VILLANOVA, Pa. -- The letter, written in blue ink on a piece of loose-leaf paper, used to hang on a wall in David Anderson's bedroom. To its left, the author, his older brother Dwayne, stood next to his old neighbor, Dante Cunningham, on a Villanova basketball poster. The mere mention of the missive's message today makes the boys' mother, Michelle, tear up. "I can't read it without getting emotional," she says. "I never knew if what my husband and I were saying got through to our children until I read that."
The night before the Villanova shooting guard departed for a year of prep school at St. Thomas More (Oakdale, Conn.) in August 2004, he penned the note to remind his younger siblings of their added responsibilities. In parts, it reads like a will, bequeathing a Playstation 2 and television to David and their youngest brother, Darian, known affectionately as Skittle; in total, it reveals maturation. Awake early the morning he left, Dwayne taped it to the brothers' shared bathroom mirror.
David and Skittle,
As you both know I have to leave, but I will always be with you no matter what. You two mean the world to me and I would do anything for the both of you. It might be a little hard not beating up on you two everyday, but I have to move on. Both of you better stay out of trouble because if I hear that you two are acting up you better believe I will come home somehow (train, plane, bus, it doesn't matter) ...
Always remember: listen to everything your parents tell you and you can never go wrong (did I just say that?). Man, I am growing up. I sound like an adult. Everyday I will work hard so I can give you everything. I love you two so much. Stay strong, stay handsome. Most importantly stay together. That's what family is for. Brothers for life...
As grown-up as Dwayne's letter comes across, he liked to thrill-seek, too. While a student at St. John's College High in Washington, D.C., he carpooled daily with Cunningham in his blue, box-shaped Jeep Cherokee. Nine townhouses separated their identical red-brick homes on Corona Court in suburban Silver Spring, Md. One grade level apart, they commuted to and from basketball games and practices together. Though the speedometer's gauge ended at 85 mph, Anderson, the level-headed one, pushed the marker past its posted limit.
"We really did 90," says Cunningham, who would stick his head out the window.
The driver conducted his own velocity test. "When the steering wheel started shaking," says Anderson, who will start alongside Cunningham for Villanova Saturday night in its Final Four matchup against North Carolina in Detroit, "I slowed down."
Anderson always seemed comfortable in the fast lane. A knock-down shooter and athletic slasher, the 6-foot-6, 215-pounder first played at the nearby Newport School as a freshman, but found himself searching for another team when the school disbanded that summer. Plans to fuse with national power Montrose Christian never came to fruition, so he transferred to St. John's, a co-ed Catholic school. There, Anderson met Cunningham, who had moved onto the block eight months after Anderson's family settled in 2003. A familiar face from the local Boys & Girls Club league, Cunningham knew Anderson's game. "He could jump out the gym," he says, "or shoot from anywhere."
Cunningham's role was simpler. "Dante did all the dirty work," Anderson says.
The son of two Air Force lifers, Ron and Searcy, Cunningham knew how to fall in line. Born on the Andrews Air Force Base, he left for Germany when he was 13 months old and lived there for four years, first in Zweibrucken, then Ramstein. Restless in the rustic setting, he started to play basketball as a 4-year-old. "His big ole head pulled the body," says older sister, Davalyn, who played a season in the WNBA.
Back stateside, Cunningham entered St. John's as a seventh grader but did not find his perfect complement until Anderson enrolled. Paired with Duke guard Nolan Smith, Anderson developed into a relentless force. Committing to Villanova -- the only Division I program to offer a scholarship -- after his junior season, his path seemed set. As a senior at the Iolani Classic in Honolulu, he shot 8-of-8 from the field and 3-of-3 behind the arc. "I shot," says Anderson, who also teamed with Cunningham on the D.C. Assault AAU squad. "Dante rebounded and passed back."
The feeding process reversed itself off the court. Cunningham often ate at the Anderson house, enjoying barbecued chicken cooked by Dwayne Sr., a disabled legal file clerk, and hot breakfasts prepared by the mother, a legal secretary. By day, Anderson would visit the Cunningham residence, teaming with his partner against the women of the house in spades. "They hid cards," Cunningham says. "You'd find them under feet."
Though both eventually made their way to Philadelphia's upscale Main Line, the best friends took decidedly different paths to get there. After graduating from St. John's, Anderson needed to improve his grades. On the advice of a friend, Anderson visited St. Thomas More. Taking Cunningham along for the tour, Anderson knew there was no way his friend would join. "Coach lost him when he asked if we were ready for all-boys school," Anderson says.
Anderson left, but Cunningham, who he calls his third brother, had his own decisions to make. A JROTC member, Cunningham wore the requisite cover: hat, belt with polished gold buckle, green long or short sleeve shirt and nametag, but needed to improve his grades to gain minimum NCAA eligibility. Enrolled in a night class to repeat freshman English, his schedule conflicted with St. John's practices so he transferred to Potomac (Md.) High, where his mother was in charge of JROTC, that fall. "It turned out to be the best decision for him," says St. John's coach Paul DeStefano.
The choice to sign with Villanova was easier. "When I saw how beautiful [Villanova coach] Jay Wright is, I knew my son was committing," says Cunningham's mother.
Villanova senior guard Randy Foye saw Anderson play for the first time in August 2004. Sitting on the sideline in the Jake Nevin Fieldhouse, Foye watched Anderson take off from the dotted lines in the paint and dunk on an opponent. "Man," Foye said to himself. "We've got a keeper."
When practice started, the guard's defensive deficiencies were exposed by Wright's attack-guards, Foye and Kyle Lowry. "He had so much God-given ability he didn't have to get in a stance or watch his man before," says Foye.
Cunningham learned from Foye, too. Ready to defer to the veterans, he quickly gave up the ball on dribble handoffs. Failing to grab a rebound in a game against Arizona, Cunningham was chided by Foye. "He told me even if the ball bounces in the bleachers I better get it," Cunningham says.
Charlotte Bobcats coach Larry Brown, who at the time attended Villanova's practices, offered his thoughts on Cunningham. "You know who I'm really pissed at?" Brown asked Wright. "Dante. We can get more out of him. He's a pro."
With 4.1 seconds remaining and the score tied in a late-season game against Cincinnati, Cunningham broke through. Playing for an 11th straight win, the hustle-first forward started on the left wing, 19 feet from the basket, knowing he was the first read on the inbounds play. Cunningham ran his man into a back screen and stepped into the lane. Wide open, he took the bounce pass, powered up and banked the ball in for a layup. "We saw him do it in practice," says Wright, "but he would take a backseat in games."
Standing on the sideline, Anderson, who averaged 3.9 minutes and 1.5 points per game, kept his spirits up. "I'd look over at times and, even though he wasn't playing, he'd be the first guy off the bench clapping and he'd be dancing after scores."
His playing time increased slightly to 9.2 minutes per game his sophomore year. Friends suggested he transfer. "It was the toughest decision I ever made," says Anderson, who considered the example he would set for his brothers if he left. "I didn't want them to think that it was okay to just quit."
Anderson became the ultimate grinder as a junior, dominating deflection, rebound and dive stats in practice. To halt a mid-season slide, he hit a game-winning three against Seton Hall. It was not until last month that he found his shining moment, though. Two days after Cunningham was awarded the Big East's Most Improved Player honors, his running mate emerged on the Madison Square Garden court for a matinee thriller. With time running out in the Big East quarterfinal against Marquette, junior guard Reggie Redding drove left into the lane, and found Anderson beneath the basket. The forgotten man, left wide open, had not scored before he dropped in the winner.
"So many kids would have left," says St. Thomas coach Jere Quinn, who was in Boston last weekend to see Anderson hit a crucial three-pointer and convert a three-point play against Pitt in the Elite Eight win. "College is about finding a way."
Personality-wise, Cunningham and Anderson, who have roomed together for four years, could not be more different. A night owl who still watches cartoons and enjoys racing remote control cars, Cunningham has nine tattoos, including one on his left biceps that reads "Trouble." A homebody who likes to go to bed early and has had a three-year relationship with his girlfriend, Anderson has no tattoos, but plenty of family pictures on his walls. "We're night and day," Anderson says.
When he needs Cunningham's help, as he did last winter on the way to a home game when a tire gave out, Anderson knows where to turn for a handyman. "We share duties now," says Cunningham, who fixed the tire in a timely fashion. "We're brothers in this together."