Belly up to this Book: an Interview with Carson Cunningham

Jon Teitel interviewed basketball player Carson Cunningham, the author of “Underbelly Hoops”. The book is a memoir about Carson’s days playing college basketball at Oregon State & Purdue and professional basketball in the Continental Basketball Association as well as overseas.

Any true basketball fan will appreciate the stories in Carson Cunningham’s “Underbelly Hoops”.  As a college basketball fan, I enjoyed the sections on Carson’s college years at Oregon State and Purdue the most, especially his trips to the NCAA tournament.  He was immersed in the sport from an early age while growing up in Hoosier country, and his love for the game leaps right off the pages.

Prior to reading this book I did not know much about the CBA besides the occasional success stories who eventually made it to the NBA (Anthony Mason, John Starks) as well as the Isiah Thomas fiasco.  While you will not end up liking all the colorful characters, I definitely got a kick out of coaches like Chris Daleo (who runs an offense consisting of three plays) and players like Teddy Dupay (who went from Billy Donovan’s first recruit at Florida to blowing out a knee with the Rockford Lightning only a few years later).

Carson never made it to the NBA, but his book shows that dreams can come true when you can get paid to put a ball through a hoop.

Why did you choose a book title of “Underbelly Hoops”?
In a textbook that I have used to teach modern US history there is a section about the “underbelly” of the Roaring Twenties. It covers some of the grittier, less glitzy parts of the Twenties. Compared to the NBA, I thought this would also work for a book on the CBA.

You wore #43 in honor of your family friend Paul Rossetti who was murdered during a gang initiation.  What impact did he have on your life prior to his tragic death?
Paul was really good friends with my brother. They captained their high school hoops team as seniors, which is a big deal in the state of Indiana. Paul was kind, loved hoops, could jump out of the gym, and took the time to play basketball with me. To me he was one of those high school athletes we all look up to at some point in our lives.

You began your college career at Oregon State, where you set the school’s freshman scoring record (403 points) and were named a 1997 Freshman All-American.  How were you able to come in and be so successful so quickly?
As I mention in the book, I played a TON of hoops growing up. Time spent practicing with that basketball trinity (ball/man/hoop) was the key.

You later transferred to Purdue where you played for legendary coach Gene Keady.  Why did you decide to leave the Beavers, and what made Keady such a great coach?
I let the losing get to me: I could have been a better leader. Coach Keady had a great ability to stamp his feisty personality directly onto his ball clubs.

What are your memories of the 1999 NCAA tourney (Cameron Stephens scored 4 points, including a game-winning jumper with 4.8 seconds left in a four-point win over Texas)?
Getting to the Sweet 16 was awesome. Not many people predicted that we would make it out of Boston alive, but we fashioned a Boilermaker beauty to get it done!

Take me through the 2000 NCAA tourney:
Our 2000 run to the Elite 8 was exhilarating. During the week after winning the 1st two rounds of the tourney, the air seems a little lighter and the sun feels a little brighter. Instead of trudging to class you kind of bounce right along: you can feel spring coming.

You had eight points and seven assists in a four point win over #3-seed Oklahoma: how were you able to hang on to pull off the big upset?
We just scrapped and clawed and went for it. Late in the game I threw an alley-oop to Greg McQuay, a forward who I played AAU ball with and who I roomed with on the road. I still cherish that play to this day.

You scored 13 points in a four-point loss to Wisconsin (your third loss to the Badgers in a two-month span): how does facing a conference rival in March compare to playing a team who you have never seen before?
Losing that game was painful: I think it was even more painful because we had beaten the Badgers earlier that season. Do not ever bring up that Elite 8 loss again: just kidding!

In the 2001 NIT you had 22 points and eight assists in a win over Illinois State despite 38 points from Tarise Bryson.  How were you able to turn it around after losing 11 of your last 15 entering that game?
Two of our key players (Rodney Smith/John Allison) each broke a foot in back-to-back games midway through the season. We were something like 13-5 at the time and then struggled for several weeks without them, but made a nice run in the NIT because Rodney was back by then.

You scored 12 points and made two free throws with 14.6 seconds left in the first overtime in an eight point, two overtime loss to eventual runner-up Alabama.  What is your secret for free throw shooting, and is it even possible to have a more devastating loss to end a college career?
The “Valparaiso Method” was taught to me as a youngster. Virgil Sweet/Skip Collins (two shot-doctors extraordinaire in Valparaiso, IN) were proponents of the method. One crazy stat: Valparaiso high school led the state in free throw percentage during the decade of the 1980’s, while Valparaiso University led all of division one in free throw percentage during the same decade! Both schools used “the Method”. The gist of it, in addition to having solid form, is to limit your movement to decrease the chance of error.

You were a two-time Academic All-American: how were you able to balance your academics with your athletics?
I have always enjoyed learning about the past and reading and writing. I woke up early and had great professors.

Why did you decide to join the CBA?
Coming out of Purdue, the Gary Steelheads (located near my hometown) offered me some attractive contract terms, and playing in northern Indiana allowed me to continue my PhD coursework in US history at Purdue.

Your coach in Rockford (Chris “Dales” Daleo) only ran three plays, yet was named 2003 CBA Coach of the Year in his 1st year on the sideline because your team averaged about 130 points per game.  How were you able to have such a potent offense despite such a small playbook?
No other teams ran and trapped and played as fast as we did, and we did it all game long. Players tend to like that, and I think it also made us more fit.

One of your most famous CBA teammates was Keith “Boss” Closs: how dominant was the 7’3” center, and how did you like playing with a guy who made over $6 million while playing for the Clippers?
On some nights in the CBA, Closs turned in performances (roughly 15 blocks by my count) that made you think he could have set NBA records.

You also played in Europe and Australia: what did you learn from these experiences, and how did they compare to the CBA?
The talent in the CBA was much higher. Still, it was very cool to get an opportunity to live in Australia and Estonia while getting paid to play hoops.

You later went on a basketball tour of China.  How big is basketball in China, and do you think we will see a lot of Chinese players in the NBA in the decades ahead?
The Chinese seem to have a real love for hoops, especially its speed and improvisational nature. I think the sport fits the times for China in a lot of ways.

You currently teach history at DePaul (where you are also studying for your MBA) and coach a high school team in Indiana. Which job do you like more, and what do you hope to do in the future?
I love teaching, coaching, and writing: in some way I hope to be doing all three for the rest of my life.


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