University of Kansas

KU basketball transfer Sam Cunliffe stays sane living with seven sisters

Sam Cunliffe
Sam Cunliffe

Sam Cunliffe doesn’t want anybody to get the wrong idea.

“I love all my sisters. I’m really close to them all,” he said.

Yet the former Arizona State basketball guard — the newest addition to Kansas’ team via transfer — knew several years ago he needed to take drastic measures in order to secure his sanity while living with his mom, Michele; his dad, Mike; and seven sisters in their cozy abode in Kent, Wash.

“I’ve got seven daughters and a wife. That’s eight women in the house,” Mike Cunliffe exclaimed, taking a deep breath before relating a story about Sam’s quest for peace and quiet.

“I come home from a track meet in 2012 … Sam is going into his freshman year of high school,” stated Cunliffe, coach of the Seattle Speed Track Club. “I’m coming up the hill. I can see my whole garage — power tools, lawnmower. Everything is in my driveway. I’m like, ‘Whose bad idea is this?’

“I open my garage door. We have a 10-man family camping tent set up in the garage, underneath it some extra carpet I didn’t install for padding. There’s three power cords piped into this thing. I open the tent and Sam’s entire bedroom is in there — dressers, Xbox, flatscreen TV, bed, the whole nine yards.

“I’m like, ‘What the heck are you doing, kid?’ He looks at me, this is the only thing he said: ‘Dad, I can’t take it any more.’ I just looked at him and said, ‘OK,’ ” Mike Cunliffe added with a laugh.

Fully aware of the challenges of being outnumbered by so many sisters, Mike allowed Sam to set up shop in the garage.

“I thought, ‘This will last maybe until December.’ We always get a little snap where it’s like 25 degrees. His (butt) will be in the house wanting a warm meal watching ESPN. It’s all coming back in,” Mike said of Sam’s belongings.

“He lived out there for four years,” Mike added.

What about those somewhat cold winter nights?

“When that cold snap hit, I got a text at about 8:30 (p.m.). I was coming home from coaching. All it said was, ‘Dad I need a heater. Can I have a heater?’ He got a heater. He stayed there until college,” Mike related.

Three of Sam’s sisters are older than him, including Hannah, a standout junior sprinter at the University of Oregon who was the 2016 Pac-12 women’s track and field athlete of the year.

“All the kids are athletes. We do sports,” Mike Cunliffe said, noting Chloe Cunliffe is a high school sophomore who is showing promise in the pole vault. Another of Sam’s sisters, Sophia, is a three-time long jump national medalist.

It should come as no surprise that Sam, a 6-foot-6 guard in basketball who averaged 9.5 points and 4.8 rebounds a game in 10 games at Arizona State, once competed in track, as well. He was a natural in the long jump and as a 10-year-old held the age group world record in that event with a leap of 16-10  3/4 .

“He really would have been a 25-foot long jumper in high school,” Mike Cunliffe said. “Probably with that kind of ability he would have been the top decathlete, one of the top three or four long jumpers in the country in high school.

“I had him at practice two years ago. I wanted him to show one of my athletes how to take off on the long-jump board. He hadn’t jumped since sixth grade. He did a  3/4 approach, jumped, took off and jumped 23-8. That was when he was 16, so that should give you an indicator.”

Sam Cunliffe remains fast.

“His sister runs a 10.9 (in the) 100 over at Oregon. He could probably beat her in a 100 right now cold,” Mike Cunliffe said.

Sam gave up his budding track career for basketball — a sport he’d discovered with some of his best buddies — in 2009 at the age of 12.

“His mom told him if he won the national (Junior Olympics) title she would go tooth and nail with me to make sure he could play basketball. He went out and won the national title. The only reason I think he went after it to win it was so he could play basketball,” Mike Cunliffe said with a laugh.

“I got the news on the way for a family vacation to Yellowstone Park that Sam was wanting to play basketball full time. My wife gave me the look like, ‘If you don’t go along with this you will sleep in the garage for a month.’

“He pulled it off. By eighth grade he was balling at a pretty high level. That was it. Full-time basketball ever since, although he comes back and trains with me, trains with long jumpers and triple jumpers on a regular basis for vertical development.”

Sam Cunliffe’s progression in hoops included a senior year at Seattle Rainier Beach High in which he averaged 21.6 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists for the state champs. The Seattle Times player of the year was recruited by California, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, Gonzaga, Utah, Colorado and others, and ultimately chose Arizona State to play for former Duke standout Bobby Hurley.

Now he will arrive at KU on Thursday to begin practicing as a Jayhawk.

According to NCAA rules, he would be eligible to play in games as a sophomore at the conclusion of first-semester classes in December.

“We’re coming into Kansas because we want to win a championship,” said Mike Cunliffe, who competed in track at Washington State. “Your expectations need to be grounded into reality. I think that’s reality. Look at the staff. Look at the kids. Look at everything. We’re going there to win and then individually we’re going there to develop.”

Mike Cunliffe said he was impressed with KU’s program.

“Coach (Andrea) Hudy and the weight room … I enjoyed my time with her,” he said. “I was very impressed with the facilities and the people. If you have facilities and not the people … I can make someone really fast. I can make a state champion without facilities. So it really comes down to the people. If you give high-quality coaches and people and the facilities, they just go to task.”

Mike Cunliffe noted that on his son’s recruiting trip last week, all of KU’s coaches as well as their wives showed up for dinner with the Cunliffes at 8:30 on a Monday night.

“Who does that?” Mike said.

“They made my wife feel right at home, made her feel comfortable about Sam going there, spent time with her. To me, the way I look at Kansas after visiting … what Eugene, Ore., and the University of Oregon is to track and field, Kansas is to basketball. There’s Eugene and there’s everybody else. There’s Kansas and there’s everybody else. It’s that simple. I don’t know another way to describe it.”

Gary Bedore: 816-234-4068, @garybedore

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