MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — It was after 4 a.m. when Dante Cunningham pulled his truck back into the driveway of his suburban Minneapolis home and saw the police waiting for him.
Officers put the handcuffs on the Minnesota Timberwolves’ reserve as soon as his feet hit the pavement. The reality of his situation and the domestic assault charges that were on their way didn’t really sink in until he was lying in a jail cell and the lights went out.
“The whole time I was like, ‘I’m OK. I’m out of here. Things will be fine,'” Cunningham recalled. “Then it went dark and I was like, ‘This is not a joke. I’m really in this.'”
In the six months since, charges have been dropped and police have concluded that Cunningham’s accuser fabricated some of the allegations against him. But those six months have also seen domestic violence in sports thrust into the headlines like never before, thanks in part to the Ray Rice scandal in the NFL.
Cunningham feels like those handcuffs have never been taken off.
He is now an ex-Timberwolves forward, an NBA free agent who is living in a motorhome at a campground near the campus of Penn State, where a former college teammate is on the coaching staff and runs him through workouts. He is staying in the motorhome for reasons of convenience and not monetary. But the journeyman player who was hoping to get a new multi-million dollar contract this summer says he hasn’t even gotten an offer for the league minimum because teams have told them it’s too risky to bring him in.
“At this point it’s about justice and it’s about clearing my name,” the 27-year-old forward told The Associated Press. “Clearly this adds a terrible stigma to my name. … Now when anyone looks up Dante Cunningham, oh, wasn’t he the one that was in trouble? There’s nothing out there saying there was a false charge and now we have to change it. We have to bring justice to this situation so that this doesn’t happen again.”
Cunningham helped Villanova reach the Final Four as a senior and NBA scouts and executives were intrigued by his blue-collar mentality forged during an upbringing by a strict military family near the nation’s capital. The Portland Trail Blazers drafted him in the second round in 2009 and he spent the next five years building a reputation as a dependable role player who could defend multiple positions.
He signed a three-year deal worth more than $6 million with Memphis in 2011 and was traded to Minnesota a year later.
Cunningham met Miryah Herron last year and lived with her for eight months in a whirlwind start to their relationship. The two had an argument early on April 3, and that’s where their stories take wildly divergent paths.
Herron told police that Cunningham kicked in the door to their bedroom, choked her and slammed her head against the wall. Cunningham says he kicked the door in more than a week earlier after he accidentally locked his keys in the room.
Herron had red marks on her neck and a bump on her head but did not require medical attention, according to police. Cunningham says he is not responsible for the marks and the only time he touched Herron was when he grabbed her wrist to get her to stop hanging on his truck as he drove away to cool off.
Cunningham missed one game while he was in jail, but the team and league did not suspend him in adherence to a collectively bargained policy of letting the legal process play out before deciding on a potential punishment.
Cunningham was arrested again three days later after Herron told police that he violated a protection order by calling her from his hotel room phone and sending her Skype messages, including one that allegedly read “ur dead mark my words dead.”
According to the police report obtained by the AP, phone records from Cunningham’s hotel room show that no outgoing calls were made the night he was there and surveillance cameras indicate he never left his room until police arrived to arrest him. An investigation of the IP address for the device that sent the threatening messages found that the messages were sent from a device inside Herron’s home, not Cunningham’s phone.
“Evidence does not show that Cunningham sent the messages and in fact, it appears Herron sent the messages to herself in an attempt to frame Cunningham,” Medina Police Officer Charmane Domino wrote.
Police filings also show they had an audio recording of Herron speaking to a friend of Cunningham’s in which she says she knew Cunningham had kicked in the door a week earlier. The felony domestic assault charge was dropped in August and authorities never charged Cunningham in the second incident.
Herron denied fabricating the Skype messages, saying an iPad she had in the home went missing that night. She maintains she was assaulted by Cunningham.
“Everything I said is true and I don’t support domestic abuse at all but I honestly would say, too, just because of who he is, it’s been blown out of proportion,” Herron told the AP. “I would like to see the best for not only me and my kids, but for him and his family as well. I don’t want to say I feel bad for everything that’s going on. It’s just very overwhelming.”
She said Cunningham had never assaulted her before that night, and she believed he did so under the influence of alcohol.
“That was not Dante that night,” Herron said. “That sounds crazy, but honestly speaking, that was not the guy I was in love with, that was not the guy I laid in bed with every night, that’s not the guy I woke up with every morning. That was not him. And I honestly blame alcohol for that.”
In an interview with police during the investigation, Herron said “when the incident this week happened, he was totally sober. That’s why I contacted the police.”
Police recommended that Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman charge Herron with making a false police report for the second incident. Freeman told the AP he was reluctant to bring those charges for fear of “a chilling effect” such an action might have on future victims of domestic violence.
“But let me say in evaluating a potential case against her. We evaluated it in the same we did the case against him,” Freeman said. “Is there sufficient admissible evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt? And if there isn’t, we shouldn’t go forward.”
The decision has frustrated Cunningham, who believes that a stronger reaction by the authorities toward Herron would go much further in clearing his name.
“Yes, the police report says it was dropped because of lack of sufficient evidence,” he said. “Yes, that sounds good, but it just sounds like they don’t have enough to say I did it. But there’s a possibility it could’ve been done.”
Freeman said his office spent considerable time and resources investigating and feels comfortable with its decisions in the case, from charging Cunningham to not pursuing charges against Herron.
“I think if we had made a mistake in this case I would ‘fess up,” Freeman said. “I don’t think we did.”
The investigation lasted late into the summer, long after the prime signing period for free agents. As dependable as Cunningham is on the court, he’s not the kind of game-changing talent that could prompt a team to look past the incident to sign him.
“To what extent all of this impacts his livelihood in the future, I hope it doesn’t,” Freeman said. “I hope he can go forward and play basketball.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Wednesday the league is focusing more on prevention than increased punishment in response to the criticism the NFL received, but teams are starting to react more swiftly when allegations surface. Last month, the Charlotte Hornets banned forward Jeffery Taylor from all team activities while the NBA conducts an investigation into domestic assault charges.
Players’ union executive director Michele Roberts told the AP that she has had substantive dialogue with the league about addressing domestic violence and educating players and their families about it. But as a former public defender, she is also an advocate for due process.
“I don’t, quite frankly, know what the rush is,” Roberts said. “Many of the teams are saying, until this is resolved I’d like at least for you to not play. I’m not fond of that.”
Two executives with NBA teams told the AP the domestic violence charge was not a deal-breaker for their teams to consider Cunningham, but it definitely made it more difficult to bring him in. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly on team personnel decisions.
Cunningham’s agent, Joel Bell, estimates Cunningham could have landed a deal paying him more than $4 million per season were it not for the charge. He said he was told as recently as Monday by one team that it couldn’t risk the public relations trouble that could come from signing him.
“Why would owners be skittish and worried about bringing him on board?” Roberts said. “Why are we afraid to say he didn’t do anything wrong and there’s no evidence to support that he did anything wrong?”
While Cunningham was facing the charges, he was booed by home fans and the Timberwolves were criticized for allowing him to play in games.
“They think I’m a bad person,” Cunningham said. “C’mon. I’m a great person. Give me that chance. I’ve been stripped of that. You have to understand that. That’s terrible. Awful. And if I don’t have my name, what do I have?”
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