Remembering a Chaffee legend

Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Steve Cunningham graduated from Chaffee High School in 1962.

The small community of Chaffee, Mo., has not been noted for turning out big-time basketball players over the years.

Steve Cunningham was an exception.

"He was something," said Charlie Vickery, the current Chaffee football coach who grew up in the town and idolized Cunningham as a youngster. "As far as I'm concerned, he went farther than anybody I ever heard of [from Chaffee]."

Cunningham died unexpectedly at age 68 on Oct. 1 in Alba, Texas, leaving behind the legacy of a basketball career that took him from Western Kentucky to a sixth-round selection in the NBA draft.

A memorial service will be held from 3 to 8 p.m. Saturday at Amick-Burnett Funeral Chapel in Chaffee. A celebration of life service will take place at 6 p.m. at the chapel.

It all started at Chaffee High School, where the 6-foot-5 center averaged 22.6 points per game as a junior and 27.8 as a senior in 1961-62.

"I was eight years behind him [in school]. He was my hero," Vickery said. "His mom and my mom were really good friends. My dad worked on the railroad and he was gone a lot so I caught a ride with them [Chaffee's basketball team] on the bus to all the games.

"I was 10 at the time and to get to go with them to the games, to listen to all their conversations ... he was a great player and a great guy. When I heard he passed away, I was kind of stunned."

Vickery said Cunningham was an impressive all-around athlete who played football as a high school senior and later also played baseball in college.

"He was a big, strong guy, but he was really agile," Vickery said. "He was a really good shooter. He had a great touch."

Former Chaffee football coach Mick Wessel, who like Vickery grew up in the town, was an eighth-grader when Cunningham was a senior. He was already going with Cunningham's sister Linda, also an eighth-grader who would become Wessel's wife.

The Wessels remember Chaffee basketball games as the place to be when Cunningham led the Red Devils to records of 24-4 as a sophomore, 16-4 as a junior and 20-3 as a senior.

"It was kind of neat, going with his sister, being the basketball star he was. A lot of people went to the games," Mick Wessel said. "Steve was very agile. He shot the baby hook shot, left and right. He had the drop step, he would shoot the 15-footer. He was very smooth around the basket.

"And he was a really good baseball player. He hit a 450-foot home run in college. He was also in the top three in his class academically [at Chaffee]."

Said Linda Wessel: "We were just kids when he was doing this stuff in high school. It was something. At the time it was great, but you didn't really realize all he did until you look back on it. After Steve died, a lot of people went on Facebook and talked about remembering him. A lot of kids coming up, he was their idol."

After concluding his prolific high school basketball career, Cunningham was recruited by the likes of Missouri, SMU, Memphis State and Murray State, among others. He opted to attend Western Kentucky to play for legendary coach Ed Diddle, who won 759 games and is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Diddle coached Cunningham for two years before resigning in poor health. He was replaced by John Oldham, who many years later said Cunningham was one of the smartest players he ever coached.

The 1964-65 Hilltopper team went 18-9 and garnered an invitation to the then-prestigious NIT in New York City. The Hilltoppers won their first-round game against Fordham 57-53 before losing to Army -- coached by a young Bobby Knight -- 58-54.

But it was the 1965-66 squad that made history, finding its way into Western Kentucky and national lore.

The starting five included first-team All-American Clem "The Gem" Haskins, who was a first-round draft choice of the Chicago Bulls (the No. 3 ovrall pick); Dwight Smith, a second-round pick of the Los Angeles Lakers; Cunningham, a sixth-round pick (56th overall) of the Cincinnati Royals; Wayne Chapman, a first-round choice of the ABA Kentucky Colonels; and Greg Smith, who played with the 1971 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks.

Western, after rolling through the Ohio Valley Conference with a 14-0 record as Cunningham made first-team all-OVC, entered the 1966 NCAA tournament with a 23-2 mark but was unranked.

"Steve was the shortest center in the OVC," Mick Wessel said. "That team reminded me of Missouri last year. Their tallest player was about 6-5. They could all shoot, jump and run."

The Hilltoppers pulled off a 108-86 first-round upset of fourth-ranked Loyola (Ill.), the 1963 NCAA champion. Next it was on to face All-American Cazzie Russel and Michigan in the regional final in Iowa City, Iowa.

That game became one of the most infamous in NCAA history as, according to newspaper reports, a phantom call cost Western a chance to take on Adolph Rupp's Kentucky Wildcats -- Rupp's Runts -- in the Elite Eight.

Western lost to Michigan 80-79 when referee Steve Honzo called a foul on Greg Smith during a jump ball with 11 seconds left, giving the Wolverines two free throws. Russell made both. One writer called the foul the "worst call of the year." Cunningham scored a game-high 24 points in the defeat.

The Hilltoppers rebounded to beat Dayton 82-68 in the regional consolation game and finished 25-3.

"Everybody said that was just a horrible call at the end of the Michigan game," Mick Wessel said. "To make matters worse, after the game, all the [Western] players' personal items were stolen from their locker room."

Cunningham played in two college All-Star games and then attempted to make the Cincinnati Royals, led by the legendary Oscar Robertson. Cunningham survived several cuts but ultimately injured an ankle.

The Royals wanted to keep Cunningham and send him to the Eastern League, akin to the minor leagues in baseball, to develop but he opted to take a coaching job.

Cunningham went 54-28 in four seasons at Union County High School in Morganfield, Ky., before leaving the coaching ranks. He worked in medical sales in Mississippi for 10 years before moving to Texas, where he worked for a diagnostic company until his retirement in 2005.

Cunningham is gone but, Mick Wessel said, he certainly won't be forgotten.

"When I called Clem Haskins and told him [about Cunningham's death], he said ‘Oh no. He was like a brother. What a great guy,'" Wessel said. "I think everybody felt that way."

Steve Duniphan contributed to this story.

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