By BEN JOHNSON
Measuring in at 5 feet, 10 inches tall, he towered over most eighth graders.
Height has never been an issue for Dalton Cunningham. Until it became a concern.
“My eighth-grade into freshman year, I probably grew four inches in a year,” Cunningham said, “and my muscles didn’t catch up with my bones, with how fast they were growing. I was extremely weak.”
Suddenly, a trait that allowed Cunningham to have an advantage was a hindrance. That set in motion a difficult period of Cunningham’s basketball career — and more importantly, life.
“I had to have two knee surgeries,” Cunningham said. “...I had an OCD (Osteochondritis Dessicans) lesion on my right knee. They took out a piece of bone in my right knee, too.”
All that came after Cunningham had missed his eighth-grade season on the hardwood. And post-surgeries, Cunningham’s freshman year was a work in progress.
“I got to play, but I wasn’t strong at all,” Cunningham said. “It hurt really bad.”
As Cunningham’s coach, it was excruciating for Mike Leafgreen to watch one of his players labor through so much pain on a regular basis.
“It was tough last year, because he came in during the summer and we could see how well he saw the floor and handle the basketball,” Leafgreen said. “So, wanting to throw him in right away was, of course, what we wanted to do.
“He had a setback in July and again after practice started, so it wasn’t until after the Duncan tournament that he started playing a lot. He played JV and a little bit of varsity, but after that is when he got his feet wet.”
Turns out, Cunningham’s brief stints during varsity games last season were a huge learning experience.
“It helped me a lot,” said Cunningham, who, as a sophomore, now stands 6 feet, 5 inches tall with a lanky wingspan. “I was really nervous when I got to go in, and now I think that got me over the hump a little bit for this year.”
The proof is in the numbers. Through 17 games this season, Cunningham is averaging 11.4 points per contest.
“We’re definitely a different team with (Cunningham),” Leafgreen said. “It’d be a lot harder to score if he wasn’t out there for us.”
Cunningham provided some modest scoring efforts early on this season, but in four of the Tahlequah’s last five games he has recorded 14 or more points, including a 21-point effort at Claremore on Jan. 15.
“At the beginning of the year, I was struggling,” Cunningham said. “Now, I’m starting to do a lot better lately. I don’t know, it just happens.”
With Cunningham’s steady offensive production, the Tigers will look to improve on their 5-12 overall mark and their 2-5 Metro Lakes Conference record. That all starts tonight in a league showdown at Coweta.
It’s coming after Tahlequah posted a season-high scoring effort in a 78-60 victory over Northwest Classen at the John Nobles Invitational Tournament in Moore.
“That was probably the best offensive game we’ve had all year,” Cunningham said. “I just hope it carries on (to Tuesday) because we’re going to need it.”
Cunningham and Leafgreen both agreed the Tigers need to focus in on two areas if they’re going to be successful going forward: defense and rebounding.
“Defense is going to be what carries us,” said Leafgreen, whose club will be taking on a Coweta team that is ranked fifth in Class 5A and owns a 14-3 overall mark and an unblemished record (7-0) in conference action.
“We have to defend the ball better, and we have to rebound, especially.”
As for Cunningham, his knee pain is a distant memory.
“I’m fine with it now,” he said. “I just have to get them stronger in the offseason.”