When Larry Brown took over Southern Methodist University’s men’s basketball program in 2012, he became transfixed by a player on the roster who could do it all.
Cannen Cunningham was 6 feet 10, but his game wasn’t pigeonholed by his size. He could pass, shoot, handle the ball and had a high basketball IQ. Brown believed Cunningham, the all-time leader in games played at SMU, was talented enough to play in the NBA. Cannen had other plans.
“I remember one day, I said ‘Cannen, if you ever took this game as seriously as some of the guys that are playing in the NBA, you’d have an unbelievable NBA career,’” Brown, now a Memphis assistant, told the Free Press on Friday. “‘There’s really nothing you can’t do. How many coaches have told you that?’ And he said ‘Coach, about 100.’”
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Cannen, a former three-star recruit, loves basketball. But he didn’t love playing it. He dabbled in multiple sports growing up, but decided to stick with basketball before his sophomore year of high school when it became apparent that he would be nearly 7-feet tall. He jokes he was the big man “everyone hates,” as he preferred playing like a perimeter player.
It was a different story for Cannen’s younger brother — and the Detroit Pistons’ recent No. 1 pick — Cade Cunningham. While Cannen was on the court during home games, Cade, then a middle-schooler, was in the practice facility next door, playing against the younger relatives of Cannen’s teammates.
Cannen’s true calling was in coaching. Their dad, Keith, coached Cade’s YMCA basketball team when Cade was 5. Cannen, 13 or 14 at the time, was Keith’s assistant. From that point on, Cannen knew his path. After he graduated from SMU in 2015, he briefly played basketball overseas before returning home to coach Cade’s age-16 EYBL squad. Before Cade officially declared to attend Oklahoma State, the school hired Cannen as an assistant coach.
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“His older brother Cannen, heavy, heavy influence in his life,” Oklahoma State head coach Mike Boynton said. “Played basketball at a pretty high level, had a cup of coffee overseas. But then became pretty intentional about player development. And Cade was his pet project.”
No two people are more responsible for Cade’s development than Cannen and their older cousin, Ashton Bennings. Cade was already one of the best wing players in the country by the end of his sophomore year. But it was Cannen who decided to make Cade a point guard going into his junior season. While coaching Cade’s AAU team, he ran pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll so Cade could learn every defensive coverage. If Cade made a mistake, he got benched.
It was frustrating for Cade, and he and Bennings initially didn’t understand the rationale. But Cannen’s tough love approach paid off. Cade transferred to Monteverde Academy in Florida before his senior season, and became the top player in his class. After a strong freshman season running the show at Oklahoma State, the Pistons selected him first overall in July.
“Cannen, he was playing chess,” Bennings said. “He was playing chess and at the same time with us being a circle and all that, we all trust each other. It may not make sense at first, we have conversations about it, but once it all makes sense, we sit down and talk about it, we roll with it and we don’t go back.
“When Cannen speaks, Cade listens. Same thing for me. When Cannen speaks, I listen, because when he speaks, we’re not only just listening, we’re learning from him because Cannen is very smart.”
Cannen considers Brown, the Hall of Fame coach who led the Pistons to their third championship in 2004, to be one of his greatest mentors. Cannen wasn’t a point guard, but under Brown, everyone learned how to be a point guard. The lessons he learned from Brown were many of the same lessons he’d later teach Cade.
“I was learning things as a 19-, 20-, 21-year-old that I had never heard before in my whole basketball career,” Cannen said. “And then I’d just turn around and dump it into my 13-year-old brother and let him chew on it.”
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‘He cares about who wins’
At SMU, Brown — who coached great guards in Allen Iverson and Chauncey Billups in the NBA — didn’t teach position basketball. Everyone did a little bit of everything, because everyone has a greater appreciation for the challenges their teammates face if they experience every role on the floor.
“I had the big guys doing what little guys do, and little guys doing what big people do because the game has changed so much,” Brown said. “Everybody’s switching, so if you’re a perimeter guy, you’re gonna have to guard people on the post. If you’re a big guy, you’re going to have to guard people on the perimeter and learn how to keep people in front of you. A lot of big guys think they’re open all the time, and a guard looks at him and might not throw it in. They play out on the floor, they understand sometimes why a guard didn’t throw it in.”
After Matt Doherty was fired by SMU in 2012, Cannen’s first thought was to transfer. He had just completed his freshman season. His parents encouraged him to stay, given he had three years of eligibility left. It ended up being the right decision, for both parties.
“I gave it a shot and he just gave me a brand new perspective of the game,” Cannen said. “Just invaluable information. But I think what separates Coach Brown from a lot of coaches is just how close he is with his players. He can form an unbelievable bond with anybody just because you know he loves you.”
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“He’s a really good teacher,” Brown said of Cannen. “He’s really bright. There was nothing I could tell him that I didn’t feel like he already knew or was capable of going out and doing it. The relationship he has with his family and his brother is pretty amazing.”
Cade didn’t fully transition to being a primary playmaker until midway through high school, but he could always handle the ball. Cannen made sure of that. After playing for Brown, Cannen understood Cade’s ticket to success was to be able to run the offense full-time.
Like his big brother, Cade can do everything. During his lone season at Oklahoma State, he averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists while shooting 40% from 3. He’s an above-average defender, with the size (6-6) and length to defend multiple positions. But Cade processes the game faster than his opponents, and Cannen said he always has.
“He was a really good quarterback, and that’s a direct comparison between sports,” Cannen said. “I knew his skillset had to meet a certain standard, but he’s just uber-competitive and he can’t stand not being good at something. I knew just putting the challenge in front of him, that was our dynamic. It was just me putting a series of challenges in front of him and seeing if he could do it or not.
“I’m just extremely proud of him. I obviously reached a certain level as a player and my family was really proud of me, so I think a lot of people expected … it was just natural for Cade to break through that glass ceiling, and he did it with grace. His professionalism has really been incredible.”
Even as a child playing pick-up in SMU’s practice gym, Brown could see how much Cade loved basketball — and how talented he was. He never got the chance to coach Cade directly, but he has long been a big fan of Cade’s game and is pleased his NBA opportunity is with the Pistons.
“He doesn’t care who scores the ball,” Brown said of Cade. “He cares about who wins. He wants to make everybody better every time he steps out on the court. That’s never changed. Cannen used to talk to me about it every time, about his character, his love for the game, his appreciation for playing the right way. You could look at the draft, a lot of people can make the case for a lot of guys going No. 1. I think so many of the intangibles that Cade had kind of put him over the top.”
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A great opportunity
Cade declared for the draft on April 1. A week later, Cannen’s time at Oklahoma State also came to an end.
Cannen loves coaching, but priority No. 1 is him continuing to manage his younger brother’s career. He’s still living in Stillwater, Oklahoma, but is planning to move to Detroit this winter.
The thought of dealing with a cold weather is intimidating, but Cannen believes Detroit is a great landing spot. Beyond the reception the city has given the Cunninghams, Cannen is encouraged Dwane Casey, a veteran head coach, is in charge.
“The fan love has been absolutely amazing,” Cannen said. “Just the embrace of the city has been unbelievable. The more I’ve learned about the city, the more excited I’ve been to come and live here. I think the city and the team equally have positive momentum right now. It’s a great time to buy stock.”
Contact Omari Sankofa II at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.