There’s cool, and then there’s coooool, and then there’s cool. Cade Cunningham exudes all three, but especially the last.
Derek Jeter cool. Miles Davis cool. Sidney Poitier cool. Marvin Gaye cool.
Middle-aged fella dancing by himself on the sidewalk to an internal soundtrack cool, like the gentleman unbothered by the world’s side-eye who I spotted while driving down the Boulevard on Thursday evening, a 3-pointer away from Detroit Northwestern High School, a few blocks from the Motown Museum.
Cunningham hears his own soundtrack, too. He may even inspire his own spotlight. An aura, if you will, which was easy to spot Friday at the Pistons’ practice facility. He sat in the middle of the dais, with his coach, general manager and team owner to his right and his fellow draft picks — Isaiah Livers, Luka Garza, Balsa Koprivica — to his left.
He wore black pants and a turtleneck, tucked under a slim black jacket. And while he didn’t don the Buffs, as he’d done the previous night in New York, the wattage reflecting off him was still noticeable. Maybe it was the black and white sneakers he sported. (Or “kicks,” as typed then deleted — that term may be outdated, and I’m not cool enough to use it anyway, so why bother trying).
But trying to be anything isn’t cool. Being yourself is a route to cool. That’s important to remember even if people keep bringing up others when they discuss you. Say, Larry Bird, or Grant Hill. Those NBA greats kept coming up this week when explaining Cunningham’s rise to the No. 1 pick, thanks to a few similarities.
But Cunningham was cool when asked about them, and some other stars folks want him to be. He offered humility. But he didn’t gush. Because gushing isn’t cool.
His coach, Dwane Casey, captured Cunningham’s cool this way:
“Whatever it is, he has it.”
That “it,” that cool on the court and off, is why he was taken No. 1 Thursday night.
Call it “Detroit swag,” which is to say, swag on a perpetually low-key level. It’s been a while since an athlete here had it, at least to this degree.
Chauncey Billups possessed a different kind of cool, the kind you’d expect from someone nicknamed “Mr. Big Shot” with his fifth NBA team. Darius Slay had his own cool, but couldn’t ever keep it low-key.
Miguel Cabrera is cool walking from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box — but endearingly goofy just about everywhere else.
Barry Sanders was cool. Remains cool. But cool? He couldn’t quite tap into the vibe the way Cunningham already has.
As Pistons GM Troy Weaver said, the No. 1 pick is more Detroit than he realizes right now. Weaver described him as a “human connector” — that cool, that Detroit-ness is, in part, what he means.
Such cool requires self-belief, of course. Cunningham noted a few times late last week that he’d imagined himself in this spot for years. Perhaps that’s why he looked more relaxed than anyone else Friday afternoon (except for maybe Casey, who is also preternaturally cool).
“Can you believe he’s from Texas?” Casey asked, when talking about Cunningham’s sense of this place.
The coach wasn’t denigrating Texas. Cool can come from anywhere. Instead, he was surprised that a kid from the Dallas area could have such a handle on Detroit with just a few hours here. Because Detroit has its own vibe.
Cunningham understands this. It’s why he wanted to be here — his flow streams at the same frequency.
If he wants to stay at that frequency, he’ll still need to get better every year. And win. Do both, and he’ll get a lot of runway to navigate the NBA world.
Livers expects nothing less from his new teammate. When asked about him as a player, Cunningham’s cool came through.
“He doesn’t get sped up,” Livers said.
At all. Ever.
To Livers, this quality made him the top pick. Well, that and the way he carries himself.
“He doesn’t look down on anybody,” Livers added.
That humility was evident when he took an extra turn on the microphone Friday afternoon. He thanked Cydney Daly, the daughter of legendary Pistons coach, Chuck Daly, for giving her blessing for him to wear Daly’s retired No. 2.
A No. 2 jersey hangs inside the Pistons’ headquarters as an homage to her father and his back-to-back titles in Detroit.
“That means so much to me,” he said in his near baritone. “I know how much these numbers mean up there. I know that the people that came before me really built something special in Detroit and those legacies live on forever.”
Understanding history is cool, too, and Cunningham knows where he is. He knew for a while that he wanted to be here — in this place, in this moment —embracing his role as the face of this franchise, and hopefully as a face of this city.
That’s cool as well.
It’s been a while.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.