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Genuine and Selfless: Senior Walk-Ons Discuss What It Was like Being Teammates with Cade Cunningham

Carson Sager and Weston Church are the last two players from the Cunningham era.



[OSU Athletics]

STILLWATER —  Some day 10 or so years from now, Weston Church and Carson Sager will flip on an NBA game, look over to their children and tell them, “I played with that guy.”

Church and Sager are the only players left on Oklahoma State’s basketball team that played alongside Cade Cunningham, who spent one season with the Cowboys before being the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. Both walk-ons, Sager and Church will go through Senior Night on Tuesday in Gallagher-Iba Arena, as they take Eddie Sutton Court for the final time.

In some sort of upside down world, it would’ve also been Cunningham’s Senior Night had he played a full four years of college basketball. That was unnecessary, though. In 26 games at the college level, Cunningham earned All-America First Team honors and averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists a game. Although he was stellar on the court, Sager and Church said they’ll moreso remember the stories of Cunningham the person.

“You have guys that are half as talented as him and twice of a … mean guy, kind of holding my words,” Sager said. “The way he carries himself and the way his family interacted with us, too. I mean, I love Cannen [Cade’s brother and former OSU assistant coach], too. The relationship Cannen and I built right when I got here too was just amazing.

“His mom always greets us when we go to watch his games. His dad, they’re always just the nicest people to us, and they don’t really need to be. Like, your son’s in the NBA, he’s gonna be an All-Star, he’s making millions of dollars — you don’t need to do that, but they still do. That’s just so eye-opening, and it really sets an example kind of for my life. I won’t be in the NBA, but if success finds itself then just how I’m gonna carry myself and just kind of the way that they do.”

To outsiders, Cannen coming on as an assistant for two seasons with the Cowboys was seen simply as a recruiting tool to get Cade to Stillwater. But in the years since both of them left, Cannen’s name comes up almost as much as Cade’s around players who Cannen impacted. Cannen has returned to GIA to watch former players he coached. Church said that as recent as a few months back Cannen reached out to Church and Sager and got them tickets to one of Cade’s games.

So, the younger Cunningham comes as a great guy from a great family, but he was also a problem for opposing teams on the court.

He dropped 40 points on the Sooners his first Bedlam game. He scored 20 or more points in 14 of 26 games he played in. For reference, OSU’s entire current roster has combined for 12 20-point performances in 29 games this season.

Cunningham scored in double figures in all but one game in his career. That one outlier was a five-point outing against Kansas State — a game Cunningham played 31 minutes in but took just three shots. OSU won that game by 16 points, as Cunningham also had six rebounds and five assists.

“We wanted him to score even more than he did,” Sager said. “That’s what we always wanted. That’s what Coach Mike always said, like, ‘You have to be more aggressive.’ But he was just a selfless guy, and he’s always trying to get his teammates involved. So, I think the fact that he didn’t score more, when everybody’s telling him to, was also a big thing.”

Nowadays, Cunningham is sharing courts with LeBron James, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum and the likes. But there was a time in space that Sager, a kid from Wichita Falls, Texas, was standing on a practice court opposite the future No. 1 pick.

“I mean, trying to guard him, that was an experience,” Sager said. “… Everything going through my mind, like, this is Cade Cunningham. Finally here. This is what I’ve been wanting to do for so long is guard a dude of this talent level. And I did, and he probably got a bucket on me first thing. But just being able to stand in front of him on the court.”

The NBA hasn’t gone exactly to plan for Cunningham — yet. Cunningham’s Pistons won just 23 games in his rookie year, despite Cunningham averaging 17.4 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists a game. He was taking a step forward in his second season, averaging 19.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and six assists a game before a shin injury ended his season just 12 games in. At 9-51, the Pistons have the worst record in the NBA this season, but Cunningham is averaging career-highs in points (22.4) and assists (7.4).

Cunningham’s numbers, size and ability suggest NBA success will come at some point — he is still only 22 years old. And when that success does come, just as it did in high school and college, don’t expect it to change Cunningham the person, especially if how he treated his team’s walk-ons is anything to go off.

“Coming in, I heard a lot about Cade, and I kind of expected, ‘Oh, he’s gonna think so much of himself, blah, blah, blah,'” Church said. “He’s one of the most genuine guys I’ve ever met. … Just seeing how he didn’t make himself unavailable or anything freshman year. He was such a genuine guy and just getting to see him interact with all of us was really awesome.

“Honestly, I think my favorite memory, though, wasn’t whenever he was here. It was whenever he got drafted, just getting to see that happen and getting to experience that with my teammates, of course we were all so happy for him. We knew all the hard work he put in. That’s probably one of my favorite memories, just getting to see everything come to life for him.”

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