This was three weeks after Gamecocks fans started calling her a “dirty” player during the Tigers’ home win over South Carolina. It was in the days following the game at South Carolina, when those same fans booed Cunningham every time she touched the ball, and Cunningham nearly got involved in a scuffle between the two teams that just added more fuel to the fire.
So Cunningham checked out her Twitter mentions. She saw some unpleasant sentiments directed at her. She also saw a legion of Missouri fans sticking up for her.
“I know people have my back,” Cunningham says. “I’m not going to back down from anyone, and I’m not going to change who I am just because one set of fans doesn’t like what I’m about. It’s just really awesome that this community has had my back.
“I don’t back down from people, and clearly this community doesn’t back down from people either.”
Cunningham has a unique relationship with the University of Missouri, the city of Columbia and the entire mid-Missouri region.
“I’m not going to back down from anyone, and I’m not going to change who I am just because one set of fans doesn’t like what I’m about. It’s just really awesome that this community has had my back.
She and her older sister, Lindsey — daughters of Jim and Paula, both University of Missouri grads — grew up on the family farm in Rocheport. Paula’s parents run a farm in Kingdom City. Jim and his brother own hunting land in Clarence-Shelbina that has been in the family for more than a century.
Sophie and Lindsey attended Columbia Catholic School and ran circles around all the other kids, boys included, in the Columbia youth leagues. They, along with Bri and Cierra Porter, started a four-year run of state championships at Rock Bridge High School. Then they came to Missouri and helped Coach Robin Pingeton take the women’s basketball program to new heights.
Lindsey finished her playing career last year and is now a graduate assistant coach. Sophie, in her junior year, is one of the top players in the nation on a team that can go toe-to-toe with the top teams in the country on any given day.
Sophie doesn’t technically own Mizzou Arena. She just rents out significant space in the hearts of the fans who fill it up to cheer her and the Tigers on.
“There are a lot of folks who don’t even know us, but they sort of claim (Sophie and Lindsey) as their own, which is perfectly fine,” Paula says. “It has really brought a lot of people together.”
Sophie knows that sort of adoration is a two-way street. She enjoys such passion and loyalty from her hometown fans because she has proven herself, time and again, to be a worthy vessel for others’ visions of glory.
Basically, the whole region — maybe even the whole state — is counting on her to bring about a women’s basketball renaissance at Mizzou.
Bring it on.
“My biggest thing is I don’t want to let the community down, or let my team down,” Cunningham says. “I know that I’ve put in the work, and I’m confident about who I am and what my team is all about. This is what I’ve asked for, what I’ve prayed about.
“And it’s here.”
All In The Family
The Missouri School of Law professor in section 105 was enjoying the first women’s basketball game he’d ever attended. The Tigers were cruising to an easy win over SEC foe Arkansas, and Cunningham was on her way to a 22-point night. She made a boneheaded play, and a fan sitting in front of the professor cried out, ‘Dangit, Sophie!’”
The professor felt that was a bit unfair and let the fan know that he should be more lenient with Cunningham.
It’s OK, the fan replied. That’s my daughter.
“Our group in 105, which is all family, if you screw up, they’ll let you know,” Jim says. “They’re not going to sugarcoat it.”
The various members of the clans Cunningham and Primus — Paula’s family — scatter themselves throughout an entire section during home games. They’re extremely supportive, but also speak their minds.
Take Missouri’s recent home loss to second-ranked Mississippi State, in which Sophie hit the game-tying three-pointer with 12 seconds left to play, before the Bulldogs closed it out in the final seconds.
When Sophie went up to visit with her family after the game, consensus seemed to be that the three-pointer was pretty spectacular… but she had to do something to make up for that awful turnover 20
“That’s who makes us who we are — our family,” Sophie says with a laugh. “They tell you the truth. It keeps you humble.”
They’re allowed to be hard on each other because the entire family is so close.
Paula’s sister, Stacey (Primus) Hoffman, lives in Kansas City and comes in for games when she can. Jim’s brother, John, lives a little farther away in Arizona, but he texts Jim throughout the games. He told Jim he was about to throw a glass through the television during the South Carolina skirmish.
Sophie and Lindsey would help their grandparents with the corn and soybean harvests growing up. They learned to drive out in the pasture in Kingdom City, sitting in the driver’s seat of the old Lincoln with their grandfather Paul, and maneuvering between hay bales.
They were avid horseback riders and, even though they don’t get the chance to ride as much as they used to, they still get the itch. They have a donkey, too, but haven’t gotten to ride it yet. Paula’s still
trying to break it in.
Sophie’s family members also know they can be hard on her because she can take it. She comes from an athletically gifted lineage, a group that knows the triumphs and pressures that come with the territory.
Paula threw the javelin for the Missouri track team, and her sister, Stacey, was a four-year letter winner in basketball who played for the 1990 Big Eight title-winning Tigers team. Jim and John both played for the Missouri football team, as did their father.
Sophie still wears Stacey’s team sweater from back in her playing days. She also still brings sacks of laundry home for her parents to take care of. She credits who she is — hard-working, determined, humble,
outgoing — with how her parents, her family and her community brought her up.
“This is a community built on hardnosed, middle-class, tough people,” Lindsey says. “We’re not really a community that’s too fancy in what we do, but people that work hard. That’s displayed in how we play and carried through from how we were raised. We’ve worked our way to get where we are. I feel like, sports or not, people around us can relate to those basics.”
Playing To The Crowd
Sometimes, when she’s cruising around campus on her moped, Sophie feels like she’s in the middle of a music video. She’s got her earbuds in, the wind rushing through her hair, and everything is right with the world. Then someone will call out her name or wave to her. That makes things even better.
“I’ll honk my horn and make a big deal about it, try to embarrass people,” Sophie says. “I guess I’m intimidating to people, but I’m always like, ‘Come
say hi!’ and always give people hugs. I think people are starting to realize my personality.”
Sophie earned her current level of celebrity. Even though she was an elite prospect coming out of Rock Bridge High School — the first McDonald’s All-American to ever sign with the Missouri women’s basketball program — she didn’t have the same campus cachet that a men’s basketball player of her caliber would have.
That has changed.
“It’s not just younger kids who want their picture with me; it’s people my age,” Sophie says. “I’ve never really had that before.”
Jim and Paula can relate.
Anytime Paula meets somebody new, when it finally comes out that the Sophie Cunningham is her daughter, “Well then, all of a sudden, I’m extra special,” Paula says. Jim’s regular trips to the grocery store are starting to take twice as long now. Sophie’s injury scare, when her knee buckled against Alabama in late December and she had to miss the next game, lent even more urgency to the dairy aisle conversations.
“She’s fine,” Jim would reply. “My milk’s getting warm.”
It’s a fair tradeoff. The Cunninghams feel they have gained so much from their mid-Missouri upbringing, so it’s only fair that they be worthy representations of the places that made them.
Jim and Paula serve as satellite parents to some of the Tigers players who are far from home. Sophie and Lindsey serve as the tour guides, taking teammates on jaunts down to the McBaine bur oak tree, out to the Missouri River or to the Lake of the Ozarks.
In August, Sophie and several of her teammates took in the total solar eclipse from Katfish Katy’s in Huntsdale.
“We’re proud to be townies. We really are,” Lindsey says. “We wanted to stay home, put Mizzou on the map, get the community behind us. We can want that as much as we want, but this community is the type to come out and support. We’ve been so blessed by the people that have come out night after night and continued to support us with everything they have.”
Where The Heart Is
A family drove three hours south to Mizzou Arena on a Thursday night for the Tigers’ game against Mississippi State. The mom emailed Lindsey beforehand to see if they could set up an autograph session and meet-and-greet for their kids with Sophie and some of her teammates afterward.
So, not long after a gut-wrenching, hard-fought loss against a top-five team, Sophie and Lindsey helped make someone’s night.
“She [the mom] sent Lindsey another email saying, ‘Thank you for being such role models for our children. And please thank your parents for raising such awesome kids,’” Paula says. “I think people
are really looking for good things to grasp onto. Things that make them feel good. These girls just give folks something to be proud of.”
Sophie can’t stand to leave an autograph unsigned, a hand unshaken. She still remembers when she was the seeker.
“I’m always going to be very happy and humble that fans want to meet me, want my picture and want my autograph,” Sophie says. “That was me and Lindsey when we were younger. They would come out, there would be long lines, sometimes we were the last ones. As long as there are people there, I’m going to stay there and get the very last one.”
Sophie doesn’t know exactly what the next few years will hold, but her aspirations will inevitably take her away from Columbia. She wants to play in the WNBA. She wants to play overseas, possibly in China, Russia or Spain. She wants to put her gift of gab to good use as a broadcaster on ESPN.
She will have to go away in order to accomplish those things. “This is my home, my family,” Sophie says. “I don’t want to leave, but I have to in order to accomplish my dreams. I do want to make my way back here. I’ll probably be taking over the family farm,” she adds with a laugh.
For starters, she wants to win an SEC championship. Two, actually. She wants the Tigers, who have made the second round of the past two NCAA Tournaments, to advance deeper. Maybe to the Elite Eight, or the Final Four.
Or, you know, maybe win a national championship while they’re at it. They already beat defending champion South Carolina and took defending runner-up Mississippi State down to the wire this year. So why not?
Her family has seen a switch flip in Sophie. She’s always been vocal, but now she uses her voice to lead. She’s always been scrappy and competitive and, as the years go by, she learns how to channel those traits in more constructive ways for her team.
Jim says that when he was a junior in college, he wouldn’t have had the presence of mind to walk away from a scrum like Sophie did against South Carolina. She didn’t want to, but she remembered the name of the front of her jersey signifies her team, her school, her town.
The name on the back signifies her family.
“The growth off the court, her decision-making, she’s matured in that way,” Lindsey says. “She’s not afraid to have tough conversations that she knows are going to make either the team better or her relationship with that person better. Her ability to be more mature, it’s a great thing. We’ve waited how long for this, people?”
Sophie Cunningham’s moment has been years in the making. And it couldn’t have happened anywhere else.
“Our family is loud, crazy, big, obnoxious… everything in the book you can think of,” Sophie says. “But our town has really embraced our family. I know we can’t thank them enough.”