University of Missouri

Bring it on: Behind the scenes with Mizzou’s Sophie Cunningham at WNBA Draft in NYC

Sophie Cunningham on getting drafted by Phoenix

Former Missouri star Sophie Cunningham talks about being drafted by the Phoenix Mercury.
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Former Missouri star Sophie Cunningham talks about being drafted by the Phoenix Mercury.

Ten hours before she took the next step in her basketball career, Sophie Cunningham stood on the observation deck of the Empire State Building and looked out toward lower Manhattan. One World Trade Center stood in the distance, a crammed city bustled below her, and she wondered aloud which bridges connected to each of the city’s other boroughs.

Cunningham had been to New York before, but growing up in Columbia, Missouri doesn’t require one to know the difference between the F train or the D train or how an elevated parking lot works. On Wednesday, though, Cunningham took her first step away from the Missouri Tigers, and away from home.

The Phoenix Mercury selected Cunningham with the No. 13 pick of Wednesday’s WNBA Draft, officially beginning a professional basketball career that will finally take Cunningham away from the only place she’s ever really known as home.

A four-time state champion out of Columbia’s Rock Bridge High School, Cunningham now she heads 1,500 miles southwest. The former McDonald’s and AP All-American is used to being the most important player on every team she has ever been a part of, but in Arizona she will defer to two of the league’s stars, Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner.

“It’s good for me to get outside my comfort zone,” Cunningham told The Star. “A lot of people do that in college, and I chose differently.”

Cunningham’s parents, Jim and Paula, admitted before the draft that, although this moment was years in the making, they still felt anxious — not just about when their daughter would hear her name called, but about all that awaits ahead of her.

The Cunninghams have never had to part ways with Sophie, or her older sister Lindsey. And while their daughters were able to control most of their destiny through the years, Wednesday’s situation was out of their hands.

“It’s going to be an adjustment for our family,” Paula Cunningham said. “This is just the next step. We’ve thought about the future. You don’t know what’s going to happen. This isn’t in any of our control.”

Most female basketball players make the majority of their money during the WNBA’s offseason, when they join foreign teams. Cunningham will likely head to Europe, but she doesn’t currently have a passport. Her parents said they’re optimistic that she’ll adjust well in a foreign country, but they have typical concerns. Jim worries about his daughter’s safety. Paula wonders whether Sophie will be able to do her own laundry.

Sometimes their biggest fear, the parents said, is the unknown. The biggest adjustment Cunningham faces could be something neither of them had talked about while raising her.

But before her parents can really worry, Cunningham must crack the Mercury’s roster — not a given, even for a WNBA draft pick. And there are only 36 of those — three rounds, 12 teams — per year.

Three first round picks were actually released by the teams that drafted them in last year’s draft, which presents Cunningham with another new challenge: having to make a roster cut after years of being a headliner. The Mercury also drafted two other players in addition to Cunningham on Wednesday, giving her more competition to beat out.

“I’m going to own my role no matter what my role is,” Cunningham said.

The role will likely come with greater anonymity.

Cunningham was one of the most recognizable faces in Columbia, even earning a nickname: “The Mayor.”

“Even if she wasn’t at home, at the grocery store, she knew somebody,” Lindsey Cunningham said. “If she went out to dinner, she knew somebody. Missing home is going to be a thing and home means a lot of different things to her in Columbia. It’s going to be hard.”

Sophie Cunningham received her invite to the draft on Sunday, just days before Wednesday night’s prime-time broadcast, and her family quickly mobilized toward New York. She spent Tuesday in the league’s orientation meetings, and on Wednesday afternoon she went up and down Broadway obliging various media requests.

After getting off the phone with Mercury general manager Jim Pitman and coach Sandy Brondello Wednesday night, Cunningham said next month, when she heads to Arizona for training camp, will be one of the toughest times she’s faced.

“It’s grown-up life now,” she said. “Bring it on.”

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Alex Schiffer has been covering the Missouri Tigers for The Star since October 2017. He came in second place for magazine-length feature writing by the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association in 2018 and graduated from Mizzou in 2017.