WILLIAMSON, W.Va. - When sports fans think about one of the best basketball players from the past to ever come out of the region in the mid-1980s, the name of Andre Cunningham is sure to come into the conversation.
Cunningham played at Matewan (Magnolia) High School from 1984 to 1987. He was one of the all-time greats to ever lace up the green and white high tops for the Tigers.
The modest, soft-spoken Cunningham grew up in Little Italy Camp, a close-knit community nestled between the hills at Red Jacket, just past Matewan.
He can recall when he first started playing Midget League basketball for the late Butch Joplin.
"I wasn't very good," he said. "I was like on the C team. I was kind of a late developer. Probably when I was in the seventh grade I started getting better."
And get better he did. Cunningham started catching up with his body, became more coordinated and adapted into his lanky frame as he developed a soft shooting touch, but could also dunk the ball with ease because of his great leaping ability.
He played in high school for the late coach Joe Clusky and played junior high ball for coach Harold Jude.
The 6-foot-4 Cunningham helped lead Matewan Junior High to a Mingo County championship in 1984 with a perfect 20-0 record and then he had a storied career at Matewan High for three years.
He was an all-area player, one of the top performers in the region and improved his scoring average each year from 24 as a sophomore, to 26 as a junior and about 30 as a senior.
Cunningham still stays in contact with Sam Hinkle, one of his old teammates from those years, who now resides in Tennessee.
"I played football my sophomore year," Cunningham said. "Joe (Clusky) wasn't too happy about that. I didn't have anybody to hang out with. Sam played football - all of my friends played and I wanted to hang around with them."
Although the Matewan basketball teams didn't advance very far in the post season during his playing days, they were always competitive with Cunningham leading the way. The Tigers were known as a conservative offensive team during that era, he said.
"I remember losing to Williamson in my eighth grade year," Cunningham said. "They had a good guard, Stevie Thorn. I shot a last-second shot that rolled around the rim and came out. But the next year we beat them."
Williamson was led that year by another great player from the area, an eighth grader, Anthony Strother.
One of Cunningham's favorite moments in high school was when he had a triple-double. Even though he was known as someone who scored a lot of points, one game he dished out 15 assists and that made him happy, especially for his teammates.
He also played on an AAU team and said he went up against some of the best competition in the state and fared well, and that helped him get on the radar of many college coaches.
Cunningham was recruited by several colleges, but chose to play at Marshall University from 1987 to 1991. He was a Prop 48 his freshman year, meaning he sat out one season to concentrate on academics.
"That was a big leap, from playing in high school," Cunningham said. "Once you go to college, you are going to have people better or as good as you. It was a pretty tough transition."
During his career with the Thundering Herd, he scored 1,154 career points. Cunningham played for the late Rick Huckabay.
"Henry Dickerson, an assistant coach at Marshall, was my main recruiter," said.
"I remember there were some pick-up games when I first went up there (Huntington) nobody knew me. They had three courts, court A for the best players, B for the next level and C for the guys that were not that good. It was kind of hard for me to get on court A because nobody knew who I was."
One day he walked into the gym and got asked to play on the court with the best players.
"I didn't have any problem getting picked from that point on," he said.
Cunningham recalls making a name for himself by blocking the shot of 6-10 Tom Curry in a pick-up game, a big-time Marshall recruit during that era. That made a statement and showed he could play with the best talent they had to offer. As a freshman Prop 48, he wasn't allowed to practice or play with the team, but just play in pickup games.
Once he was on the team as a sophomore, he started for most of that season. Then he helped lead Marshall to a pair of Southern Conference championships (1987 and 1988) and a National Invitation Tournament berth in 1988.
One of his favorite memories from his playing days with the Thundering Herd is when Marshall went to Lexington to play in a holiday tournament with the University of Kentucky at Rupp Arena. His late mother and other family members were excited about attending those games. His mom attended most of the home games in Huntington. He recalls UK was coached by Eddie Sutton at that time and had several good players.
Cunningham, 50, now resides in Tucson, Arizona. He doesn't make it back to the hills of West Virginia often. His brother Melvin, who was a football and basketball star at Matewan, and an All-American football player at Marshall, still coaches football at Fairland High School.
His last trip home was five years ago for the funeral of his brother Shawn Blackwell.
"I'm more of a private person," Cunningham said. "I guess growing up in the country made me level-headed. I just hung with friends, not necessarily my teammates. I'm just happy God gave me the talent to play. I didn't have to do my talking with my mouth. I just let my play do my talking for me."
As for life after basketball, Cunningham said he had an offer from the old Charleston Gunners of the CBA and got a couple of letters from NBA teams, including the Philadelphia 76ers offering him a free agent tryout, but he decided to hang up the sneakers after college.
"It becomes more like a job and it's not fun like it was growing up," he said. "In high school it's fun. ... but when you get to college, it got to be where it wasn't fun."
Cunningham said he misses his old stomping grounds, but at the same time loves his new home in Arizona. He moved west at the urging of his uncle George.
"It was a hard decision," he said. "He thought it was worth a try and if he didn't like it, he could always move back to West Virginia."
Cunningham is a supervisor over security for City Hall for the city of Tucson.
"It was one of the better moves I've made," Cunningham said. "At first I was unsure because I had only lived a couple of hours away from home. But, you can't beat the weather out here."
Cunningham will always be remembered as one of the better players from the area to suit up for Matewan and Marshall.
Kyle Lovern is the editor for the Williamson Daily News. He can be contacted at 304-235-4242, ext. 2277, or on Twitter @KyleLovern.