, so if I keep putting in the work, then eventually it will show.”

Part of the adjustment to WNBA life has come away from the court. Cunningham is known for her strong ties with her family back in Columbia, Mo. where her parents and relatives, many of them former Missouri athletes themselves, were a fixture at Missouri women’s basketball games. The Cunninghams have done everything they can to follow Sophie’s professional career remotely as well as in person.

Cunningham has had family members in attendance for WNBA road games in Minnesota, Indiana and Chicago, not to mention a number of her home games in Phoenix. A group of a dozen friends and family, including former Missouri men’s basketball player Jordan Geist, made the trip to Arizona for Sophie’s first-ever start on July 5.

With the second half of her rookie season in full swing, Sophie now has a piece of home nearby to help her along. Her older sister Lindsey, a former teammate of hers at Missouri, moved to Phoenix this summer and will join Sophie when she heads to play in Australia after the WNBA season ends. She made sure to bring along one of the family’s five dogs as well.

“That's been really nice just to, after your practice, come home to someone who is home,” Sophie Cunningham said. “We're going to have a fun year together.”

It is common for WNBA players to supplement their salaries by playing internationally over the winter. Sophie will be the latest to jump on the trend when she takes her talents to the Melbourne Boomers of Australia’s Women’s National Basketball League.

“Being away from home for the first time, I didn't want to go somewhere that would be so isolated,” Cunningham said. “I wanted something that was very Americanized, for a first easy year transition.”

Cunningham’s comment alarmed Alanna Smith, another Mercury rookie who hails from Australia. Sitting two spots away in the visitors’ locker room in Washington, she playfully took issue with Sophie’s assessment of life in her home country. But Sophie insisted that Australia offered an easier lifestyle transition than some of her other options.

“Compared to South Korea and Russia, you're very Americanized,” Cunningham told Smith. “I think this is my first year to get it under my belt. I thought that would be the best option for me.”

Locker room banter aside, Sophie acknowledges she has bonded well with both Smith and fellow rookie Brianna Turner. Together, the three first-year players make up a quarter of the Mercury’s active roster.

“We're the most rookies they've had in all of their history as the Phoenix Mercury,” Cunningham said. “It's been nice to have two others to kind of go on the journey with you.”

Once the WNBA season ends, Sophie will face a quick turnaround to get settled in Melbourne to join the Boomers. The WNBL preseason will be in full swing by the time the Mercury wraps up, and the Boomers’ regular season will start on October 12, just two days after the last possible date of the WNBA Finals.

This begs the question of how Cunningham will adjust to what essentially amounts to playing three consecutive seasons without rest. Sophie regularly played through nagging injuries at Missouri, and had just over a month after the Tigers’ NCAA Tournament elimination to go through the WNBA Draft and prepare for training camp. She missed two Mercury games in June with what was cited as a back ailment.

“This is the best year [for me] to actually go into the WNBA because I felt my healthiest and I still feel really good,” Cunningham said. “There's some things, you're never 100%, but I'm keeping up with it and I'm hanging in there.”

Tacking on the four-month Australian season will put Sophie at well over a year of basketball without an extended break, but she sees it as more of a necessary process, even a blessing, while she continues to develop as a young player.

“I think I have one of the coolest jobs in the whole world, to go out there and play basketball for a living, and getting paid to travel the world,” Cunningham said. “I get three or four months off [after the WNBL] before I have to head back out to Phoenix, so I know I'll have my time to relax, but for now I'm going to bust my butt to make a name for myself.”

Sophie loves talking about working hard almost as much as she loves actually working hard. It all comes back to her roots and the community she feels she is representing wherever she goes.

“Not just Columbia,” Cunningham said when asked about the area she stands for. “Just all of Missouri. A lot of kids don't get to be where I'm at when you're from there. I feel like I'm representing a lot of people, but I think it's so much fun. I love it. I'm just representing a blue collar and hardworking community, so I'm proud of it.”

With all that in mind, the answer to one final question seems obvious. Will the woman once known as the Mayor of Columbia be seen at Mizzou Arena this coming year?

“Oh yeah,” Cunningham said. “When I come back, I'll be there and you guys will know I'm there.”

Edited by Emily Leiker | eleiker@themaneater.com

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