Mizzou hoops legend living the dream in Phoenix: What’s new with Sophie Cunningham

Sophie Cunningham is at one of those rare freeze-frame moments in life.

When almost everything lines up so perfectly that time needs to stop so she can savor this summer. When turning 27 in August is sunnier than Arizona at its hottest.

“People are scared to get older, but I think it’s a beautiful thing,” says Cunningham, who’s early into her fifth WNBA season with the Phoenix Mercury after a record-setting career at Missouri. “When I got here as a rookie, I knew nothing. I won’t say dumb, but you don’t know what you don’t know. I’m just growing, I’m maturing. I’m starting to become a vet here.”

So far this year, Cunningham has become a Phoenix Suns pre- and post-game analyst, signed a two-year Mercury guaranteed contract boosting her salary to an average $152,250 and served as maid of honor at her older sister Lindsey’s wedding in their hometown Columbia.

Her sponsorship opportunities are on the rise. She is slotted to be a full-time Mercury starter coming off a 2022 season when she parlayed 20 starts into a third-place finish in the balloting for the WNBA Most Improved Player award.

On a team with superstars Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner, Cunningham holds her own when it comes to attention and fan adoration because of the same traits — competitiveness and personality — that propelled her to Mizzou immortality.

“She’s still the face of this program, and she always will be,” says Robin Pingeton, Mizzou’s women’s basketball coach since 2010. “That jersey is going to be hanging in the rafters — it needs to be sooner than later. Some of the things she was able to accomplish are pretty incredible.”

Like school records for career scoring (2,187 points from 2015-19) and single game scoring (42 as a freshman in her fourth game). Four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and 20-win seasons (combined 92 wins).

That was then, however, and now Cunningham believes she’s a “completely different person” than when she came to the Mercury as a 2019 second-round draft pick.

“I still have my values, but I’m just a better person and I like where I’m at,” she said. “I still have big dreams. I haven’t even touched where I’m going to be in the next 10 years. For me, that’s exciting, but that’s big picture.”

Basketball continues to drive Cunningham, no different from when she was a tag-a-long with her sister growing up.

Sister’s shadow to maid of honor

Lindsey Cunningham Hudson admits that having Sophie, 28 months younger, as a shadow at taekwondo, soccer, volleyball, swimming, golf, basketball and even in the backyard was trying.

But their athletic parents, Jim and Paula, were involved in coaching or other support, so Sophie from as young as 2 played up to her sister’s age group and later against boys.

“If she wanted to keep up, she had to figure out a way to compete and hang in the game,” Lindsey says. “That naturally developed her into what she is now. But there were always times where I was like does she have to come? Now it’s the coolest thing.”

Lindsey “could never shake Sophie,” Paula says, but paved the way for her all through their Catholic school days in Columbia through Rock Bridge High and on to Missouri, where their basketball careers overlapped for two seasons.

“There’s something to be said for being comfortable and getting a leg up so you can get to doing business faster,” Paula says. “They fought hard, but at the same time they love each other.”

Sophie was maid of honor at Lindsey’s May 6 wedding to Miguel Hudson and delved into their relationship during a toast at the reception.

“I knew when I gave her a microphone, I’d have to live with whatever she would say,” Lindsey half-jokes, knowing her sister’s outspokenness. “She was funny and sassy.”

And reflective, telling 500 friends and family gathered at the newlyweds’ 12-acre property on the edge of Columbia that of all that Lindsey prepared her for, she forgot the lesson about how to live without her best friend.

Former Missouri Tigers basketball star Sophie Cunningham, right, with older sister Lindsey Cunningham Hudson at the latter’s recent wedding ceremony.

Little sister, Sophie continued to few dry eyes, is her favorite title.

“Lindsey and I will always have the deepest love for each other,” Sophie says. “It’s something you can never take away. I don’t really cry much but I’ve been crying a lot (ahead of the wedding) because there are so many emotions flooding over me.

“I’m genuinely excited she has found her person (Miguel), but it sucks I’m all the way out here and I don’t get to live the day to day like we used to. We get to do all these cool things, we get to play in all these cool arenas but when you don’t have your best friend with you, you miss that.”

There is a softer, vulnerable Cunningham under her well-known bravado. It’s the balance of the two that she continues to refine while progressing through young adulthood.

Acquired taste (or not)

Moriah Jefferson is the latest Mercury player to discover a different Sophie Cunningham than she expected, similar to what Kia Nurse and Diamond DeShields discovered before her.

“I told her I didn’t know how much I was going to like you, but you’re one of my favorite people now,” says Jefferson, who previously knew Cunningham as an opponent while playing for Dallas and Minnesota.

“I always respected her game and her as a person. It’s just been instances where things happen. Nobody holds grudges or anything like that. You see the aggressiveness on the court, you see how physical and passionate she is but she’s completely different off the court. She’s a warm person. She’s very genuine.”

Phoenix Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham, right, shoots over Chicago Sky guard Morgan Bertsch during a WNBA game last week.

For those not in the small teammate sample or Missouri/Mercury fan base, Cunningham is a taste not everyone acquires. Like Taurasi, she is unapologetically aggressive as a player ... and her actions, words, even tweets, can set off a firestorm.

Like going back to January 2018 college games against defending national champion South Carolina that escalated to the point of Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley suing then Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk for slander, resulting in a $50,000 settlement resolution.

Cunningham and those close to her defend her against the label of being a dirty player, a seemingly never-ending crusade even at a time when it’s more acceptable for female athletes to compete with a harder edge.

Everything I’ve done, it’s always stayed in between the lines,” Cunningham says. “It’s OK for females to be competitive and feisty and sassy and show emotions. It’s OK for girls to sweat and work hard. Our culture is starting to move to that. I promise you off the court I want to love everyone. I genuinely want people to be happy. I’m actually nice.”

Lindsey says her “blood boils” when she sees some results from a Google search of her sister’s name. “I’ve learned to let stuff go,” she says, only somewhat convincingly. “There’s a lot of things attacking Sophie’s character. Luckily, she’s strong and has her good support system and learned to block it out. But if the wrong thing comes out about you, whether it’s true or not, it can ruin your opportunities.

“That’s what makes me so mad. The things people are willing to say without having met her or had a conversation with her. Sometimes it’s based off her basketball, sometimes it’s not and sometimes it’s out of left field. It’s a reminder to us too to truly to get to know someone.”

Former Missouri Tigers basketball star Sophie Cunningham, right, with older sister Lindsey Cunningham Hudson at the latter’s recent wedding ceremony.

For mom, Sophie the player “is a handful. I can see where people come from (disliking her). Sometimes people take it personally and don’t expect it. She is strong and she can shoot. She’s not just this fun person you see acting goofy on Instagram. She’s got some moxie to her when you start playing basketball. She’s not going to back down. Sometimes maybe she should, but she’s not.

“I was reluctant with both my girls to curb some of that extra. You kind of need that in sport as long as you don’t use that extra with me.”

Taurasi, the WNBA career leader in points, 3-pointers and technical fouls, appreciates Cunningham bringing all three with her ability and attitude.

“Every team has an X factor,” Taurasi says. “There’s always that player that changes the dynamic of your team. For us, that’s Sophie. The way she shoots the ball, the way she competes. Her energy out there.

“You just feel the game changes when she’s in. Sophie’s really turned herself into a player that changes the way the game goes for us. She’s so valuable for us.”

Rising on court and TV

The Mercury wouldn’t have reached the 2021 WNBA Finals without Cunningham’s 21 points (six 3-pointers) in a one-point first-round playoff win over New York, a game Taurasi missed due to injury.

Last season, she raised her career scoring high to 36 (again with six treys) in a double overtime loss at Minnesota. The 6-1 finished 2022 with a career high 70 3-pointers — 12 more than in her first three seasons combined — even while playing extensively at power forward because of Griner’s imprisonment in Russia and a contract separation in late June with Tina Charles.

Cunningham was one of the biggest positives in a trying 15-21 season, boosting her value going into restricted free agency. Her broadcast breakthrough, building off previous work with the SEC Network, came about in part because teammate Skylar Diggins-Smith was on maternity leave after working with the Suns TV crew in 2021-22.

Suns Live host Tom Leander says he “jumped out my seat” upon hearing of Cunningham’s interest in working with him and former Suns star Tom Chambers.

“Just watching her play and how the crowd is attracted to her play and personality and what an unbelievable teammate she is, I could not wait to have her join us on the set,” Leander says. “We just had so much fun this season with her.

“My fear, and I said this to her agents, please do not sign Sophie to any contract with TNT or ESPN for the next 10 years. The national TV outlets would be foolish not to hire her, I just hope we get her for a few more seasons at least. She checks every single box in a broadcast and a friend.”

Cunningham, who also recently signed a sponsorship with Quest Nutrition tied into her improved eating habits, is on a roll even she couldn’t have fully envisioned coming out of Missouri. That makes it somewhat easier to miss out on days at the family lake house in the Ozarks or spending time on her grandparents’ 5,000-acre farm in Williamsburg, a half hour east of Columbia.

Her 101-year-old great grandmother lives in Martinsburg, and there are other relatives in Kansas City.

“She’s kind of a hot commodity in Missouri,” understates her mom, thinking specifically of the Sophie Cunningham Classic high school basketball tournament. Presented by former Mizzou men’s basketball coach Norm Stewart, it will be held for a second time in January.

There’s no doubt that a Mercury preseason game in Kansas City or Columbia would be a huge draw.

“Kansas City is the perfect place to have a WNBA team,” Cunningham says. “They have a soccer team, and it’s killing it.” The WNBA is slowly moving toward expansion, now expected by 2025.

“I’m proud to represent Missouri and Columbia. They’ve given me a lot so I’m out here representing them too, trying to inspire girls back there so they can do the same thing I’ve done.”